Text: Isaiah 35:4-7a
Proper 18, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What do you fear? We know something about feat. When you experience anxiety, your body reacts: you feel the adrenaline release as your heart races, your breathing accelerates, your stomach churns, and your muscles tense. It is a stress response that we call fight or flight. Our Old Testament Reading begins with a command to speak, proclaiming a remedy for fear. So, who needed to hear these words? The prophet says that the message is for “those of an anxious heart.” This message is for those whose hearts are literally racing in fear. We know about fear, so what’s the remedy?
God is speaking to the exiles. God recognised that his exiled people had lost all hope. Israel and Judah ended up trusting in their prosperity instead of in the Lord. They decided to pay the Lord lip service and then worshipped heathen gods. So, the prophets proclaimed the Lord’s judgment and destruction. Israel and Judah went off into exile.
Given that situation, what kind of fears might they have had? They were afraid that God abandoned them to their enemies. That their people, culture, and heritage would be lost. That they would be stuck as slaves in a foreign land forever. Help and encouragement were desperately needed. The Lord wanted them to hear this message: there was no need to fear.
God knows that there will be times in the lives of his children when we will be desperately afraid. What do you fear? Probably for most of us, the answer to that question is some kind of death-oriented fear, such as losing the life of a loved one or having a sickness that will slowly kill us. We are afraid of death and dying. We fear what the future looks like for the Christian Church in Canada. We fear for our kids and grandkids. Or perhaps it’s a financial fear. Or career fear. Or social fear (we all fear loneliness and not belonging). We all have these fears. That’s a normal part of life in a fallen world. From the time when we were children until we grow old, we all have fears. It is natural for us to fear, but it doesn’t have to control our lives. Uncontrolled fear can lead to irrational thinking or behaviours, and worst, spiritual paralysis and death.
It is for just such an occasion that the Lord wants us to hear his message. Who can say that we are not surrounded by many reasons to fear? But we can be strong. There is no need to fear. Do not be afraid! The main point of this text is aimed at the comfort of those in danger of being overwhelmed by the fears and disappointments of earthly existence. Is that you? What are you afraid of? Does that fear interfere with your spiritual life?
God Comes with Vengeance
What words of comfort does our text offer to those who are weak and fearful, whose hearts are racing? “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.” At the centre of the first verse of our text are words we do not like: “vengeance, recompense.” That doesn’t sound terribly comforting, does it? Don’t be afraid. God’s going to come with a vengeance and with terrible recompense. How is that message supposed to comfort those with fear racing through their veins? We tend to associate salvation with God’s grace, and that is always in contrast to God’s vengeance. In the Bible, however, salvation is connected with God’s judgment. The Lord’s surprising mercy and terrifying vengeance come together, and that is not a contradiction.
Instead of being something we should fear, this is a promise that will drive out fear and calm anxious hearts. The point is that God will come. And the promise is that vengeance will come. This is the kind of vengeance that takes account of the wrong suffered by his people. This is a recompense that brings liberation to the oppressed and freedom from awful situations. And we need liberation too, because as our collect said, we experience “the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
This is not about an angry God making sure you get what is coming to you. No, this is what we call “restorative justice.” This is about God coming and acting to set everything right again. Say to the people, God is here and justice is on its way. This is the kind of vengeance mentioned in our Psalm, “God keeps faith forever; [God] executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” The first word of comfort is that God will come to avenge for all the wrongs done to his people by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Since he is a just God, he will be sure that justice is done. He will set it all right again. In the midst of putting it all right again, God assures you that he will not forsake or forget his people.
God Comes to Save
Notice, in our text, that Isaiah doesn’t just end with the Almighty Judge coming to recompense the wicked. He says, “He will come and save you.” (v. 4). The second reason for God coming personally will be to save his people. God himself intervenes. He comes personally to the rescue and acts on our behalf to redeem his distressed people. The people are encouraged to take heart and not to fear. In the Bible people tend to get terribly afraid when the Lord shows up. But God’s coming will not result in the people’s destruction but in their salvation.
At just the right time and in the best way, God would fulfil his promises to his people. Isaiah is addressing the exiled Israelites, so the recompense and vengeance he’s talking about is scheduled for their pagan captors. God himself is coming to return the people from exile. Israel will be released from their bondage. They’ll get to go home! Just like God saved the exiles from what they feared, God will save us from what we fear: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The people have been conquered and brutalised, and their anxious hearts cry out for deliverance. But they do not have the strength to right the wrongs they have suffered or to bring those responsible to account. They are blind, deaf, lame and mute; they have no power to help themselves; only God can save them. God comes to the aid of the blind, deaf, and lame. If the desert was a problem, it would be transformed from an arid, life-threatening place to a fertile, life-supporting place.
This text points out our need for restoration, repair, healing, and transformation. It focuses our attention on the beating, racing hearts of the real people in our churches and communities. It demands that we see what we are running from, what we are scared of, what has immobilised us. We have no power to remove everything that causes us fear; only God can save us. Our reading reminds us about what faith really is. Faith is “a trust in the promise and mercy of God.” At just the right time and in just the right way, God will come and save us. God has seen our weakness and our fear. He has heard our cries and pleas for mercy and saved us. He has gone to great lengths to take us through the waters of our baptism, not to judge us in vengeance but to save us with mercy.
We hear the familiar phrases, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened,” “the ears of the deaf unstopped,” “the lame man shall leap,” and “the tongue of the mute will sing.” We recognise that this is messianic language. The Gospel reading showed the fulfilment of these promises when Jesus healed a man deaf and mute. Those who saw it “were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mk 7:31–37). It was through his ministry and through his death on the cross that he has saved you. By drying on the cross, Jesus has put everything right again. He has defeated everything that you fear: the world, the flesh, the devil, even death itself. That is why Israel didn’t get what was coming to them. And that is how God came and saved you at just the right time and in the best way.
Be strong; do not fear! At the right time and in the best way, God will fulfil his promises. In the meantime he rules in the interest of his people. And just when the timing is precise, God will come and intervene for his people. God will set things right again, but he has already begun to do so with you. He is setting things right little by little. That means God is here right now and is at work in your lives. God is here today, close enough for you to touch and taste. When you face your fears, whatever they may be, God’s word offers strength. Here and through faithful churches everywhere, he releases prisoners from their spiritual exile, opens the eyes of the spiritually blind and the ears of the spiritually deaf so that they might hear the gospel, turn and be forgiven. Fear not. God is here.
And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.