Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:27-38 27)
I was tuning out in front of the TV the other night when the Hospital Home lottery advertisement flashed before my eyes. It said: “South Australia is one of the best places in the world to live, and it could get even better! Here’s a chance to live your best life in a luxurious, fully furnished Scott Salisbury home on the Esplanade at South Brighton! Every day would be a dream with ocean views, the beach at your front door and NO mortgage. Plus you’ll receive $500,000 to spend however you like!”
My mind starting ticking. We could pay off the mortgage, buy a new car, set up the kids, and of course, we would donate what was left over for a good cause. This was every aspiration, wrapped up in one single 100-dollar ticket. Living our best life. Then the ad was gone. How quickly my attention was captivated by this vision of the good life. How did this feeling betray the level at which I often live my life: about the things I have, or that I want. Where did God fit in?
We might want to ask the disciples about what they thought the good life looked like? For some time they have been observing Jesus closely. They’ve been amazed by what they’ve seen. This man has power like no one else. Who else can walk on water, calm a storm, and heal those who are sick, and release those oppressed by evil. And to top it off, he can draw a crowd simply by opening his mouth. Following Jesus as he gets closer to the centre of power, Jerusalem, means that more good things await them.
Today it appears that Jesus wants to take the pulse of public opinion. Perhaps he’s looking to launch the next stage of his campaign to get his hands on the levers of political power. “Tell me,” Jesus says to his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” There’s a lot of chatter about Jesus. He could be John the Baptist, risen from the dead after his execution by Herod. Or Elijah, because of the remarkable miracles of healing and raising the dead. Or at the very least a prophet, and a powerful one at that.
Jesus homes in on the personal. “Who do you, those who are following me, who do you say I am?” Peter grabs the chance to articulate what has been privately thinking for some time. “You are the Messiah.” There it is. He said it. The secret’s out. You’re the man who is going to lead our people to freedom, making us rulers of their own land, masters of our destiny once again. And we, your disciples, will be living the dream, the best life with you.
What happens next is entirely unexpected. “Jesus rebuked them not to tell anyone about him.” This word will be used three times in this reading. It’s a strong word Jesus uses to call out evil and shut it down. So what’s the problem here? It will become abundantly clear in the next verses, which form the centre of the gospel of Mark. They are crucial verses for us too, as we grapple with our hopes and dreams for Jesus, and what we think the good life looks like.
“And Jesus began to teach them…” Hadn’t Jesus taught them anything before? Well, yes he had, about the seed of God’s word that produces a hundredfold growth, about Jesus’ battle against the evil one, about what makes a person clean, or unclean. But all of that was preparatory for this word about the purpose of Jesus’ life. “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jesus speaks plainly. And that’s the problem. The disciples’ dreams are dying right before their eyes. They wanted great things for Jesus, and by extension, for themselves. At a personal level, they can’t abide the thought of their master’s death. Peter, as usual, is the only one bold enough to say what the others are surely thinking. He gives Jesus a stern dressing down. There’s that word rebuke again. But this time Peter finds himself on the wrong side of Jesus, and ultimately of history. Jesus returns fire with his own rebuke. “Peter,” he says, “Your plans bear the fingerprints of Satan. They are derailing God’s plan. They say much more about you than they do about God.”
And just when the disciples thought it couldn’t get tougher, it does. Not only is there a cross on the horizon for Jesus, there’s one for the disciples too, and not just the twelve but all those who follow Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
There is no possible way of misunderstanding what Jesus is saying here. Being a disciple does not mean success according to the way the world judges it. It’s not about gaining power over other people. It’s not aspiring to a comfortable, even a pleasurable life. This is actually the path of ruin. The good life, the best life, is about following in the footsteps of the one who denied himself and took up his cross. There is no doubt that is a hard and challenging word. And it sets us on a collision course with our society.
Social researchers have identified a mutant variant of Christianity that seeks to remove the offence of the cross from the faith. You may have heard of the term they use to describe it: Moral Therapeutic Deism. It’s a cut-price Christianity, without the cross. These are its tenets:
1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as taught by the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven.
