Given August 23, 2020
- Isaiah 51:1-6
- Psalm 138
- Romans 11:25-36
- Matthew 16:13-20
It is not often you hear a sermon from the Old Testament.
Fleming Rutledge is an American Episcopal priest, author, theologian, and preacher.
She laments, “in many churches, the Gospel reading is usually the sermon text of choice… as though the Old Testament and the Epistles scarcely existed.”
She says, “The New Testament will not work without the Old Testament. Jesus of Nazareth knew no other Scriptures than the Law and the Prophets. The apostles knew no other Scriptures. The New Testament is inconceivable without the First Testament.”
So, when Paul writes to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching…” he was referring to the Old Testament.
This is no critique of our dear pastor or leadership, mind you, it is just an observation I have had through the years. I grew up hearing sermons and being taught the Old Testament. But, as the years progressed, hearing a sermon out of the Old Testament got more sparse. Especially sermons from the prophets.
Today, I want to focus our attention on our reading in Isaiah. Isaiah is a difficult book to read and to understand. I have only touched the surface in my studies with much help from others.
Our Catechism says that both Testaments “reveal the Person of Jesus Christ and his mighty works. As Saint Augustine says, “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed.”
So today, let’s focus on our Isaiah reading and see what it has to say about Jesus Christ. Let me read it to you one more time, in the ESV.
51 “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2 Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
3 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.
4 “Give attention to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go out from me,
and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.
5 My righteousness draws near,
my salvation has gone out,
and my arms will judge the peoples;
the coastlands hope for me,
and for my arm they wait.
6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;
but my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.
First, a little background concerning the book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-55 are commonly called the Servant Songs in the theological academic world. These chapters in Isaiah speak of a coming servant of God who will rescue Israel from her sins and inaugurate God’s universal reign. The chapters are filled with promises from God meant to comfort Israel during their exile, their oppression, the good news about God’s justice.
40:9,10 – “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news… Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
The author of the gospel of Matthew quotes Isaiah concerning Jesus, 42:1-4
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Again in Isaiah 44:6
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
I could go on and on. All this to say, in Isaiah you see God’s good news, his gospel, that he will save his people through his servant, his redeemer, his messiah. I will give you a hint about who that servant is: it is Jesus Christ.
Our reading today begins, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord…”
The question is, who is speaking here? One would automatically assume the prophet, after all, he wrote the text. Others may assume it is the Lord. But, looking back to the previous chapter, a few verses before our reading, 50:10 it reads, “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant?”
This servant is the one through whom God will bring about his redemptive work in the world. The servant is Jesus Christ.
Our reading has words like, “listen to me,” “give attention to me.” He is speaking from verse 1 until verse 8 – which includes our whole reading today.
These are the very words of Jesus Christ in Isaiah, in the Old Testament.
He says, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord…”
The Septuagint: “Listen to me, you who pursue what is just and seek the Lord”
The NLT: “Listen to me, all who hope for deliverance— all who seek the LORD!”
These are three translations of this one verse. One says, “pursue righteousness”, another “pursue what is just,” and another “hope for deliverance.”
The skeptic would scoff at such differences in translations. However, they miss the overall cohesiveness of what righteousness/justice/deliverance has in the Biblical story.
In these three translations, we have three different understandings of this call from Jesus.
Those who pursue righteousness – personal holiness, and right living.
Those who pursue justice – corporate holiness and right action in society.
Those who hope for deliverance – those who are oppressed – the ones who hunger for righteous people to bring about justice!
In the Old Testament, God’s righteousness and justice go hand-in-hand. As we see in our reading, the servant brings righteousness (v. 5), and justice (v. 4), and salvation (v. 5)
The concept being taught here is of God’s righteousness and justice that is centered upon deliverance of those who are oppressed and in bondage. It is God acting out his salvation in and through Jesus Christ. Those who seek to follow Jesus (you and me), who want to be children of God, would also seek personal holiness, justice in the world, and seek to deliver those who hope for deliverance.
Jesus continues, “…look to the rock from which you were hewn.” He is saying, look at Sarah, look at Abraham. God promised Abraham and Sarah they were to birth a mighty nation, one in which all the world would be blessed. Jesus is calling upon his people to remember the goodness of God. To remember God does what he promises.
During their exile, Jesus is giving comfort to Israel. She will be redeemed. All that was stolen will be restored. All that is destroyed will be rebuilt. All that is dead will be made alive.
This too gives us comfort. We can look at these stories in our Bible, the stories of the saints in history, the stories of our parents and their parents, and take courage and comfort. We know that God does what he promises. These stories increase our faith so that we can hear the voice of God’s servant, Jesus Christ.
