Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s a line of thinking, especially outside of the Christian Church, but regrettably also within it, that thinks the Scriptures are time-bound. Some who adhere to such thinking often claim that while the prophets and apostles may have been inspired by God to write what they did, their words only applied to the people of their day. Others claim that only the words of Jesus in the Gospel accounts have any use today, and then they’ll begin to slice and dice those accounts to pick and choose the parts with which they agree.
The motives of those outside the Church are easy to understand, since they largely reject God’s Word and the saving faith that it conveys to us. But those who claim to be inside the body of Christ are a bit more difficult to deal with. They like to say things like, “Well, Paul (or Moses, or Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, or whomever) meant that for the people of their time, but it really doesn’t mean that we have to believe that or follow that today. As long as people believe in Jesus, that’s the only important thing.”
They’re partly right. Faith in Christ is certainly the central point in receiving the blessings of forgiveness and eternal life that God promises us. Yet we might ask these biblical minimalists the question, “In exactly what Christ do you have that faith?”
Unless they’re really off base, most will mention many the things we believe about Jesus as we confess Him in our creeds and see Him described in the Gospels: His eternal divine nature, His incarnation and birth, His preaching, His many miracles, His arrest, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the belief that He will return again in glory on the last day to judge all people and take believers to heaven.
All well and good, to a point. Yet trying to minimize or limit Jesus to just what the Gospel accounts tell us greatly robs Him of His glory. It truncates God and tries to force Him into a box. We need to guard ourselves against putting such limitations on the infinite, such historical boundaries on the eternal.
We, God’s creatures, are bound by time, but He is not. Our gathering here on the cusp of a New Year is evidence of that. We measure the passing of time using the means God has given us—the cycles of days and years, the rotations and orbits of this marvelous and mysterious earth which He has given us on which to dwell. Yet even we in the Church are subject to the measuring of time which comes from secular society. Our months are named largely from things of the Roman Empire, our days of the week a combination of things Roman and Norse. We mark and observe our new Church Years from Advent to Advent, but we live out our daily lives from January to December.
Bound by time as we are, it is essential that we don’t assume the same of God, or try to place temporal limitations on Him. We can’t determine that His Word only applies in certain places and times, unless He gives us such information. Jesus did this when He freed us from the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Yet we remain obligated to God’s moral law, expressed in the Ten Commandments and elsewhere. It’s often that obligation against which we chafe. We don’t like being told what to do, or when to do it. We’re like children being told it’s time for school, time to eat, time to wash, time for bed. We stomp and scream and whine and shout, “I don’t want to! Not right now!”
And, because God’s word is eternal and we are not, it’s not surprising that Isaiah’s words from tonight’s Old Testament lesson sound a lot like us. Sure, some of the language used and examples given don’t make direct sense to our modern ears, all that talk about bulging walls and potter’s wheels and fleeing upon horses. In our stubborn sinfulness, we too might say, “See, that’s ancient stuff; we don’t really have to listen to that nowadays.”
But what does the very first verse of our lesson say?
And now, go, write it before them on a tablet
and inscribe it in a book,
that it may be for the time to come
as a witness forever.
“As a witness forever.” Pretty strong indication that God wasn’t giving just the people of Isaiah’s day this message. Many of them would soon be dead; slaughtered by the invading Assyrians, starved by the failure of crops, killed by rampant disease.
But God’s word goes beyond the historical context in which it was recorded, because God’s Word is eternal, always right, always true. It’s our wishful thinking that it didn’t always apply to us, but it does until He says otherwise.
It may strike us in different ways due to different circumstances, but it always applies, even when it’s uncomfortable. Read verses 9 through 11 again, and see if that doesn’t sound like a lot more people than just 8th century B.C. Israel:
For they are a rebellious people,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
That could apply to Egypt in Moses’ day, or Israel in that day, for that matter. It sounds like 1st century Rome, too. How about 16th century Germany? 18th century France? 21st century America? How about those of all times and all places who do not consistently or perfectly do what is meet, right, and salutary?
