Sermon on Isaiah 63:16b, 17, 64:1-8
Text: You, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. 17 Why, LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.
64:1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? 6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 7 No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.
8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
A question that can be asked when you want to begin to tell someone about Jesus is this: “If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and he were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you tell him?” It is a question that many people have never thought about. They might pause for a while. Then, they might answer that God will probably let everyone in. They might also answer highlighting the good things that they have done and that they are certainly better than many other people they know. They might also say that they are not sure. How is someone saved? How can anyone be sure? Isaiah asks that same question in verse 5, “HOW THEN CAN WE BE SAVED? In talking to God, we say 1. Your Absolute Power, O Lord, Makes Us Tremble. 2. Your Absolute Justice Makes Us Despair. 3. Your Mercy Alone Gives Us Confidence.
Just prior to our text, Isaiah had prophesied about foreigners invading the land. He spoke about the fact that they would trample the sanctuary of the Lord. In the verses of our text, he is asking for the Lord’s deliverance from their enemies. He wrote, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.” Isaiah is pleading with God that he would use the forces of nature against Israel’s enemies.
He certainly had good reason to make this plea. After all, in the past, God had shown his mighty power against Israel’s enemies. There were the ten plagues that God sent against the Egyptians because they would not let the people of Israel go. We think of how God parted the Red Sea so that Israel might pass safely through it. When the Egyptians pursued them through this opening, God caused the waters of the Red Sea to come back together again, drowning Israel’s enemies. At Jericho, the walls came tumbling down as the people of Israel marched around it. When Canaanite armies were attacking Israel, God sent such a huge hailstorm that killed many enemy warriors. Time and time again God had shown his mighty power through the forces of nature. Israel’s enemies were terrified at the might of God.
We still see God’s power in action in nature. Natural man knows that there is a god from the things that he created. He sees his hand in the intricate details of nature all around him. He knows that a wise being put all of this together. However, no matter how much he might learn about creation, he can never know who the true God is or what he can do to quiet that part of him that knows he is accountable for all that he does. There is a natural unrest about things. Then, he also sees the power that is displayed in nature. He sees the violent storm, as trees and even buildings are uprooted. There are earthquakes that destroy buildings. There is, at times, a loss of lives due to these occurrences. Natural man may seem to be at peace when he is in a place where nature is calm and still. However, when God shows his absolute power in the things he sees around him, he becomes terrified.
Isaiah realizes what the root of the invasions is. It is because the people of Israel had continued to turn their backs on God. He wrote in verses 4-7, “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.” Isaiah notes that, in spite of God’s promises that he will bless those who follow his ways, the people continued to sin against him. He rightly observed the complete despair that falls over someone when they realize that they have dared to disobey God and that they deserve to be punished.
Human beings have a natural knowledge of right and wrong. Even if they have never read one word of the Bible, they still know that there are certain things that you are to do and there are things that you must not do. Their consciences tell them that they have not lived perfectly and they will be accountable for what they have done.
We, too, must make the same confession that Isaiah does in verse 5, “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.” In spite of God’s clear words that he blesses those who obey him and is angry with those who do not, we have to admit, “We continued to sin against them.” We have done exactly what God has told us not to do. We have failed to do what God demands of us. As a result, Isaiah says, “You were angry.” We know that we have dared to offend our holy God. We deserve his anger, both in this lifetime and forever in the punishment of hell.
There is a part of us that thinks we can make it up to God. If we do enough good things, God will be pleased with us. Yet, listen to what Isaiah says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Verse 6) Our righteous acts, those things that we think we can do to make it up to God for what we have done, are filthy rags. Imagine, that you have the opportunity to meet someone famous, someone that you really respect or are a big fan of. You get dressed up in your best clothes. You think that you will make a good impression on them. Then, when you finally meet them, you realize that you spilled something on yourself. There is a great big, ugly stain right there for all to see. Now, think of meeting that person in clothes that you do your chores in. This is not the impression you wanted to give them of yourself. This is what happens when we think that we can meet God, wearing the clothes of our actions. We think that we are doing fairly well, but upon closer inspection we see all of the stains of our sins. We see those times that we have failed to speak well about others, but enjoyed sharing the worst about them. We see the times when we could have helped someone, but we found it just too inconvenient to be bothered at the moment. There are the times when we were smiling to someone’s face, but inwardly we hoped that something bad would happen to them. These are the filthy rags that we would dare to come to God wearing. We are, as Isaiah says, “unclean.” This is more than just being dirty. In the Old Testament, if a person was unclean, they were cut off from the rest of society. They were not able to participate in the worship life of the Jews. They were abhorrent to the Lord. This is what we are because of our sins.