This current crisis we are in is not the last word in our world. God has the last word. He promises his people, you, and me, to protect us, to hold us, and to sustain us, in this life and the next.
Verse three Jesus promises, “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;”
God is bringing us, really all of creation, back to the Garden, back to Eden. The Bible begins with a garden and a tree, the Bible ends with a new heaven and a new earth and a tree. God promises to deliver us, to bring us together in community, to teach us his ways, and to live an abundant life. We are promised these elements now, and in the new creation, these promises are made permanent.
God has promised. God will fulfill. And as Paul says, “God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn. They are irrevocable.”
Continuing in our reading, Jesus says, “Give attention to me… my law will go out… and… my justice for a light to the peoples.”
Jesus here gives us a glimpse into what the kingdom of God looks like. What is the kingdom of God? It is the rule and reign of God over all creation. It is where the justice and righteousness of God will prosper. This kingdom, if you would receive it, is here now, inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This kingdom is here among you, it is within you Christian.
His righteousness is your righteousness. Righteousness means simply “right living”. This is the holiness required of us as followers of Jesus. Peter says, “You are to be holy, for God is holy.” This means we are set apart from the world. We are different, a holy nation, a peculiar people.
Following the Law of Jesus Christ – to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
But it does not stop just at your righteousness, just your holiness.
His justice is also your justice. Justice means simply “right society” or “right actions among peoples.” This means from our holiness we do not act like the world in treating other people badly.
We seek out justice for the oppressed.
We seek the welfare of the poor. We seek deliverance of those in bondage.
We seek recovery of those who are addicted.
We seek out equality of all people because they all are made in the image of God.
Following Jesus means living out his justice of loving our neighbor as our self.
Christian, if we are to be a light to the world we need to seek after righteousness, seek after justice. Living the life of Jesus Christ is to be the light in the world, a city that is set on a hill can not be hidden.
O God, make us a people who shine your light in this dark world.
In our reading again, Jesus says, “My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm, they wait.”
Here the word “arm” is significant. The arm, especially the right arm or right hand, was a symbol of strength in the Old Testament, a symbol of action. The right arm of God is to bring justice, to bring judgment, to bring salvation.
Deut. 33:27 – “The eternal God is a dwelling place, And underneath are the everlasting arms; And He drove out the enemy from before you,”
Isaiah 59:1 – “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short That it cannot save;”
Exodus 6:6 – “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.”
This is God promising he will act decisively in the world to bring about his justice, his righteousness.
But, our passage speaks of something unique, something special.
N.T. Wright says of Isaiah, “the prophet has invoked “the arm of YHWH” as a way of talking about YHWH himself, coming in person to do what he had promised…”
Isaiah the prophet wrote, “Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
The prophet himself, surprised at the revelation, the servant of God, the one in which he has been writing about in these Servant Songs, is none other than the Arm of God.
YHWH himself would come in person, in Jesus Christ, to redeem his people, bring justice and righteousness.
Therefore, from our reading, Jesus is saying, “My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples…”
Judgment has become a dirty word in our culture. The common phrase, “Don’t judge me!” can be found on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and tattoos. The verse “Judge not lest ye be judged,” is often misquoted to avoid the shame and guilt brought upon by others’ critiques of our lives. “You can’t judge me, only God can judge me.”
But listen to the next phrase Jesus says here, “the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait.”
The people hope in God’s judgment. They wait for his strong hand to bring judgment!
Can you honestly say you hope for God’s judgment? Can you say you are anticipating his judgment, eager for him to come to judge the living and the dead?
To those who are oppressed, those in bondage, the poor and underprivileged, they want judgment. But they call it something else: justice.
But you cannot have justice without judgment.
You see, when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead, he is coming to make all things right, to bring about his salvation, his righteousness, his justice. He is coming to “lay down the law.”
He comes to finally, and definitely, set us free from the enemy – to cast him away, and to destroy the final enemy: Death. Then he will judge all according to their works.
As he says in our reading, heaven and earth will pass away, but his salvation, his righteousness, his justice, will last forever.
So Christian, what are we to do with this message?
Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?
Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
In other words, Peter is saying, “You are the Messiah, the servant of God, his right arm that will bring righteousness, justice, and deliverance.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon… you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church…”
The rock is the proclamation of Jesus as God’s servant who brings about righteousness, justice, and deliverance. He brings it about by building a church – people like you and me who will take up the message of Jesus and go into the world, living righteously, fighting for justice, and setting people free from bondage.
Are you willing to be the arms of Jesus in our world?