Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Law in the Text
Time and time again, Israel has failed God. Isaiah makes this plain when he begins his prophecy in chapter one. He begins his proclamation like a court case. He calls forth all creation as witness against Israel as he begins God’s indictment against them, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against Me'” [1:2]. The evidence against them speaks plainly of their guilt. They are a “‘sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, people who deal corruptly! They have forsaken yahweh, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged'” [1:4].
Israel has gone after the false gods of the nations that surround them, they oppress orphans and widows [1:23], and they oppress the poor [10:2]. Yahweh has given them opportunity after opportunity to repent. For thousands of years, Israel has been in this vicious cycle of repenting, living holy lives, and then forsaking Yahweh. And now, God’s patience has finally run out. Through Isaiah, He warns Israel of their coming judgement. Because they have forsaken God for the false gods of the eastern nations [2:6], He warns them, “Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of Yahweh, and from the splendour of His majesty” [2:10].
He warns Israel to hide from His wrath, although He knows it is pointless for them to do so. Yahweh has appointed a day to debase the proud [2:11-12] and to bring collapse upon Israel’s economy [2:13-16; 3:1-4]. This day is their Day of Judgement [3:13-14]. Like a vinedresser who looks to his vineyard to find good fruit and instead finds thorns and thistles, so Yahweh has looked to His vineyard, Israel, and instead of finding faithfulness and justice He has found apostasy, bloodshed, and oppression [5:1-7]. He is bringing His people into exile [5:12-13], and Babylon would be the instrument by which God would do this [13:1].
Gospel in the Text
Isaiah’s sermons are not like our usual sermons. Your pastors are trained to break you down with the Law and then to bring you up with the Gospel—to kill and make alive. But Isaiah’s sermons don’t follow this typical paradigm of Law & Gospel. Instead, he switches between them repeatedly. As noted, he begins his prophecy with Yahweh’s indictment against Israel. But during this Law, Yahweh speaks the Gospel through Isaiah, “‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool'” [1:18]. But then Isaiah continues with Yahweh’s indictment against their unfaithfulness [1:21-25], and then he suddenly switches to the Gospel again that Zion shall be redeemed [1:26-27]. Isaiah repeats this patter over and over again, including the promise of the Messiah, “For to us a child is born” [9:6-7], then speaking of more judgement afterwards, and over and over again until we get to our pericope for today, chapter 12, which is a Gospel hymn of salvation.
This hymn follows on the heels of chapter 11, which might seem like a contradiction. In 10[:4], Isaiah preaches, “Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain. For all this His anger has not turned away, and His hand is stretched out still.” But then he composes this hymn that begins, “I will give thanks to You, O Yahweh, for though You were angry with me, Your anger turned away, that You might comfort me” [12:1]. This hymn is in response to chapter 11 where Yahweh promises the Messianic age when a new and greater David out of Jesse will come and receive the sevenfold gift of the Spirit [11:1-2], will rule with righteousness [11:4-5], and will inaugurate the age of eternal peace when the wolf lies down with the lamb [11:6-7]. Isaiah then composes this hymn they will sing on that day, which he often does in his sermons. As Rev. Dr. Raabe once said, Isaiah “likes to write the hymnal of the future.” In their future anticipation of salvation, he wants God’s people to sing this song right now.
In this hymn, God’s people maintain the tension between their judgement and God’s salvation. We prefer to get rid of the tension. How can we sing of God’s praises when we suffer evil or punishment for our sin? Isaiah offers no rational explanation to this question. Rather, he encourages God’s people to sing His praises and brings the congregation into a mini narrative. God’s people recall a time when they were in dire straits and God intervened and saved them. They sing: He is the God of my salvation. Even though I may experience His alien work, it is only temporary; I therefore trust in the God of my salvation anyway. I used to be under His wrath, but now He has become my salvation. He is not only my Saviour but also the only one in whom I am safe from His wrath.