What’s missing? These same researchers note that “this is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign God, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice...Rather, what appears to be the actual and dominant religion is...feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.” This is a faith that has nothing to do with the very things Jesus calls disciples to do. And it’s a faith that is ultimately ashamed of Jesus because it doesn’t acknowledge that the cross puts an end to our often petty and self-focused and sin-corrupted dreams and aspirations.
When self is the keyword in our society, denial is a dirty word. Jesus is calling us to a life where our will is not the controlling factor in our lives. In an age where we are told we must construct our own morality, the call to place ourselves under the control of someone else is an incredibly difficult thing. Following Jesus calls for a fundamental re-definition of our lives, dreams, and aspirations, and placing all these things in the hands of the one whose love for us is complete, pure and unending. It’s the cross which points to our brokenness of the self, and the cross that provides a new way of life through Jesus’ ransom of his life for us.
Lam and Serina, and Lukas and Lyndsay, today through baptism you join us in taking up your cross. It will mean making unpopular choices, facing uncomfortable questions, deciding to put Jesus first and not being ashamed of him when we are shamed by others. But we don’t walk this path alone. Jesus has walked the way of the cross before us. And we follow behind him, as he leads. Only he was able to carry his cross to the bitter and yet beautiful end. So we walk together with him, and with one another, people who are determined to live God’s good life, the fullest, riches, most fulfilling life there can be, with the sure hope of life to come, behind and through Jesus Christ the Messiah. Amen.
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ 36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. 37 They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ 38 ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ 39 ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ 41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:35-45
Brian Keenan went to Beirut in 1985. He was looking for a change of scenery from his native Belfast. He went to lecture in English literature at the American University of Beirut. Having grown up in Ireland, he was well aware of danger. But a sense of adventure and the desire to experience a different culture drove him to this once beautiful but now violence wracked city. Arriving in Beirut, Brian was frustrated by his lack of freedom. Being non-Lebanese, he was an obvious target for kidnappers. So if he was to visit friends, he would first ring them, outlining the route he intended to travel and the time he expected to arrive. Nevertheless, there was always an element of risk to going anywhere.
Then one day, only a few weeks after his arrival, he was kidnapped. A Mercedes passed him in the street and then blocked his path. He recounts, “Out jumped four men, the driver with a pistol and three other men in their mid-twenties, each with a Kalashnikov in his hand and a handgun in his belt. Exchanging glances, he was quickly pushed into the back seat of the car…I was taken by four men to a small cell... A mattress was laid down on the ground. The room was smaller than an average bathroom.” This was to be the beginning of his captivity in Beirut for four and a half years.
Keenan details his horrifying experience in this book, ‘An Evil Cradling.’ Keenan tries to explain the experience of being held hostage: “My first hours, then days and then weeks, I found myself constantly having to deal with the slow hallucinations into which I had been dropped. I had been removed from a known reality. The four concrete walls of my shoe box sized cell formed my only vista. Beyond these I could see nothing, only my imagination gave me images, some beautiful, some disturbing and unendurably ever present...Exaggerating this distorted sensitivity were the voices of my captors in a disembodied language...There were the cries, too, of the other prisoners...some of them weeping and in the long hours of darkness some of that weeping became screaming.”
Keenan endured four years of isolation from the outside world, not knowing whether it was day or night, solitary confinement, being moved from one safe house to another, beatings, and cruel rumours of imminent execution. Then, without any warning, it was over. “A man kneels in front of me, his hand gentle on my shoulder. It is the voice of one of the chiefs. Quietly, he says “Brian, you go home.’ I am silent and unstunned. ‘Home, you mean another place?’ I ask, for I have heard these words before. Again the hand at my shoulder and the voice: "You go home, family, Dublin." And just like the kidnapping, so is the release. Driven in a Mercedes to the rendezvous point. Hidden and secret negotiations had brought an end to four and a half years of suffering I cannot begin to grasp.
Brian Keenan doesn’t go into what led to his release. Perhaps there was a ransom. Perhaps a release of prisoners led to his release. A life for a life. This story is in one sense so foreign to our lives that we could never understand the torment of Brian’s mind, or the pain of his isolation. But, in another sense, the story of being held captive, and then released, is our story.
