Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (A – Proper 16)
August 21, 2011
Text: Is. 51:1-8; Matt. 16:13-20
Beloved in the Lord, in the Holy Gospel this morning our Lord Jesus promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against His beloved Church (Matt. 16:18). And yet, it sure looks like the gates of hell are prevailing. If you haven’t noticed, the general mood in our society toward Christianity is less and less friendly. Churches are shrinking, congregations are disappearing, denominations are all facing financial crises of one stripe or another, and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is no exception. And then there’s the difficulty with doctrine. Which doctrine is right? Is there such a thing as right doctrine? Many within the Church, never mind those outside the Church, contend that there is no such thing as right or pure doctrine. Postmodern society, where all things are relative, which means that your truth is true for you and my truth is true for me but we dare never assert our truth to be true for anyone else, has influenced Christianity to such a degree that we’re not even sure what we’re sure of or what we believe. Liberal Protestantism has already thrown out the baby with the bathwater. There is no doctrine in the mainline churches. Believe what you want, do what you want, just don’t forget to send in your offering. And don’t impose what you believe on anyone else. Not even in your own church. Not even if it’s in the Bible. Do you sense the demonic influence in all of this? Jesus, are you sure hell isn’t really prevailing against the Church after all?
That is why we live by faith, not by sight. If we lived by sight, we’d have to conclude that Jesus is dead wrong in His promise here. But faith believes the Word of the Lord in spite of what the eyes see. This is not to say that faith is blind. No, faith always has an object. Faith must always believe in something, or better, Someone. Faith believes in and trusts the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word of promise and comfort. But faith does not yet see the object of its trust. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. The writer to the Hebrews defines faith this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1; ESV). Faith is only necessary when that which is hoped for has not yet appeared. And such faith has always been a mark of God’s people. Our Old Testament lesson from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (51:1-8) is about precisely this. For God’s chosen people, the future looked bleak. Appearances were anything but hopeful. The LORD Himself had promised to give Judah over to her enemies, to send her into exile in Babylon because of her idolatry. Yet God spoke gracious words of comfort to those who would trust Him, through the preaching and pen of Isaiah. Judah would be saved. The people of Israel would once again possess the Promised Land. There would be a remnant, those faithful to YHWH who would be saved. And the promise isn’t just that those who are Jews by genealogy would once again come to inhabit Palestine. That is true, and that did happen, but there is a greater promise at work here. The remnant will include all who pursue righteousness (Is. 51:1), that is, all who long for the righteousness that only God can give to His unrighteous people, all who look in faith to YHWH for deliverance and salvation, people from every nation, God’s new Israel, His Zion, His holy Church.
For the promise in our Old Testament lesson is finally and ultimately this: God will send His Son. “Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law,” a Torah, the Word, “will go out from me” (v. 4). Jesus is the Word made flesh who has made His dwelling among us. He is the Word who was with God in the beginning, the Word who is God, and who has taken on our human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. “I will set my justice for a light to the peoples” (v. 4). That’s Jesus, and the peoples who receive His light are not just Jews, but Gentiles, you and me. “My righteousness draws near,” says God (v. 5). That’s Jesus! … “my salvation has gone out…” That’s Jesus! … “and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait.” Why are they waiting so hopefully for the LORD to judge with His arms? I mean, it sounds like God is about to obliterate sinners with His might. But how does God judge with His arms? The Son of God, Jesus, stretches out His arms on the wood of the cross, to receive the nails, to be pierced for our transgressions as the Father judges Him guilty of the sins of all the world, the sins of Israel, your sins, my sins, and the sins of all people. He is judged guilty of our idolatry and false doctrine and wishy-washy relativity. He is judged guilty of every offense against our holy God’s commandments. All so that you and I and all people may be judged righteous by the Father, with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. You who pursue righteousness will find it only here, a righteousness that is outside of you, in Jesus, received by faith, in spite of all appearances.
And it is He that frees you from your exile to sin and death and hell by His death, and ushers you back into the Promised Land of righteousness and life and salvation by His resurrection. It isn’t simply Palestine that is promised here. It is the Promised Land of our Lord’s Kingdom. The promise is the new heavens and the new earth on the Last Day, of which Palestine is only a dim foreshadowing. The promise is your soul reunited with your resurrection body to live eternally with God and with His Son Jesus Christ in His paradise. This is the comfort the LORD speaks to Zion, His beloved people. You will be raised from the dead, resurrection bodies to live in a resurrected Eden. Paradise restored. That’s what He says in our text: “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (v. 3; emphasis added). In the end, the gates of hell do not triumph. Rather, the old wily serpent who once prevailed in the Garden of Eden by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is overcome by the tree of life, the tree of the cross, and Eden shall be restored. Beloved, you will see it with your own eyes!
Therefore, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath” (v. 8). Look at the created things that have been marred by the fall into sin. These things will not last. They will all perish. That means the visible institution sometimes called “Church” as well. And so we dare not place our faith in these things. That would be idolatry, exchanging the Creator for that which He has created. And that is a fatal mistake. “(F)or the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner.” This is what will happen on the Last Day when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. But, says the LORD… “but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.” The promise of God carries us through the changes and chances of this fallen world, through suffering and the cross, through death and destruction, and even through the final judgment. Because finally the only thing that stands is the salvation of the Lord. He will deliver us. He will give us eternal life. Because He said so. And He has never yet failed to make good on His promises. So we can believe His Word with absolute assurance and confess biblical doctrine with boldness. And so also we can stake our very eternal lives with joy upon the faithfulness of the LORD.
The LORD comforts Zion with His promises. Indeed, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. And this means two things for us: 1. In spite of all appearances, there will always be a holy Christian and apostolic Church on earth, until the end of time, and 2. in the end, hell loses and the Church wins, because Jesus has already won. In fact, we are here this morning to celebrate the Feast of victory for our God, where Jesus gives us the instruments of His victory, His true body and blood. Beloved in the Lord, be comforted this morning. Believe the promises. Believe the Word. And go out with great joy into a world that is hostile to your Savior to confess his saving Name. You may catch hell for it, but hell is defeated by His cross. Your sins have been forgiven, loosed by the Word of the Lord. You have eternal life. Thanks be to God. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.