God’s people experience both God’s alien and proper work at the same time. What do these terms mean? With some help from Dr. Raabe’s scholarship, in Isaiah God’s “alien or strange work is to destroy the wicked, to debase the proud, and to defeat the tyranny of Assyria and Babylon. His proper work includes the restoration of Israel in Zion. Yet His proper work reaches beyond Israel to encompass the foreign nations. They, too, will look to Yahweh and come to Zion. They, too, will enjoy the protection of Israel’s Messiah… In order to change things, God first must bring judgement on the nations. Yet this is not the ultimate goal but only a means to an end. God’s alien work serves His proper work. The destruction of the sinful old age will clear the way for the holy new age” [Raabe, 339-340]. In short, God’s alien work is to destroy the wicked and debase the proud, which God’s people may at times experience themselves. This serves His proper work of saving His people from evil.
God’s proper work is what Isaiah encourages God’s people to sing. They sing of their trust in God, who is their salvation, even though they experience His alien work of destroying evil, even their own evil. This is the first part of the hymn. The second part is evangelical. The hymn brings God’s people to give thanks to God, to call upon His name, and to make Him and His deeds known among all the peoples of the earth. They sing praises about who God is and what He has done throughout all the earth. God’s people evangelise the nations by singing about who He is. And who He is is a God who destroys sin and evil to bring about His gracious and glorious work of salvation, which is promised in the Messiah.
Law in the World
Isaiah’s words of Law and Gospel still speak to us today. First, as we consider the Law, what are the sins, false gods, and prideful things that are prevalent in our day? In last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, we read from Ezekiel 33 where God instilled within His servant his duty as watchman over Israel to warn wicked people to repent of their evil, lest they die. Some of these evil people included the Israelites themselves. All of God’s prophets were called to do this and all pastors today are called to condemn sin and evil as well, even when our culture calls such evil “good.” All Christians are also called to denounce such evil and to defend their pastors who do so.
I don’t think I have to go into much detail about what sins in our culture will undergo God’s judgement, such as abortion and LGBT issues. For most of us, these sins are obvious enough. But because Isaiah’s indictments were against Israel and not against the world (at least not yet), let us look at ourselves first. Let us first pluck out the log from our own eye. What false gods and pride might you have in your life?
To begin, there is the god of Athletica. For many people, sports are more important than the Word of God. Parents will sooner catechise their children in what sports to play and what teams to root for than they would catechise their children in the Word of God and who they are in Jesus. They learn fight songs before they learn hymns of Christ. Parents teach their children that church and faith are secondary and then wonder why they leave the pews after high school. It’s not that we cannot enjoy sports; I’m a Red Wings and Tigers fan myself. But where is your fear, love, and trust? That is, who is your God? We show who our God really is with whatever we love and trust in the most, which is revealed in how we spend our time and money.
Politics is another false god we will worship. “You can’t be Christian if you’re a Democrat/Republican,” we say. Nonsense! Last I checked, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are what make you a Christian, not your political party. The Word & Sacraments are what deliver to you forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, not the liturgy of your favourite political pundits and agendas. We sing the political hymn, “God Bless America,” not realising what we are asking for—that for God to bless America, it may very well mean that we have to experience His alien work of judging the evil in our nation in order to bring about His proper work of salvation and the new, holy age to come in Christ.
Perhaps one final false god worth mentioning is ourselves. We convince ourselves that we have done enough good in the world to deserve entry into Heaven. When God’s Word says something we don’t like, we fool ourselves that we know better than the eternal God. His Word is “archaic and outdated,” and in our youthful arrogance we think we’re smarter than Him and so change His Word to justify living in our favourite sins, not realising we are bringing a curse upon ourselves [Rev. 22:18-19]. Whether that be justifying abortion or sexual immorality or unjust war, we treat God’s Word like a bag of Trail Mix and throw out the parts we don’t like and keep the rest to meet our selfish ends until we finally throw out God’s Word entirely.
Why are we surprised, then, that God judges our nation with plague and chaos? Why are we surprised that war erupts after war? We deserve it! In the words of the Book of Judges, we forsake God for doing what is right in our own eyes—sports over God’s Word and catechising our children, politics over Christ, ourselves over God and neighbour, and so on.
