The First Sunday in Advent, 3 December 2023
A Sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
Isaiah 64:1-9 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.
5 You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Be not so terribly angry, O Lord,
and remember not iniquity forever.
Behold, please look, we are all your people.
HOLY KEYS: MOLDED
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
This saying from our Lord Jesus Christ is the basis for what Martin Luther calls the fourth mark of the true Church: the office of the keys. So, our shorthand for this year’s overarching preaching theme will be Holy Keys. At the heart of the Great Schism between East and West, yes, between Rome and Luther also is a fundamental argument over who holds the keys of the kingdom. Rome in the Western Church says it’s Peter’s successor, Bishop of Rome, from whom all valid sacraments and ministries flow. The Eastern Church claims to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church on earth: that the keys are held in common between all the patriarchs and bishops and not the Bishop of Rome. Luther contends the office of the keys is given to the whole Church on earth and is particularly exercised by those ordained into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
When I was ordained to the holy ministry on May 30, 1981, I was ordained into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church by the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches through an acting bishop surrounded by ten pastors. I was not ordained by Rome or by the East, but I was ordained with the laying on of hands by ordained pastors in the name of the Holy Trinity. At my ordination, I was charged to proclaim Law and Gospel, judgment and grace, the withholding of forgiveness to those who are unrepentant and the mercy of God to those who cry out for mercy. The gift of forgiveness in Jesus’ name may be spoken by any baptized Christian, but a pastor hears both private and public confessions and announces the holy absolution: “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father….”
People ask what the basis is for so shockingly audacious a proclamation as that. Hear, again, the Crucified and Risen Jesus speaking to His disciples on Easter night: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).
Today, the prophet Isaiah declares judgment particularly on Judah after the Babylonian exile. Like any faithful pastor in Christ’s Church, the prophet does not exclude himself from God’s judgment. For no one should ever dare to preach as if he were not under the same judgment as any notorious, unrepentant sinner. So, he says we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds (our good works) are like a polluted garment. We are the walking dead.
Brothers and sisters, we dare not speak of sin as if it were a mere matter of deeds one can and should avoid and, thus, have our own hierarchy of which acts are more aesthetically ugly and despicable while excluding ourselves like that Pharisee who thanked God he was not like others. No, I was born dead in my trespasses. So were you. In the very heart of each one of us is rebellion against God, our Maker and Owner. Oh, how this narcissistic, evil age runs from the truth.
The words from our Lord’s lips are twisted so often, so winsomely, becoming so artfully deceitful, that many define love as acceptance and affirmation rather than as Jesus does by His death for us poor, miserable sinners. As a baby boomer having heard seventy years of lies told by politicians, professors, and performers, and as one who remembers almost every terrible thing I have done and left undone, I have no illusions left about myself… and fewer and fewer about others.
When you hope for God’s vengeance on others, remember you are asking to receive the same. When you listen to the devil’s empty promises including that some are victims without need for repentance and that some are accorded special mercy because of how they see themselves, think again, dear one, think again. You are unclean. I am unclean. We will die because we are sinners.
In the days of Advent, so very like the time of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s pregnancy, we remember that the LORD God did come down, which is not altitudinal but incarnational. The Word of God became flesh in order to live the righteous life, the life of perfect obedience to His Father’s good and gracious will, that no one else can and could live. What Adam and Eve, Noah and his descendants, Abram and Sarai, Moses and Miriam, and all the people of every time and every place could not do, the LORD God in human flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, did for us and our salvation even unto death on a cross. He is the only righteous person; He, the new Adam, offered up His own precious Blood as a sacrifice for my sins, your sins, and the sins of the whole world.
Have you failed? Yes, you have, and probably more when you were least self-aware. Have you feared, loved, and trusted in people, things, and even in yourself more than God? Yes, you have.
Have you made yourself the hero of your story while naming and labeling the villains? Is this not the very essence of the script performed by every narcissistic politician, professor, performer, and preacher who spins such tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
Isaiah shines an unflattering, unrelenting spotlight on God’s people as we are in our rebellion. He calls us to repentance, the word of judgment we must hear every day, not narcissistically wallowing in cries of self-hating guilt and shame… nor manipulative pretending what we do not really think in our heart of hearts. Please. No more justifications for sin, dear ones. Repent. Repent.
And why? And how? Because in every season of failure, whether relapsing in your recovery, or giving in to some gnawing temptation, or by declaring yourself no damned good, beyond hope, trapped like Sisyphus in perpetual futility, there stands the down-to-earth God, the Virgin Mary’s Son, with nail-pierced hands and feet, and riven side, saying to you: “Come. I have died for you. Come. Follow me. Let me have your sin, your shame, your guilt, your death. And I will give you the eternal life I share with my Father and the Holy Spirit. I am righteous. I give you this gift.”
Repentance is not a one-time sinner’s prayer. Repentance is daily dying to yourself with Jesus.
