If you go to northern Lebanon today, you can visit the Cedars of God. At this site in the mountains of Lebanon there is a preserved cedar forest. This forest is almost all that remains of the cedar trees that used to cover Lebanon.
For a several millennia cedar forests of Lebanon were used by the peoples of the Near Eastern world as a source of lumber. The Phoenicians, the Israelites, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Turks and during World War I even the British all used the cedars of Lebanon as a source of wood for construction in an area of the world that has very little lumber suitable for that purpose. With good reason Lebanon’s flag has a cedar tree on it.
However, several thousand years of use have stripped most of the cedar trees from Lebanon. The Cedars of God is one of the last places where you can see what Lebanon looked like in the time of Isaiah during the eighth century B.C. In Isaiah’s day Lebanon was covered with cedar trees. The forests of Lebanon were considered to be mighty and impressive.
That situation is what Isaiah is talking about in our Old Testament lesson today when he says, “Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest?” Isaiah describes a great reversal. He says that Lebanon will be turned into farmland. In Isaiah’s day, the amount of work that would take was unimaginable. And at the same time, Isaiah says that farmland will be regarded as a forest. This too was a change that was difficult to fathom.
This great change – this great reversal – was something that was going to happen. But first Jerusalem and Judah were going to be punished. In this chapter, Isaiah explains part of the reason. He says, “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”
The nation was going through the motions of worship at the temple. Sacrifices were being offered. But their hearts were far from God. They were worshipping other gods as well. They were not living according to the Torah that God had given to the nation through Moses, as they oppressed the poor and vulnerable.
Beyond that, the people thought they had it all figured out. In the verse just before our text Yahweh said through the prophet, “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, "He did not make me"; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, "He has no understanding"?
You are here at the Divine Service this morning – and that is great. But it doesn’t mean you have escaped Isaiah’s words. Sure you draw near with your mouth and honor him with your lips, but is your heart are far from him? When you leave this building does your faith show through in your life? Do you live in ways that show God has saved you and made you his child?
And are you buying into what the world is selling? Are you embracing a world view that says there is no ordering to the world – that there is only what we decide it will be? Because of course the world looks at God’s revelation and says, “He has no understanding.” Are you accepting the idea that marriage is whatever we want it to be – two men; two woman; more than two people, whatever? Are you accepting the idea that God’s gift of sexuality can be used in any way we want – sex as part of dating; couples living together outside of marriage? Are you allowing your children’s behavior to erode your adherence to God’s will as you accept their sin?
At the beginning of the chapter Yahweh addressed Jerusalem. He said punishment for their sin was coming. He told them, “And I will encamp against you all around, and will besiege you with towers and I will raise siegeworks against you.” Sure enough in 701 BC the Assyrian army conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. And then it kept rolling south into Judah as it took on fortified position after another. Finally, it laid siege to Jerusalem. The Assyrian leaders stood outside the besieged city and mocked Yahweh the God of Israel. None of the gods of all the other peoples they had conquered had stopped the Assyrians, and Yahweh would be no different.
Yet earlier in this chapter, Yahweh had said, “And in an instant, suddenly, you will be visited by the LORD of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her, shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.”
God promised to act and make the enemy disappear – like something that turns out to be only a dream when a person wakes up. This is the great reversal he describes in our text – Lebanon turned into farmland, and farmland considered to be a forest. Or as Isaiah goes on to say, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off.”
And God did it. He sent forth the angel of the Lord who killed 185,000 of the Assyrian soldiers in one night. The Assyrian army had to withdraw and Jerusalem was delivered. It was something the people continued to remember.
This dramatic saving action is described in poetic language in our text – hyperbole to be sure. We are told, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.” But this saving action by God for his people pointed forward to something even greater.
God acted in an unexpected way to save Jerusalem from a besieging army. He sent the angel of the Lord to rescue them. But in order to rescue us when we were besieged by sin, death and the devil he did not send an angel. Instead, he sent his own Son.
In the incarnation, the Son of God – the second person of the Trinity – entered our world and became flesh as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He began his ministry by saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Jesus Christ announced that in his person the kingdom of God – the reign of God – had broken into this fallen world in order to reclaim it for God. He had come to free people from all of the ways that sin had besieged lives. In his case it was not hyperbole. He actually healed people. He gave hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind. In so doing he demonstrated that the end time salvation of God was present.
And then in order to free us forever from sin, he took our sin upon himself and died on the cross. He received God’s judgment against our sin in order to allow us to be judged by God as righteous. He suffered death, so that by passing through death and out of the tomb on Easter morning he could free us from death’s grasp. Because Jesus rose from the dead, your body may be placed in a grave. But death cannot separate you from the risen Lord. And that grave will be just a temporary resting place for your body. For on the Last Day the ascended Christ will return and will give you and your body a share in his resurrection. His resurrection is the first fruits – the first part of the final victory that will be yours.
In our text Isaiah says, “Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.” We look upon what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and stand in awe of God. We stand in awe as the incarnate Lord Jesus continues to be bodily present with us in the Sacrament of the Altar to give us forgiveness and strengthen our faith.
And because God has done this for us in Christ we now sanctify his name. This is the very thing Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be thy name.” God’s name is holy in itself, but as those who bear his name – as those baptized into the triune name of God – we seek to keep his name holy among us also. We do this as the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it.
In word and deed we seek to hallow God’s name because he has already made us holy. In baptism we have been clothed with Christ. God sees not our sin but instead Jesus. As those in Christ we are holy in God’s eyes. We are saints. And now by the work of the Spirit who sanctified us by giving us faith in Jesus Christ, we seek to sanctify his name – to hallow it in what we say and do. We seek to live in faith toward God and love toward our neighbor.
This is only possible because of him who caused the deaf to hear the words of a book and rescued the eyes of the blind out of gloom and darkness by giving them sight. It is only possible because the One who was crucified burst out of the gloom and darkness of the tomb. Because of Jesus Christ the risen Lord we are holy in God’s eyes and through the work of the Spirit we now seek to sanctify his name.
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