It’s an accusation unbounded by history or geography, because our sin is unbounded. We don’t like boundaries, unless it’s to expand our own territory and to keep other people from getting too close to us and what we have.
God has a warning for us when we reject His word and His boundaries, though:
Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,
“Because you despise this word
and trust in oppression and perverseness
and rely on them,
therefore this iniquity shall be to you
like a breach in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse,
whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant;
and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
that is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a shard is found
with which to take fire from the hearth,
or to dip up water out of the cistern.”
Calamity follows our rejection of His Word and His boundaries—limits given in love, to keep us from spiritual danger. He did really say, “You shall not eat from the tree,” but we continue to trust and rely in ourselves, and our own judgment and reasoning. Through this, our sin, we cause the mighty fortress He seeks to establish around us to be breached and to crumble. We smash the carefully-crafted clay vessels of our mortal lives, dashing them into tiny pieces too small to be of any use to ourselves, let alone to God.
Look back over this past year. You probably will remember some successes; some victories, large or small. But think deeper, longer, and more honestly. Remember all those times you’ve been lazy, spiritually and otherwise. Remember your anger: at yourself, at others, and especially at God. Remember your selfishness, your bitterness, your triteness about the insignificant.
Remember those people and things you have wrongly rejected, and those things you have wrongly but eagerly sought. Remember the hurtful words you spoke, the hurtful things you’ve done. Remember, too, all the blessings of life and health and home and family and work and play and learning you’ve had, but also remember how little you thought about these, and how much less you expressed any gratitude to God and to those people through whom He sent you these blessings. Remember how much you’ve hoarded His blessings in fear that they might shrink or fade away, instead of using them to magnify His love and hope and message of salvation to others.
We fail in so many ways, whether we consider the whole year, a month, a week, a day, or a moment.
For all those sad remembrances and all those regrettable thoughts and words and deeds, repent. Leave your sins daily at the font, drowning yourself once more and knowing those cleansing waters are God’s inexhaustible gift and promise to you. In Him we have hope, tonight, tomorrow, all through this New Year, and beyond. He will not let us collapse into nothing like broken, and be ground into dust like shattered pottery.
Isaiah went on to write this from the Lord:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
In returning and rest you shall be saved. Returning again and again to His house, His font, His pulpit, His altar. Returning to His Word. Returning to His path through repentance, the daily metanoia, the turning of the mind away from your rebellion and back to obedience and trust in Christ Jesus, crucified, resurrected, and ascended.
Many around us will not. Many are unwilling. They say, with the people of Isaiah’s day:
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
therefore you shall flee away;
and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
Those are they who are the rebellious, unlistening children. Those are they who want to hear smooth, easy words, and put their trust in illusions. And on account of rejecting the sometimes hard but always true Word of God, they reject the Word incarnate, too. That’s why the threats of this life, and the always-present threat of death, scatters them in fear.
But it is not so with you. In remembering your faults of this year and past years, in repenting of them, and in receiving God’s mercy and grace, you are not scattered like those who have no trust and no hope.
Instead, you are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit who is sent to you through the promises of God’s Holy Word. You are brought together here, in the presence of God, to receive His gifts—gifts which are sometimes hard to understand and even harder to accept.
Yet these things are yours, given to you by Him who hung on a cross, like a flagstaff on top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill—Jesus of Nazareth, the only-begotten Son of God. In Him, we know that God’s love is ours, and His gifts will never be taken away. Nothing will separate us from Him—not now, not next year, not for eternity.
So be ready. Be dressed in the robe of His righteousness, and keep the lamp of His truthful, eternal, comforting Word burning within you. Let Him always find you awake, that He might bless you, serve you, and bring you into His eternal banquet.
May God give you, and let me sincerely wish you, a Happy New Life in a Happy New Year. May He grant you this for the sake of Jesus our Savior, Amen.