One of the forms of the confession of sins that we use begins, “We are born in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” These words are an affront to our sense of human agency, the idea that we are in control of our lives and free to make of ourselves what we will. But the objective evidence, which we see played out every day, in events large and small, is that we human beings make the wrong choices. We inevitably place our needs first, and this leads to a clashing of wills and a zero-sum game. The former Prime Minister Paul Keating once said, “In the race of life, always back self-interest - at least you know it's trying.”
In Luke 4, Jesus speaks about the purpose of his ministry, using the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” As we journey with Jesus through Mark’s gospel, we see that he does exactly this. A man captured by an evil spirit is set free, a person with leprosy is healed and reintegrated into his community, a woman rendered socially and ritually unclean by a 12-year illness is healed and enters the freedom of a normal life.
Brian Keenan was completely shocked when his moment of release came. For many of us, the moment of release burst upon us so unexpectedly too, even unknowingly, when the water of baptism was poured on our head, when the words proclaiming freedom were spoken over us. “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We were wrenched from the captor Satan’s hands, and placed into the safe, loving hands of our heavenly Father. Behind the scenes, much had taken place to secure this freedom. God decided, even before the beginning of time, that he could not bear the imprisonment of those he created in his image, now enslaved by their desires, their power, their ideas. What we human beings thought was freedom, the ability to pursue our own interests, unencumbered, was poison to us and our common life.
So God purposed to rescue us who were held hostage to sin. He would send his Son, Jesus into this world, to be our substitute. Through his perfect life and obedient death, he would take the place of all those imprisoned in their sin-cells. The life of Jesus, given up on the cross, would be the ransom., the price paid to redeem us from our captivity. “This is what the Son of Man has done. He came to serve, not to be served- and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
This is the most powerful hostage drama of all. The one who was free of sin, the one who was God himself, submitted to capture, to torture, to execution, all to take our place and to release those whose lives were diminished by the father of lies, and who lived under the ultimate fear of death.
This rescue story was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord says, ‘It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness. My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many, and for his sake I will forgive them.” Isaiah was speaking of the servant Messiah that God would send. Jesus didn’t exercise his divine authority to control and dominate us, but to serve us and all people Baptism was our point of release. This is where God exchanged our sin and selfishness for Jesus’ perfect life. This is the point of no return, no looking back.
When Brian Keenan was first captured, he thought, “If I'm going to die here [in captivity], my biggest regret is that I haven't had any kids. The feeling quite overwhelmed me." Three years after his release, he married and had two children. He reflects, "Having kids is all about the here and now; there's no time to focus on the past. The years I was locked up were an incident in my personal history. They're not all of me."
Our captivity to sin is part of our human story, but it no longer defines us. We are now defined by what Jesus has done for us through his sacrificial death on the cross, and his resurrection. This is what Paul reminds us in his great chapter on the gift of baptism, Romans 6: “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
This new life looks is the servant-life of Jesus released in us and through us. Again and again, Jesus’ disciples come unstuck as they seek to follow him according to their own conception of his mission. They thought of glory; he spoke of suffering. They hoped for prestige and influence; he spoke of suffering and servanthood. Today James and John want the place of honour; Jesus was enthroned as Messiah on the cross. We are no different from them. Jesus patiently and lovingly calls his disciples together, the first 12, and us too, and offers this divine corrective, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
We have been set free to flourish. Our freedom brings life and hope to others. We are not defined by our past, but transformed by the presence of Jesus’ risen, servant life in us. Amen.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.”’ 20 ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ 22At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’ 27 Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ 28 Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’ 29 ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ Mark 10:17-31
Life consists of the haves and the have nots. We are very much the people who have. A house. A car, usually two. Lots of other things. An education. A job. We are literate, healthy, and well fed. In global terms, we are very much the haves. We are people who are greatly blessed.
Today Jesus comes across someone like us. A man who has it all. Pedigree. Piety. Property. In Luke’s account of the same incident, he is called ‘a rich young ruler’. He is a young man with the world at his feet, from a well-to-do and well-respected family.