Gospel in the World
But despite all this, we sing a hymn. We sing a different tune than our culture and what we would rather sing. For us Christians, this hymn that Isaiah composed concerns the past and the future. God was indeed angry with us, but He turned His anger away from us and it fell upon Christ on the cross. Jesus is the God of our salvation. He is not only our Saviour who has saved us by His innocent death, but He is also the only one in whom we are safe from God’s wrath. Therefore, whatever false gods and pride we may have, we cast them aside and seek refuge in the cross of Christ. There, God’s anger turns away from us and we receive His mercy.
And this hymn concerns the future. When God judges with pestilence, chaos, and war, we sing, “I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation” [Is. 12:2]. We look to the Messiah’s promise to come again and usher in the new holy age when He destroys sin and evil and brings His people into His salvation. This is the hymn of joy we sing in the midst of trouble and despair.
Therefore, Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” [12:4]. This saying was a mystery to Israel at the time, but it was later revealed in Jesus the Messiah. With the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John 4:14]. Jesus also said a little later, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,'” and St. John explains, “Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive” [John 7:37-39]. Much later, Isaiah will prophesy this outpouring of the Spirit in 44[:3] where Yahweh says, “‘For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit upon your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants.'”
Isaiah and Jesus are speaking about Baptism. Jesus is the water of eternal life. Whoever believes in Him, out of their heart “will flow rivers of living water,” which is the salvation that we call eternal life. In Baptism, He has poured His Holy Spirit upon you, welling up your heart with rivers of eternal life, the same River of Life that will flow in the New Jerusalem [Rev. 22:1-5]. We therefore sing the joy of God’s salvation—that through water and the Word He has made His enemies become His dear children, which we sing and proclaim to the whole world.
Our hymns, therefore, are songs of evangelism—we proclaim God’s name and speak of His salvation to all peoples. Today’s pagans complain, “Stop shoving your religion down my throat,” but we keep singing, “Give thanks to the LORD, call upon His name, make known His deeds among the peoples, proclaim that His name is exalted! Sing praises to the LORD, for He has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth” [Is. 12:4-5]! Such hymns include our sermon hymn, “God so loved the world so that He gave / His only Son the lost to save, / That all who would in Him believe, / Should everlasting life receive” [stz. 1].
This hymn echoes Isaiah’s composition, which is placed alongside the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” [Luke 15:24]. Isaiah’s hymn, and all the hymns we sing, are songs that such lost and dead people sing. We were lost, but Jesus sought us out to save us; and being in the perfect image of the Father [Heb. 1:3], He ran to us with eager arms to welcome us as God’s sons and daughters. And we were dead, but Jesus has made us alive in the life-giving springs of Baptism.
We therefore sing of this joy, like in our first Communion hymn, “O Thou who, when we loved Thee not, / Didst love and save us all, / Thou great Good Shepherd of mankind, / O hear us when we call… / Then shall our song united rise / To Thine eternal throne, / Where with the Father evermore / And Spirit Thou art one” [LSB #569 In Adam We Have All Been One, stzs. 4, 6]. God’s anger burnt against Israel, but they were brought to sing of God’s relenting anger. God’s anger burnt against us, but He relented when it fell upon Jesus on the cross. In the words of this hymn, when we did not love God, still He loved us and chose to save us, and for this we sing hymns of thanksgiving and praise, which He listens with gladdened ears upon His holy throne.
We sing such hymns in our churches, in our cars, classrooms, workstations—every place we find ourselves so that His name may be known in all the earth, and that all may know He is the God of salvation who turns His anger away from those who trust in Jesus Christ, the one who pours out His Spirit upon us in the life-giving springs of Baptism. We will sing of this joy in our second Communion hymn, “Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, / Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve; / Because Thy promise I believe, / O Lamb of God, I come, I come” [LSB #570 Just as I Am, without One Plea, stz. 5]. This is a hymn for all lost and dead people to sing, that in Baptism, “God receives me just as I am to welcome, pardon, cleanse, and relieve, because of His promise.” May we sing such hymns to echo across the nations—to the lost and the spiritually dead—until the Christ returns, to whom be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Raabe, Paul. “Look to the Holy One of Israel, All You Nations: The Oracles about the Nations Still Speak Today.” Concordia Journal 30, no 4 (Oct 2004): 286-420.