Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)
September 16, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
The Lord God helps Me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set My face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame."
Isaiah 50:7 (ESV)
If you listen or read closely enough, you can pick up on the editorial or personal bias of a person just by the words that he or she chooses to use. For example, you could describe a person who is a bit unusual as being either "unique" or "weird," depending on what you think of that person. A person who won't give up could be described as either "determined" or "stubborn." It's been said that there is a fine line between "bravery" and "stupidity," both of which are often manifested in similar actions. And, after having been in the ministry for over thirty-seven years, I suppose I would have to say that that same fine line often distinguishes "faith" from "superstition." Many "people of faith" see their "faith" vanish as soon as their lot in life isn't quite what they think it ought be, considering their "faithfulness." In frustration and resignation such people conclude: "If that's what my faith has gotten me, I can do just as well without it." That kind of "faith" is really just superstition--a belief that if I say and do all the right things, it will get me what I want.
The passage before us this morning addresses the subject of faith--not the superstition that is often mistaken for faith, but real, genuine faith--unwavering faith. We know that the faith described here is the real thing because in this passage of Isaiah's prophecy it is the Messiah Himself who is speaking. It is He who consistently relies on the Lord's help to protect Him against disgrace and shame. No doubt most people today who are familiar with the story of Jesus would say that He would have to be a fool to say such a thing, since He was spared from neither disgrace nor shame when He suffered and died on the cross. Since we as the baptized are one with our Lord and Savior, let's think about His experience and our own as we examine this prophecy of Scripture.
In the text the Messiah says: "I have not been disgraced" and "I shall not be ashamed." Clearly it seems to us that Jesus the Messiah certainly did experience disgrace and shame at the hands of His enemies when He was arrested, mocked, beaten, crucified, and killed. Crucifixion, in fact, was devised specifically to be as disgraceful and shameful as possible. All of this having been said, even from a human perspective you can nevertheless see a certain majesty in the way Jesus handled Himself (and His enemies) in the Passion story. The enemies of Jesus are the ones who are supposedly in control of the situation and yet they repeatedly lose control during Jesus' trial while their Prisoner maintains a calm demeanor through it all. While they recite an endless litany of one lie after another, Jesus says very little and when He does speak, He quietly and simply speaks the truth. While they breathe curses and threats without cause, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of His murderers. It can easily be seen throughout this drama that, despite their best efforts, the enemies of Jesus were not able to drag Him down to their level. The same kind of grace and dignity in the midst of persecution has also characterized those who have suffered because they belong to Christ through the twenty centuries of Christian history. That kind of grace and dignity in times of trial is possible because those who are united with Christ receive His strength through faith.
But a far more important issue than disgrace and shame before men is the matter of disgrace and shame before God. That disgrace and shame results not in mere hurt feelings or embarrassment, but in eternal damnation. That kind of shame and disgrace is rightfully ours. We have brought it upon ourselves by our sin. Jesus, however, did not deserve it, since He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled the Law of God in every respect. Because He bore the disgrace and shame of the cross in our place, we will never have to experience God's condemnation ourselves. What Jesus accomplished in facing the disgrace and shame of divine judgment and overcoming it is ours through faith in Him. But the disgrace and shame that He suffered for us was also His recognition and glory because in it God was glorified, and the life and ministry of the Son of God was verified in His resurrection from the dead. Because He suffered we are comforted. Because He was mocked we are glorified. Because He died we live.
The Messiah also says in the passage before us: "The Lord God helps Me." These are not the naive ramblings of someone who doesn't have a clue as to the danger that He is heading into. These are the confident words of the One who knows that He came into this world to seek and to save the lost and to share in their misery so that they might share in His glory. But we don't often see it that way because we have a very narrow way of looking at what it means to be helped by God. According to our way of thinking God only helps us when He gives us exactly what we want when and how we want it. We regard anything short of that to be God refusing to help us--and then we cite it as an example of God turning His back on us in our time of greatest need as we try to justify our unbelief. We simply will not entertain the notion that anything other than what we ask for could be divine help.
The fact of the matter is that the Lord does help us, just as He helped His Messiah. But the help that He gives us is what He in His infinite wisdom knows is best for us. While it is true that on the cross Jesus experienced the unique, one-time unspeakable spiritual agony of being forsaken by God Himself, the Lord did that to His Son in order to make it possible for His Son to successfully complete His mission of making atonement for human sin, thereby bringing about, through the shedding of His innocent blood, reconciliation between the perfect God and His sinful creatures. Likewise, the things that God allows to happen in our lives are ultimately for our good, whether it seems that way to us or not. When we refuse to accept God's will in our lives, what we are saying by that is that we think we know better than He does--that He is a loving God to us only if He caters to our desires and conforms His will to ours.
What it all boils down to is faith--a term that is used and misused very often. Contrary to popular belief, faith is not believing that I'm going to get everything that I ask for; faith is believing that what God gives me is what is best for me. That's not such a radical idea. After all, don't we pray in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10) KJV? Just what does that mean? It means that God's will is always good. The goal of praying in faith is not to coerce God into doing what we want Him to do; the goal of praying in faith is to conform our will to His--to give thanks for His caring intervention in our lives no matter what form that intervention might take. It is knowing that the One who has demonstrated His love for us in the cross of His Son is able and willing to give us what we truly need, for His Word assures us: "He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all-, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32).
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.