But although he appears to have everything, he is conscious that something is missing from his impressive resume. This is the quest that has brought him to Jesus. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
This question fascinates me, not only because it is one of life’s big questions, but because of the way that this young man phrases it. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Perhaps the question contains the answer, although the man doesn’t recognise it. An inheritance doesn’t come by doing anything, but simply by being born or adopted into a family. Let’s leave that thought hanging as the conversation progresses.
Jesus begins with the commandments, God’s statements about what constitutes the good, indeed the godly life. Jesus quotes only from the second table of the ten commandments, those that have to do with our relationship with others. Given that this young man is pondering the big questions, perhaps he presupposes that he knows the big three commandments about our responsibilities toward God.
This confident, poised young man considers that he is on solid ground with his piety. ‘Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ How do those words strike you? An arrogant boast perhaps, or a sign of self-deceit, big time. Or maybe, just maybe, if this man understood obedience to be keeping the letter of the law, if he hadn’t murdered anyone, stolen anyone’s property, committed the act of adultery, then he was in the clear. He clearly wasn’t in the audience for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
So far, so good, he might be thinking to himself. My pedigree and my piety stand me in good stead in the eyes of the good teacher. But what about his property? What does Jesus have to say?
Jesus looks him straight in the eye, and ‘loved him.’ What is this love? Perhaps it’s the love which yearns for the heart and the life of this man. It’s a love which wants even more for him than he already has, a love that wants to free him from everything that he has, and which we will see, has him. ‘One thing you lack… ‘Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
Did you catch all the action words there, in Jesus’ command? ‘Go, sell, give, come, follow.’ The man certainly heard exactly what Jesus said: asking him to give up everything in which he trusted and bring himself, naked of his pedigree, piety and property, to Jesus. No other teacher had ever asked this of him; at most the Rabbis suggested giving away one fifth of what one owned. But this teacher wanted all or nothing.
‘At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.’ He was gutted and went back to the things that had driven him to Jesus in the first place, back to that nagging sense of dissatisfaction, even when he had almost everything.
And it wasn’t just this young man who was stunned. The disciples were also shocked that such a prime candidate for the kingdom would be turned away. And they were even more disturbed when Jesus began to speak about how hard it was for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. In their minds, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. So how could wealth stand as a barrier
Jesus only compounds their confusion. ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ The disciples realised the dilemma. If the rich man’s pedigree, piety and property didn’t get him over the line, then what hope was there for the rest of them. Their question cuts to the chase ‘Who then can be saved?’ What hope have we got, Jesus? Who can pass your test? Who is good enough to measure up to your standards? Is there any point keeping on following you?
Does the same question enter your mind today as you hear this story? ‘Who then can be saved?’ How can we get across the line? To think this way is to view our relationship with God as if it based on our pedigree, piety and property. Pedigree could be a heritage of Christian ancestors. It could a lifelong association with the church. Piety could be the efforts we make to ensure that when it all boils down, God will be impressed with us. And while we might confess that it weas God’s grace that brought us into his kingdom, we haplessly fall into the trap of making it all about us and our efforts from that point onwards. And we all like to think that we make a good fist of living according to God’s will, or at the very least, following the golden rule, doing good to people around us, and expecting good in return. Being a decent neighbour, a law-abiding citizen, a considerate friend. But 100% obedience. Each and every time. Not a chance. Never. It’s so hard to get rid of the self-righteous impulse.
Then there’s our property. In a society of haves, what we have has become so crucial in forming our identity and maintaining our status. Surely we understand this man’s sorrow. We build, we buy, we save, we invest. All these things are not bad in themselves. But when we invest them with ultimate meaning, we have crossed the boundary from gratitude to greed.
Jesus said to the rich young man. ‘You lack one thing.’ You have plenty of things. An enormous number of personal qualities and advantages. But the problem is that they have you. Jesus could as easily say this to us, couldn’t he? You have plenty of things. Personal, physical, material advantages. Do you have them, or do they have you? If they have you, who are you trusting for meaning and hope in life? Me, or them?
What’s your answer? Jesus wants the honest truth. He got it from the disciples. They realised the drastic implications of their faulty discipleship. ‘Who then can be saved?’ Your pedigree won’t save you. Your piety will never be enough. And your property is no hedge against eternal death.
