Sexagesima Sunday

February 12, 2012

“God’s Word Does What God Wants”

Isaiah 55:10-11


For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.  Isaiah 55:10-11


God doesn’t think like we do.  We don’t come to this conclusion by our own observation.  God says so.  Just before the words of our text, God says through the prophet Isaiah:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

God doesn’t think like we do.  This is why, when it comes to matters pertaining to God – what we call religion or theology – we must place our thoughts below God’s word.  We must place our reasoning abilities under God’s wisdom.  We must go by what he says rather than by what we think.  He knows better than we do.  His ways are higher than ours.


And he is the one who teaches us that his word has inherent power.  He is the one who binds his will and purpose to what he says and guarantees us that his word shall accomplish what he pleases.  It shall do what he says it will do.


Preachers need to keep this in mind before they get up to preach.  If they preach God’s word they should know that it will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish.  They cannot empower God’s word.  They cannot make it work.  All the preacher can do is to preach it.


In the parable about the sower and the seed, Jesus compares God’s word to a seed that is sown in the ground.  The seed that is sown is God’s word.  The soil upon which the seed is sown is the human heart.  Four different kinds of soil represent three ways of rejecting and one way of receiving God’s word.  The same word that is rejected by some is accepted by others.  When God’s word is rejected it is never the fault of God’s word.  It is always the fault of those who reject it.


In this text from Isaiah, the word of God is compared to rain and snow that fall from the sky.  It does not return whence it came without bringing forth fruit.  It waters the earth and causes plants to bud and flower and produce food.  Just as God sends the rain and the snow to cause the crops to grow, so God’s word brings spiritual life.  He speaks the word and his word does what he wants it to do.


The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life.  We need the Holy Spirit to bring us spiritual life because without him we are spiritually dead and helpless and cannot make ourselves alive.  The strength we have does not lie within us.  It comes to us from the word of God.  God’s word achieves the purpose for which God speaks it.  It will not return to him empty.  Just as the rain causes the crops to grow, so God’s word causes faith to flourish.  For that’s the essence of true spiritual life: faith.  Faith is the greatest miracle of God.


It is born in weakness.  What did Jesus say to Paul when Paul complained to him about his thorn in the flesh and pleaded with him to take it away?  Jesus replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”  When we are weak we are strong.  When we see our own helplessness we are in a position to be helped.  God’s word is inherently powerful – that is to say, the power of God’s word inheres in God’s word.  The word of God is powerful because of what it is.  It is God’s word.  You cannot make God’s word powerful any more than you can make God powerful.  To claim to make God powerful is to claim to make him God.  What arrogance for the creature to think that he can make God into this or that!  It’s the same arrogance to think that we can make God’s word work as if it won’t do what God wants it to do without our help.


But laying claim to divine status is as old as the oldest sin.  What was the first temptation?  You will be like God!  That’s what Satan promised our first parents.  You will be like God.  Ever since then, the human race has been playing God, laying claim to divine power and divine prerogatives.


God is the one who decides how he is going to do what he does.  God has decided that he come to us in both judgment and blessing through his spoken word.  He has always done so.  He did so with Adam and Eve.  He did so through the prophets.  God has always spoken to us.  He has always dealt with us through his spoken word.  His final revelation of his will toward us was through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  Listen to these introductory words to the Epistle to the Hebrews:


God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds. (Hebrews 1, 1-2)


When it comes to spiritual matters, we play with fire when we presume to replace God’s ways with our own as if God is going to go along with whatever we decide.  God speaks to us in his word.  Whatever is preached must conform to what is written in the Holy Scriptures.  That’s because the Holy Scriptures were written by God.  He is the one who directed the pens of the prophets and apostles to write down what he wanted written down.  Then, when the preached word conforms to the written word, it is God’s word and has the almighty power of God himself.  It is God’s own voice.  And God binds us to what he says.


No end of spiritual mischief comes about by assigning to God things God has never said.  People blame God for breaking promises God never made.  People come up with all sorts of theories and doctrines and imagine that God has revealed them.  But it is to take God’s name in vain to say that God said it when God did not say it.


