Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Homily for Lenten Vespers in the Week of Invocabit, the First Sunday in Lent
John 9:1-7; 2 Corinthians 5:12-19; Isaiah 8:1-10
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus regularly commended those who believed the Word of the Lord without signs, even as He chastened those who demanded signs in order to believe. Nevertheless, the Lord often performed signs before the people, and, in some occasions, God the Father even commanded the faithful to ask for a sign. One such occasion was in Isaiah chapter seven where the LORD commanded King Ahaz to ask for a sign from the LORD to confirm what the LORD had promised in His Word. But, Ahaz refused. Ahaz did not fear, love, and trust in the LORD above all things, and so, even when the LORD commanded him to ask for a sign, he would not. Perhaps he believed that the LORD was trying to trick him? Perhaps he believed that the LORD could not help him? Perhaps he believed that prayers and devotion and the Words of Holy Scripture are useless in the face of real-life trials and tribulations, not to mention the fierce army of the Assyrians? For whatever reason, Ahaz refused to ask the LORD for a sign. Thus, the LORD gave Him a sign of His own choosing, “Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His Name Immanuel,” the sign of the virgin birth of the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The LORD desired to bless Judah and Jerusalem, and still He would; but because of Ahaz’ lack of faith and trust, the blessing would come only after a chastening at the hands of King Rezin and the Assyrian army and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, King of Israel. The LORD said that Ahaz and the people of Judah had refused “the waters of Shiloah which flow gently and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah.” That is a symbolic way of saying that Ahaz and Judah had refused the blessing the LORD desired to give. Because of this, the LORD would still give His blessing, but now it would come following the invasion and devastation of Judah at the hands of the Assyrians and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Nevertheless, the LORD would bless His people, as Isaiah prophesied saying, “Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us.”
“God is with us” is the very meaning of the name of the promised Virgin-born Son, “Immanuel.” God had promised Ahaz and Judah that He was with them. That is why He commanded Ahaz to ask for a sign from Him to confirm His promise. But, Ahaz refused in unbelief and lack of trust. Nevertheless, the LORD would keep His promise, in His own way. He would be Immanuel, “God with us,” even though His people disbelieved and did not trust in Him. Thanks be to God! Yes, thanks be to God, indeed, that God is with us still, despite our unbelief and lack of trust!
We might like to think that we are not like King Ahaz, that we would not refuse a sign from the LORD. And, yet, that is precisely what we do when we fail to make use of His Word and His Sacraments. For, these are miraculous signs from the LORD, every bit as wondrous as the Virgin birth, and yet we often take them lightly, treat them irreverently, or disregard them altogether, just as Ahaz and Judah disregarded the waters of Shiloah. We see these signs, these Sacraments, only according to their outward form: We see a sinful man spouting out lackluster words, ordinary water from the tap, tasteless bread, and cheap wine, even though the LORD has promised in them and through them forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Man looks on the outward form; God looks on the heart.
And so, the disciples saw only a man blind from birth. Thus, they asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But, what does Jesus answer? Jesus looks not upon the wretchedness of man or the uncleanness of sin, but Jesus trusts in the Word of the LORD. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of the God might be displayed in him.” This was, non-coincidentally, the same explanation that the LORD God gave to Job for his sufferings and loss, “… that the righteousness of God might be revealed.” What does this mean? How is the righteousness of God revealed in Job’s suffering and in the blind man’s blindness? Though Jesus does restore to the man his sight, it was not physical, but spiritual light the man truly received. Indeed, following his healing, the man continued to suffer as the Pharisees interrogated him and threw him out of the synagogue. We must not judge by what the eyes see or by what human reason and worldly wisdom determine reasonable and wise, but we must believe and trust in the LORD and His Word. The Word of the LORD alone is the light that scatters the darkness of sin and death, the light over which the darkness has not, and cannot, overcome.
Jesus is the work and righteousness of God. Though He came in an outwardly unimpressive way, as a weak and tiny infant, conceived in a scandalous manner, in humility and lowliness and, perhaps, even poverty, the son of a carpenter from backwater Nazareth, He was the Light and the Life of God breaking into this world of His own creating to heal it, redeem it, renew and restore it. Jesus plunged Himself into the river with sinners so that, as they came up cleansed, renewed, and restored, He came up bearing their sin and uncleanness upon Himself so that He might take it to the cross and there suffer and die, the sinless for the sinful, the clean for the unclean, the righteous for the unrighteous, the Son of God as the Son of Man, that sons of men might become sons of God. He was Immanuel, God with us, in the water. And He is Immanuel, God with us, in the water still. Even as Jesus sent the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam, the same waters of Shiloah refused by Ahaz and Judah, so He sends you to be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, eternal life, and salvation in Him. He offers you, He gives you, He commands you to receive this sign.
The sign and sacrament of Holy Baptism is nothing other than the LORD’s naming you and claiming you as His own child in His Son Jesus Christ. Though, to fleshly eyes and ears, it appears to be but lackluster words and ordinary tap water, to the eyes and ears of faith, “it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, it is a Baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, and thus, it is the entrance into the body of Christ, the Church, and life that never ends.
Indeed, the early Christian Church understood Holy Baptism to bestow five primary gifts: First, baptism cleanses from sin and sickness, washing away both external impurities and internal ones. Second, baptism is an entrance into the Communion of Saints, the Church. In baptism, Christians are “born again” into a new family, the Church, and there are provided with spiritual nurture and support. Third, baptism bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit and His illuminating and sanctifying gifts, giving sight to the spiritually blind. Fourth, in being baptized, the new Christian experiences death to the self and rebirth. Finally, baptism proclaims the eschatological hope we share and confess for restoration in the new creation that will be ushered in when Christ returns.
In refusing the LORD’s command to ask for a sign, King Ahaz did not fear, love, and trust in the LORD above all things. Still, it was, and it is, the LORD’s will to bless His Israel, His Church. He has accomplished this by means of the incarnation, the Word of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, and by fulfilling the Law for us, and by suffering and dying for our sins, and by being raised again to new life and ascending to the Father. Holy Baptism is the sign the LORD has given His Church that He is still Immanuel, God with us – through life, and through death, into life that never ends. Remember your baptism, and return to your baptism in daily repentance, for it is the work of God and the righteousness of God displayed in you to the glory of His Name.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.