Jesus looked his disciples straight in the eye, with the same love that he directed toward the man. Jesus’ disciples think to themselves, ‘We’ve run out of options.’ But Jesus says: ‘With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ Entry into the kingdom demands all that we have, our best obedience, and yet all we can do, or have, is never enough. Life with God is always and only God’s gift. That’s the ultimate security. Trusting in the promise of God, who makes the impossible possible.
This is seriously scary. Peter wants to hedge his bets. ‘Lord, we have left everything to follow you.’ Is there a hint here that Peter’s angling for a reward for what he and other 11 have done, in responding to Jesus’ call? A little later the 12 are jockeying for position in Jesus’ cabinet room. But life in the kingdom is not about rewards for services rendered. It’s about being rewarded by God the Father for Jesus’ life of service, rendered to us. Note how Jesus looked at the young man and ‘loved him.’ Loved him despite his self-trust, his inability to follow. We can’t love God first. We are incapable. The good news is that God loves us first in Christ, that Jesus in the very next breath tells the disciples that he must continue his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. ‘How hard it is to enter the kingdom the kingdom of God. So hard in fact, that only God through Christ can make it happen.
Let’s go back to the rich man’s question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Nothing. You only receive an inheritance because you are a son or a daughter. There’s a better question, ’Who do I trust to receive eternal life?’ Jesus says, ‘Trust me. Follow me. I’ve blazed the trail. I’ve done what you were incapable of. I’ve lived a perfect life of love. Through my cross I’ve made you my brothers and sisters. A place in the kingdom is the gift that you inherit, because you’ve born into the king’s family through baptism. Eternal life is my gift to you through faith.’ Leaving behind trust in our piety, our pedigree and our property and following Jesus connects us to a whole new family, a much richer, more meaningful life.
Jesus’ words today strike a jarring note in a world of haves, because trust in him involves untrusting our pedigree, piety and possessions. Through making himself the last, and the servant of all, Jesus gifts us with a relationship with God based on who he is and what he’s done, not on us. It’s not about trying to impress God. That’s impossible. It’s about the fact that God has us. And because of this ultimate security, we are now free to use our pedigree, piety and possessions to love this gracious God, and our neighbour, because of his love for us. Who we are, and what we have, now that God has us, is for his glory and the good of others. Amen.
10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn-bush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure for ever.’ Isaiah 55:10-13
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, God speaks to us:
Rain and snow fall from the sky. But they don’t return without watering the earth that produces seeds to plant and grain to eat. That’s how it is with my words. They don’t return to me without doing everything I send them to do.
It’s a simple illustration. Rain falls on the earth. The earth produces food, because that’s what it does.
Similarly, God sends out his Word to do his will. We hear it and it produces life in us, because that’s what the Word does.
It’s straightforward. We don’t earn or create salvation for ourselves any more than the barren earth produces a crop on its own. That only happens after rain. It is the same with us. On our own, we can do nothing. We can only wait for God’s Word, which he unfailingly sends us.
Now, this is actually good news – gospel. We rely on God for everything. Not just physical stuff like rain and seasons, food, health and so on, but life itself, with a capital ‘L’. Without God’s Word, nothing happens, just like earth cannot produce seeds or food on its own.
There’s much we don’t understand about this, both physically and spiritually, but the principle is clear. God is the source, and we rely on him. Martin Luther wrote about these verses, ‘For all the enemies say, “Do you really think that everything depends on the Word? We must act, work, and think.” Here the text confounds their thoughts. He does not say, “Our works and our thoughts do this,” but, “My Word.” It is therefore a consolation for the purpose of lifting up the weak, lest they be offended at the lowliness of God, who has every victory in His Word.’
Thank God, the universe doesn’t wait for us to understand how it works before the sun shines and the rain falls. There are far too many wonders in creation for us to know them all! These days we might think we know more than Isaiah did about rainfall, but we certainly don’t know everything about how climate works. Behind every discovery lies mystery after mystery. Maybe Isaiah understood a few things about creation and how it works that we, with all our science, have actually forgotten.
Even more so, then, what a great relief it is that we don’t need to understand everything about God’s kingdom. But God’s Word does tell us what we absolutely need to know. We call it the gospel. God loves us, loves the world, so much that Jesus gave his life to save us. He is the Word come down to earth, to water it and give it life. Come to him, listen to him, and live!