When we come to this realization, we echo the words of verse 6, “We all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” We see that there is no life in us, at all. No matter what we might try or think, we are thoroughly infected with sin. We see that sin is ugly. It is infectious. It taints everything that we do, even the best that we can produce by ourselves. This realization can only lead to despair and destruction. As we see ourselves for whom and what we are by nature, we cry out the words, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Verse 5)
Where can we find any help? We read in verse 8, “Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Did you notice how Isaiah referred to God? He used the term “LORD,” which usually is reserved for God as he is showing his love and mercy. He also refers to God as “our Father.” Both of these terms show a trust that God would forgive their sins and continue to show his love and mercy to his people.
We, also, have the privilege of referring to God in the same way. It is certainly not because of anything that we have done. It is purely because of his love and mercy. In love, he saw that there was no way that we could ever be righteous in his sight on our own. That had to come from outside of us. So, God, in his mercy and love, sent his Son into the world to be our Savior. We are getting ready this Advent season to welcome him as he came as a baby in Bethlehem’s stall. God became flesh so that he might live a perfect life for us. There was never a hint of a stain on sin on him. Jesus took that perfect life and sacrificed on the cross. He exchanged his perfect, spotless life for our filthy, stained ones. Jesus took the punishment that we deserved. He suffered the torments of hell in our place. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, assuring us that, once and for all our sins have been forgiven. God shows himself to be the LORD, the God of mercy and love.
It is through the working of the Holy Spirit that we can address the almighty God as our Father. The day that we were brought to faith, we were adopted into his family. There is a great deal of comfort we can derive from the fact that we call God our Father. Because God is our Father, we know that we will provide everything that we need for this life. Because God is our Father, we know that he will protect us from harm, both physical and spiritual. Even though we may go through some difficulties, we know that our loving Father always does what is best for us. Because God is our Father, we have the confidence that we can come to him in prayer with everything that is on our hearts and in our minds. We know that he will answer every one of our prayers in a way that is the best for us. Because of God’s great mercy and love, we have this confidence.
We also find confidence when Isaiah notes, “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Verse 8) As the potter fashions items out of nothing but worthless clay, as he molds it carefully to fit his own useful purposes, so the Lord has fashioned us into his children. He, also, has not fashioned us as some sort of object that you admire as it sits on the shelf. God has fashioned each one of us and given us the tasks that lie in front of us. He is the one who put us in our various stations in life. We can have this confidence that wherever the Lord has placed us and whatever he gives us to do, this is where God wants us to be. We have this confidence that we are the Lord’s and that he will welcome us home to himself in heaven. We have this confidence because of the Lord’s mercy.
Let’s return to the question that we started our sermon with, “If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and he were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you tell him?”. We see that natural man has no answer to that question. As he looks around at nature, he can see God’s almighty power. Yet, that doesn’t tell him who the true God is. He might think that he can enter into heaven by his own good works. Yet, when the light of God’s law is shone on his life, he realizes that even his best efforts are like filthy rags in God’s sight. This can only lead to despair. We thank God that he has revealed the answer to us in his Word. We can have confidence as we go through each day of our life and confidence at the end of our lives. What is the answer that we could give to the question, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” It is this: Your Son Jesus is my Savior. He lived for me. He died for me. He rose again for me. This is the answer to the question that Isaiah posed in our text, “Who, then, can be saved?” I can be saved and I am saved because of Jesus. This is my confidence. Amen.
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