Almost everything that I have done and sought to accomplish here at Good Shepherd as pastor has been built upon a foundation that was already in place. Many of these things would not have been possible – or at least not possible as easily and as quickly as they were done – without the foundation that was laid by Pastor Schmidt’s sixteen years of ministry that proceeded my time as pastor here.
I am thankful that on several occasions before he “died to the Lord” as pastor liked to say using the words of Romans chapter 14, I was able to say this to him and express my deep appreciation for what he had done here and the way it has been a great blessing for my work. And in the same way, Pastor Schmidt shared how gratifying it was to see that his work was not only being retained, but advanced in ways that pleased him greatly. He shared with me that when he talked to other retired pastors they often lamented about how successors had destroyed much of the practice that had been established – often by throwing away the liturgy and hymnody of the Lutheran church for other forms of worship. Yet in those conversations he was able to say that not only had his successor kept what Pastor Schmidt had been doing, he was even doing more with it.
No place can this been seen more clearly than in Catechesis at Good Shepherd. Because of Pastor Schmidt I found that woven into the congregation was the expectation that parents would attend with their youth on Wednesday night for a catechetical time called “Learn by Heart.” This was just how things worked, and no one questioned it. A component of Learn by Heart was that every week those present spoke the six foundational texts of the Catechism.
In 2006 the new hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, came out. Included in it was a Service of Prayer and Preaching that was intended for use in catechesis. This was an improvement on what we had been doing. And so, for the last decade or so, we have used this at Learn by Heart, and also for the Catechumenate.
During those ten years, many of you have used this service. And because of this, your mind may have been filling in music in the background as you heard our Old Testament lesson read. I know that I can hardly read it without thinking of the music. The text of Isaiah 12 is the Old Testament canticle at the beginning of that service, and after singing it almost every week during nine months in catechesis year after year it is firmly imprinted in the mind.
Isaiah chapter 12 is a song of praise and thanksgiving to Yahweh. But it immediately makes clear that things had not always been so good. The prophet writes, “You will say in that day: "I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.”
Right from the start in the first chapter, Isaiah had spoken about the people’s sin. He wrote, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’” He went on to add: “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.”
The people were guilty of idolatry as they worshipped the false gods of the surrounding peoples. They were going through the motions of offering sacrifices at the temple, but their heart was not in it. And so in chapter five Yahweh said, “They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. Therefore my people go into exile for lack of knowledge; their honored men go hungry, and their multitude is parched with thirst.”
The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and the people were taken in to exile. The southern kingdom of Judah suffered terribly as its fortified cities were taken one by one. Finally, the Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem. Only the miraculous intervention of Yahweh saved them. But they didn’t learn. They continued in the same sinful ways, and later in this prophecy Isaiah speaks about the exile the will happen to Judah.
The root problem in Israel and Judah was idolatry. They worshipped false gods and violated the covenant God had made with them. In doing so, they also ignored God’s Torah which described how they were to treat the weak and helpless.
Idolatry – the breaking of the First Commandment – continues to be our root problem as well. We of course do not worship Baal or Asherah. But recently God has exposed some of our false gods in very painful ways. The pandemic has cancelled every kind of sport activity. The result has been a huge hole in the lives of many people. Our big fear now is whether college football and the NFL season will be cancelled. The amount of time, energy and attention we have directed towards sports – now made impossible – reveals the status of a false god it often holds.
Or in the same way, the pandemic has seen the stock market tank, damaging investments. We cringe when we look at the numbers. People have lost jobs or seen income cut. We feel secure and confident when the financial numbers are good. We feel nervous and vulnerable when they are not. And the thing that gives you a sense of security and well being is a god.
Like Israel and Judah, God takes away our false gods. He breaks them – and sometimes us – in order to reveal our sin. He does this to reveal our need for him. That’s what Yahweh did to his people. Through defeat and exile he stripped them of everything in order to lead them to repentance.
God takes away our false gods and leads us to repentance because he wants to forgive. Already in the first chapter he said, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
Yahweh promised a return from exile for his people. And this act of deliverance would point forward to something even bigger. Already in the chapters leading up to our text, Yahweh has spoken about what he is doing to do through the Messiah – the descendant of David. He spoke of how a virgin would conceive and bear and son. He said of this son, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In the previous chapter he had just said of this descendant of David: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”
And so in our text, which brings this first section of Isaiah to a close, the prophet writes: “You will say in that day: "I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” What is “that day”? Well, it was deliverance from the Assyrians for Judah. It was the Edict of Cyrus in 538 B.C. that allowed Judah to return from exile. Yet each of those pointed forward to what the virgin born son, the child, the root of Jesse would do.
That day is the day of salvation that has arrived for us because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s anger has turned away. It has because he unleashed all of it against his Son on the cross. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
But then on Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead. He vindicated Christ as the Servant of the Lord who had been faithful unto death, by making him the firstborn of the dead. In our Lord Jesus, God has defeated death and begun the resurrection that will be ours. We now live as those who are forgiven and have in Jesus the living hope of the resurrection.
And so with Isaiah we say, “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” God is our salvation. Because of him – because of what he has done in Jesus Christ – we can trust and not be afraid. We can trust in the midst of a pandemic with all its disruption and uncertainty. We can know that there is no reason to be afraid because God loves us and death itself has been defeated. Covid-19 is powerless against the risen Lord. It cannot win because Jesus has risen from the dead and has already won.
And so with joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. In the water of Holy Baptism we have shared in Jesus’ saving death and so are forgiven. And because of baptism we know that we will also share in his resurrection. As St Paul told the Romans about baptism, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We turn in faith to the blessing that God has given us in our baptism, and there we find a source of comfort and joy.
Indeed, Isaiah’s words are true for us as he says, “And you will say in that day: ‘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.’” We give thanks to the Lord and sing his praises. And we make known his deeds among the peoples. We tell others about what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In a world paralyzed by fear that they will come into contact with a virus that will kill them, we declare that for us who are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, the virus is a defeated enemy because death has been defeated by Christ. We have no need for fear.
We can say on this day, “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” We can sing on this day, “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” And because the risen and ascended Lord will return in glory to raise us from the dead for eternal life in the new creation, we will be able to say on that day: “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”