The Smalcald Articles are probably the least familiar of the Lutheran Confessions.  Nevertheless, they contain the clearest statement of our Church about how the Holy Spirit works and how he does not work.  Based on what God says in the Holy Scriptures, this is what we teach:

In issues relating to the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word.  This protects us from the enthusiasts, (i.e., souls who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word).  They judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure . . .  Many still do this today, wanting to be sharp judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they are saying.  . .  All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts.  He led them away from God’s outward Word to spiritualizing and self-pride.  . .  In a word, enthusiasm dwells in Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world.  Its venom has been implanted and infused into them by the old serpent.  It is the origin, power, and strength of all heresy . . .  Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not wish to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments.  Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and sacraments – is the devil himself. (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII)

This means we don’t define our relationship with God by what happens to us or in us.  We define our relationship with God by what God says to us.  The disciples told Thomas God’s own truth.  They told him that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Thomas didn’t believe them.  He insisted on seeing.  When Jesus permitted him to see he added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Blessed are those who go by what God says rather than by what they see, feel, think, or experience.


As Christians we experience sadness, joy, pain, pleasure, want, abundance, and everything in between.  Sometimes we feel as if God has hidden his face from us and wants nothing to do with us.  Sometimes we feel as if God and we have it all worked out.  We can’t afford to base our faith on how we feel.  This is the source of endless confusion and pain.


There is within American Christianity a strain of Puritan teaching that goes way back to before our founding as a nation.  It teaches that material blessing is a special sign of divine favor.  If God is on your side you will have more money, more status, more respect, better health, and a better quality of life.  On the other hand, if you are suffering losses, persecutions, financial difficulties, bad health, or other maladies, this is a sign that God is not looking favorably upon you.  So Christians are taught to judge themselves by their outward circumstances and to believe that that’s God’s judgment, too.


But consider the parable of the sower and the seed.  The soil, in which the seed takes root, grows to maturity, and produces a fruitful harvest is soil that has been broken by the plow.  The plow cuts deep.  It is in our pain and suffering that we are rendered weak in our own estimation, and then – in our weakness – we can better rely on the power of God’s word.  Sometimes God must mug us with reality, the reality being our own weakness, mortality, and spiritual immaturity. 


The word of God doesn’t confirm us in our sin.  It exposes us.  It doesn’t comfort us with excuses.  It cuts right through them and reveals the secrets of our hearts, shining the bright light of divine truth on every sinful rationalization ever invented.  God’s word penetrates every human façade of piety, righteousness, and goodness and shows that it is unsound.  But that’s only the first word, the preparatory word, the word that carries out a work designed to prepare us for Christ.


Jesus Christ is the final word of God and he comes to the broken and contrite conscience whose defenses have been laid bare.  The law of God reveals weakness and sin; but it cannot heal or restore.  It can only accuse and leave the accused helpless.  God’s word of law teaches us to see ourselves for what we are.  We have loved our own foolish notions more than God’s holy word.  We have mimicked our first parents by replacing God’s clear word with what appealed to our senses.  We have set aside God’s truth to revel in our own wisdom.  For our folly we deserve to pay the price and the price is death for everyone who turns his heart away from the Author of life.


But the final word of God comes to hearts broken by their own sin.  His almighty power is revealed where he brings to us the treasures he alone can bring.  Christ alone has loved with the purity God demands.  He alone has suffered in the place of the guilty.  He alone has borne the burden of sin for all sinners.  The pure and holy image of the invisible God, the exact representation of his being, the eternal Word and Wisdom of the Father, chose to take upon himself the guilt and sin of all humanity.  What we deserved, he suffered.  That is how he took it away from us.  This is the gospel truth and this truth is given to us in God’s word.


His word comes to us.  His absolution is pronounced upon us.  His forgiveness is spoken to us and it is never just the voice of a man but it always the voice of the living God.  It penetrates our unbelief, shatters our doubts, and implants faith inside of us.  That’s the greatest miracle of God’s word: the faith to receive it, to rely upon it, and to participate in all the treasures it bestows.


God’s word does what God wants it to do.  It cannot but have the almighty power of God behind it.  This is why we preach it, teach it, and confess it.  It won’t return to God empty.  But it will bring us to God where we will remain safe.  We look to nothing that will make God’s word work.  We look rather to God’s word and in it we see his work.  Amen