(This is part of a sermon that I originally preached at Beautiful Savior in Green Bay, WI for the Festival of the Reformation. The sermon I preached was longer, but this was the best part. I trimmed the fat to give you the meat. Enjoy!)
1 But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. 2 When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. 3 For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. 4 Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life. 5 Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; 6 I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; 7 Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him. (Isa 43:1-7)
Maybe you’ve had a similar conversation to one that I had this past summer. I was doing some canvassing for one of our churches in Milwaukee, and I knocked on the door of a lady who turned out to be Pentecostal. I asked her what her church believed, and she said, “We believe in the Bible.” I said, “Good,” and waited, because everybody has a different idea of what that means. There isn’t a church in town that will admit to not following the Bible, even though a lot of them don’t. Everybody says that. This Pentecostal lady told me her church does, even though her church doesn’t actually teach that. Pentecostals teach that the Holy Spirit comes to people immediately, apart from the Bible, so they ignore the Bible because they don’t need it anyway. The Spirit just speaks right to you. She asked if we believed in the Holy Spirit, and I said that we do. He comes to us and he speaks to us through his Word, the Bible. She asked if we “get the Spirit” during our services, and I said, “Yes, he’s already there because God’s Word and the Sacraments are there. That’s how he works.” She stopped and looked at me evenly for a moment – perhaps deciding if this was going anywhere – and then she said, “Well, I guess we’re about the same then.” And that was that. I walked away thinking, “No we’re not. I believe God speaks through his Word and only through his Word, and you believe he doesn’t. That’s not the same thing.” Do you think I was too hard on her? Or does it matter? Well, yes, it does matter. If you loosen your grip on any part of God’s truth, ultimately you run the risk of losing all of it. God’s promises hold out too much that we need to live, now and forever, for us not to pay attention to the differences between different churches.
Today we’re commemorating the Reformation. It might look like a remembrance of the Reformation is a denominational thing more than anything else, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not just a denominational thing. We celebrate the Reformation because it was the restoration of God’s Word to the highest place in the church, over the words of men, where it belongs. What better way to commemorate the Reformation than by examining some of the promises of our God, celebrating them, and applying them to ourselves? To that end we turn to the book of Isaiah the prophet, chapter 43, and ponder some wonderful promises from our God.
Everything starts with God’s love. God loved us even when we were unlovable. You were born bent, crooked, and warped in his sight – malformed and disfigured by sin. People say there’s no such thing as an ugly baby, but from our first moments of existence we were spiritually ugly – blind, dead, and enemies of God. In your sinful state you moved his heart to pity and he had compassion on you.
God’s solution was to remove our ugliness, our wretchedness, our sinfulness, and it cost him his own Son. Isaiah pictures it for us this way: “I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. 4 Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life.” Hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote these words, God would give Egypt to Cyrus and the Persians as a kind of payment so Cyrus would leave Israel alone in safety. God loved Israel so much that he gave up Egypt to keep Israel. Isaiah’s foretelling that here.
That’s the Bible background, but how does that apply to us? What does God substituting Egypt for Israel have to do with Jesus? Just as God moved the nations around so that Israel would be safe, so God saw such value in you that he surrendered Jesus to get you. He loved you that much that he weighed giving up his only Son into death against gaining you for himself, and he decided that you were worth it. God said, “Yes, I do want him, I do want her, that much. I love them that much that I’ll sacrifice my own Son so that they can be mine.” So Christ came, and he paid the ransom price. He lived a life of sweat and tears and toil, hard work and lack of sleep, and at the end he gave it all up to you. He understood that the price of your redemption was blood, his blood, and without the shedding of his blood there would be no forgiveness. Jesus didn’t blink. He went to the cross and paid the price for you, for me, for each one of us! He bought us back from the clutches of sin, death, and the devil. He rescued us from hell and saved us, so that we might be his own. He was the man God gave in exchange for your life and forgiveness.
God does this for all of his people, all over the world. Isaiah gives us a stirring picture of what that’s like. Listen: “I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; 6 I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; 7 Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him.” God says he’s going to gather all his children together from every corner of the earth. Nobody will be missed or left out. None will be lost whom God wants to gather. He’s going to make good and sure that every last one of his children is present and brought home safely to be with him, where they belong.