The unfathomable mystery of our Lord Jesus’ incarnation, His becoming flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb, is that He is eternally the One through whom all things were made, even you. His Father had a perfect vision of whom you could be. Like clay on a potter’s wheel, you were formed in your biological mother’s womb with a unique DNA. But because rebellion is so part and parcel of this broken creation from the primeval rebellion at the dawn of time, you could not grow into the Father’s perfect vision. Sin and death were already part of who you are from the moment of your conception. As in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds, an enemy sowed weeds in you. Yes, the devil, the world, and your sinful self have continued to feed the weeds in hopes that the wheat in you will be choked out or ruined. Repent, dear one. Repent.
In Holy Baptism, we are joined to the death and resurrection of God’s Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Just as He is risen from the dead, so in Holy Baptism, we are raised from death to new life that begins there and comes to completion when those who have died trusting in Christ are raised in imperishable bodies, at last, having become the embodiment of the Father’s perfect vision of us.
If you are not baptized, please ask. If you have been baptized with water in the name of the one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but have been away for so long, you can come home. Now, more than ever, the Lord Jesus is saying, “Come. Follow me now no matter where you’ve been.”
I am a work in progress. So are all the baptized people of God. Some days it looks like one step forward and six steps back. Some days, we listen to those to whom we ought never listen. Some days, we take into our soul what we ought never take. If those voices, sadly, are those of people to whom you are related, or voices in your head of those from your fragile past, hear this. The devil is a liar, and he wants to keep you wallowing in guilt, shame, sin, and despair. Tell him to go to hell. And, hear this. Let no one else define who you are except the One who made you and the only one who can remake you. For a skillful plastic surgeon only works on the walking dead.
The baptized repent daily. We confess we are sinners. We come to the altar empty-handed to receive the eternal life and love of the one true God who has promised to make all things new.
So, hear also this, because the baptized life is not easy. Our Lord Jesus warns: “You will be hated by everyone because of My name, but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). You will be called haters when you dare to speak the truth like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale who refused to join with the fawning crowds as the ohed and ahed over the emperor’s new clothes. He simply said what was obvious: the emperor was naked. You will be hated for saying the Lord God created us only male and female. You will be hated for saying a man shall leave his father and mother and the woman her home and the two become one flesh. You will be hated for saying the Lord God hates nothing He has made, which includes every life from conception to natural death. You will be hated for trusting Jesus for salvation.
The Lord says, “Come. Follow me. Come. Go with me.” He alone can bring you to eternal life.
So, then, pray with me. Lead me, Lord. And have thine own way. Thou are the Potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will while I am waiting, yielded and still. Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
Holy Keys: Molded
Stir up your power, O Lord, and come; that by your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your mighty deliverance; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 92).
Isaiah 64:1 “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down….”
Eusebius of Caesarea [4th century Bishop of Caesarea, Israel]: “But it seems that the Christ of God is praised through these things, he who talked with Moses in the desert and was made visible to all people through his glory appearing to all, about which we said, ‘we have beheld his glory’” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah40-66, 259).
Isaiah 64:6 “We have all…like one…unclean… our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
St. John Cassian [Late 4th – early 5th century monk and theologian]: “Finally, just as our goodness with regard to the goodness above becomes like evil, so our righteousness compared with divine righteousness is like menstrual rags… For although there is much of good works of the saints, nevertheless, they are preoccupied with earthly endeavor and this holds them back and stops them from the contemplation of that higher good” (262).
Isaiah 64:7 “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you;”
St. Ephrem [4th century Syriac hymn writer and monk]: “Since they worshiped the idols, they did not remember your name… They certainly put all their faith in the idols” (262)
Isaiah 64:8 “… we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: “Father is not so much a term of endearment, as it was a word of authority and ownership… The covenant community was helpless before God as Father like clay in the hands of a potter. The prophet interceded for the people for forgiveness so that God’s faithfulness might be revealed again in a restored Jerusalem” (872).
Isaiah 64:9 “Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever.”
St. Cyril [Early 5th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt]: “Since they had come to this situation through their many sins, they wove their prayers with great skill… They ask him as the creator of his own work to be reasonable and sparing with those who were brought into being and life by him.” (262).
- Do I understand that confession really is good for the soul… especially private confession?
- Do I doubt that the Lord has given the holy keys of the Kingdom to His Church on earth?
THE LORD’S PRAYER (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.
Our Father who art in heaven.
What does this mean?
With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
- Pray for every unbaptized child and adult you know and for the child’s parents, too.
- Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends, especially that they would accept an invitation to join you for Christmas Eve worship. Invite one or more of them to worship.
- Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how approaching God the Father as one would approach a dear father (whether one had one or not) changes the tone of prayer.
- Consult Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 186, for the daily lessons for the Week of Advent 1 (Year Two) and read them daily before offering your prayers on behalf of your family, the world, our nation, our state, and our local communities.
- Reflect on the speed and manner in which you typically pray the Lord’s Prayer. Now, slow it down and carefully say each petition thoughtfully. Meditate daily on this week’s introduction.”
- Worship every Wednesday and weekend at St. Matthew’s during this Advent season.
- If you are not baptized or not a confirmed adult Lutheran, sign up for the next New Disciples Class on Saturday, January 20, from 9 a.m. to noon.
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”