The Lord has done this. No doubt about it.
Luther, in his usual practical way, points out that Isaiah is not just painting a beautiful picture. It is practical comfort for those who fear that the Word of God is too weak to help us in our current state. He wrote, ‘the Word seems so weak and foolish that there appears to be no strength in it. How can it be believed that all the power, victory, and triumph of God are in the word of a feeble human mouth? And so He comes to meet this scandal of the weak and the stubborn.’
Like Isaiah, Luther points out that the Word of God comes to us in physical ways. Isaiah speaks of the word that comes out of God’s mouth. In his case, that was the mouth of the prophet. For us it is the mouth of preaching and teaching, which God does through real people in real times and places – even when it is over the internet.
And this is why the church exists! If it is not speaking the Word of God, then it is empty and meaningless. Without the Word of God, it wouldn’t matter how pious, correct, and holy we are. We could fight all the evil in the world, battle demons, conspiracies and heresies, but without the clear word of the gospel, God’s saving, all inclusive love for us and the world, we will achieve nothing, be nothing.
We are to be the mouth of God, through which God’s Word goes out to do what God wants. And what does God want? That everyone who believes in Jesus may not perish but may have eternal life. Therefore, the words we speak must be words of compassion and love.
This is why God created his church. And this is how the LCANZ plays a part in God’s great, universal plan for his creation. We might be small. We might seem weak. We might not be as up to date and modern as some others are. Those things would be nice, and we keep working at them, but they’re not why we’re here. We’re here for the Word, and the Word comes to us in weakness, even like a single drop of rain that lands on the parched earth.
Come! Listen! Live!
Writing to the exiles, Isaiah describes a world transformed. It is no longer a world captive, but a world released:
When you are set free, you will celebrate and travel home in peace. Mountains and hills will sing as you pass by, and trees will clap. Cypress and myrtle trees will grow in fields once covered by thorns. And then those trees will stand as a lasting witness to the glory of the Lord.
Once more, this is picture language. Trees don’t have hands with which to clap and mountains don’t sing – at least, in as far as we know! But the point is clear. God’s people are free. Their exile is over. Even creation is transformed as a sign of the joy and peace that comes with the Lord. We see everything in a new way. Where once we saw darkness, now we see light. Where once we were confused, now we have clarity. Where once we were afraid, now we are confident. Our exile is over – we are home.
The Lutheran Confessions link these verses directly to the ministry of Christian proclamation – what we call ordination. It all links to the purpose and promises of God, the gospel which, as St Paul writes, is ‘the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’ for ‘the righteous will live by faith.’
This is not just a future hope, but a truth which, through faith, we experience now. Christian faith is not a waiting game in which we juggle the odds of an uncertain future, placing our bets this way or that. We aren’t trying to appease an angry God or prove God’s existence. We don’t need to second guess God because faith is a lived experience, something we know at first hand. Knowing God changes our world. Our external circumstances may look the same, but we now have peace, joy, and comfort where before there was unrest, sadness and fear. Through the Word, through Christ, God’s kingdom has come, just as we pray. Today, by faith, we already live in a new world of love, peace and joy.
As I think about our lives, and about our church, and as I listen to these verses, I am astounded at what I see. So much is similar. We might live in physical safety and comfort, but the longing for freedom remains. Human machinations to build a lasting, stable world have failed or seem to be failing. Society has turned a corner, away from faith. Ironically, in the western world we have never had so much stuff, but we feel our resources are stretched. The church is ageing – who will carry it forward? Personal ethics and morality are being replaced by virtue signalling and posts on social media. We can’t free ourselves from the things that threaten to overcome us. We are burdened, anxious, even trapped by events, by our lives, and by time itself. We feel like exiles, strangers in a strange land. Who will restore us and lead us home?
What better time can there be to hear God’s invitation once more? Life in this world is temporary, we know that, but life in God is eternal. Salvation is freely available. Jesus sets us free. We are redeemed. Our captivity is over, because God’s Word never goes back to him without having done everything he sent it to do, and he sent it for the salvation of the world.
Come! Listen! Live!
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.