That includes us! We’re a part of the children God is calling together. We hear his voice and we listen to him. It includes a whole lot of other people too. People all over the world are being gathered to God’s glory. People throughout India, China, Pakistan; Japan, Indonesia, Southeast Asia; all over Africa and the Middle East; even in Europe, America, and Canada, all the way to our own streets and communities. Truly, only God knows the full number of his children and where they all are. Knock on doors in any given city and you’ll find a lot of apathy and unbelief, but you’d also be surprised by the faith of some of the people you meet – even if they’ve never heard of the Wisconsin Synod.
How does God gather so many different people from so many different cultures? How does he draw them to himself? There is only one way: through the proclamation of his Word. God’s Word rings out clear and strong throughout the world. It’s not always the voice with the loudest volume in the room – the static of modern secular culture and the lies of the devil try to drown it out – but it is persistent, patient, and above all alive. God’s all-powerful Spirit still works faith through it when and where it pleases him. One believer tells a coworker or a family member or a friend or a total stranger about God’s truth and says – just like Isaiah does – “This is what the Lord says”, and God uses the Word that they speak. He smashes pride and humbles sinners and creates faith in the only Savior, God’s Son, Jesus. God’s Word is the way he creates his church, one saved sinner at a time, and the way that he keeps it. Through the preaching and teaching of God’s pure and powerful Word, faith is strengthened, error is defeated, the devil is driven away, and we are saved.
And friends, there is no other way. Nothing else works to gather and preserve the church. No plan or program man can dream up, no excesses of hard work or human emotion, no special secret knowledge or marketing guru’s advice can replace God’s simple, quiet, supremely powerful Word. Nothing and nobody else does what God does through his Word. If we look to anything else to guide us, save us, or help us succeed in this world or the next, we’re going to fail. Soccer camps, coffee shops, early childcare centers, schools, and whatever else people come up with may or may not be good things in and of themselves. They can help put us in touch with people so we can start forming relationships with them. They can help us meet people where they are in their lives, away from the church and away from God. But if we start placing our hope in such things, if we trust in the next program or trend to do the gathering of God’s people, anything besides God’s own Word, we not only are setting ourselves up to fail, we’re also trading away the one thing that does work.
God’s Word alone changes the human heart – period. Every man-made trick and gimmick we try will only make the world despise us more. The world already hates us, because it hates Christ. God takes that hatred away and makes it love for Him through his Word. That’s why being Lutheran is important. The Lutheran church has historically confessed everything God has said, without altering or distorting any of it. Being Lutheran is important not because that’s how we grew up, or because our parents or grandparents were, but because we believe everything God says and we let God say all of it. We don’t muffle or silence any part of what God says – either law or gospel. Our task as Lutherans – as Christians – is to let the whole world hear God’s voice through Scripture. Only to the extent that we boldly and clearly confess everything God says, ignoring any consequences, will we be a part of what Isaiah describes here. The louder and the clearer and the more consistently we proclaim God’s Word, the more God will use us to gather every last one of his elect. So let’s not mute God’s call! When we speak God’s Word, we’re each fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah here. We’re part of God’s gathering all of his children together.
In some places you go on the West Coast, you see tsunami warning signs. You’ll be walking along and there’ll be a sign on a telephone pole, pointing the way to escape should a tsunami come. It’s kind of disconcerting to imagine a huge wall of water chasing you up a hill, but it’s better than being under the wall of water. Or some places have sirens. When the siren goes off, it’s time to head to the hills. Around here we have tornado sirens, and if the siren goes off it’s time to head to the basement. Now what happens if someone defaces the sign or unplugs the siren? A lot of people could die if the warning isn’t broadcast in time. The preaching of God’s Word by the church is like that tsunami sign. It tells people where to go to be safe – to their Savior. It tells them how to avoid eternal death – believe in the name of God’s one and only Son. If our church stops teaching all of God’s Word, that’s turning off the siren. People won’t know where to go in order to be safe eternally – and they won’t know that they don’t know. They won’t know about their errors and how Christ saves them through faith. We are the way the world will know. We are God’s hands reaching out to the world through his Word. Help broadcast his call to faith to the whole world.
You know, one day all these differences won’t matter. There will only be one church, not hundreds – only one church in heaven. The church that confesses Jesus as its Savior and God as its Father. All falsehood will be gone. False teachers will plague us no more. The world will cease to hate us, because they will be judged and gone. We’ll finally all be gathered in – all God’s precious children together in one place. Until then, do not silence the voice of God. Let it ring throughout the world, calling all his children, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the Son of God. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name.” God grant it, for his name’s sake!