A sermon based on Isaiah 41:14-16
Sunday, February 14, 2016 – Lent 1C
If you could become any animal in the world, which one would you choose? Maybe, like Isaiah, you would soar on wings like an eagle. Or, like Amos, you'd love the lion with the strength and beauty of the king of the jungle. Or maybe, like Elisha, you boast in the bear maiming and mauling any obstacle in your path.
But how many of you would choose to become… a worm? How about a maggot? A leech? No? No takers? I don't blame you. Worms have no arms, no legs, and no eyes! They're small and overlooked and seem to have no personality.
People will pull over to the side of the road to take a picture of a bear, a caribou, or a moose, but no one ever stops their car and says, "Hey everyone, look at that worm!" Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals never have a "Save the Worms" campaign picketing against the senseless skewing of the poor animals before we feed them to the fish!
Can you imagine the worm being any team's mascot—the Louisville Leaches, the Michigan Maggots, or the Washington Worms? I don't think so.
Yet, our text for this morning calls God's people a worm or a maggot. In a sense, God's Word calls us worms or maggots. He tells us, "Listen up, you maggots!" like the drill sergeant humbling the new recruits and putting them in their proper place. But he tells us "Listen up, you maggots!" as he comforts us lowly sinners, "Do not be afraid, O worm." And he reminds us of his grace.
Our text for this morning is from Isaiah 41:14-16…
14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you," declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. 15 "See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. 16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away. But you will rejoice in the Lord and glory in the Holy One of Israel.
Why does God call the exilic community in Babylon a worm? Didn't he understand that calling someone a worm isn't the way to win friends? It won't boost their self-esteem. It won't encourage people to get up and get going if you call them lowly worms.
But God used the picture of a worm to describe the situation they were in. They were exiled in Babylon, living under the boot of their captors. They were weak and weary. They were deaf and blind. They were childless, widowed, and divorced. And this was all because of their sin. They were stubborn rebels from birth. So God called them what they were: Worms. Maggots.
It was because of their sin that they deserved to be treated by God with such disrespect. They were nothing but maggots because of their sin, and fit only to become worm food. And they knew it.
Now, what should we think of ourselves when we are captive, not to Babylonians, but to sin? What should we think when we are so far away, not from Israel, but from God? When we don't "act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8)? When we feel no compassion for the lost and take no delight in the Word, neglect prayer, harbor lustful thoughts, and pant for the praises of people? What are we when we're deceptive, mean-spirited, petty, and vindictive? Well, we're not bears… or eagles… or lions. Listen up, you maggots, that's all we are. We're worms.
And you know what we deserve for our sin. We deserve the threshing sledge—a big, heavy board with sharp teeth covering the bottom. It was used to break the grain apart to separate the wheat from the chaff. But it was also used to execute enemies in a war. The threshing sledge would be run across their backs. As lowly worms in the dirt, we deserve to have the threshing sledge run over us. And we deserve worse. We maggots deserve to join the rotting carcasses in the garbage heap of hell.
"Whoa there, Pastor!" you might object, "Don't you understand that calling us maggots and worms isn't the way to win our friendship? Don't you get that telling us we deserve threshing sledges and hell won't boost our self-esteem? Don't you get that it won't encourage us to get up and get going if you call us lowly worms?"
Well, that doesn't matter. Because thinking highly of ourselves has nothing to do with God's Word. Rather he wants us to own up to who we are without him. He want us to cry out with Isaiah, "I am a man of unclean lips"; with Job, "I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes"; and with Paul, "What a wretched man I am, who will deliver me from this body of death!?"
This is what the season of Lent is all about. It's acknowledging who we are in God's sight by our sin—disgusting maggots, dirty worms, who are unclean in thought, word, and deed. Lent is when we confess these sins, grieve over them, and repent before God. You see, its' only worms who are lying in the dirt, wriggling around in the mud, that cry out to be picked up and lifted out of it!
And when we do humble ourselves—literally get low to the humus or dirt—admitting to be the maggots that we are, then God has a word of comfort for us. So listen up, you maggots! Hear the Word of the Lord in Isaiah 41:14, "'Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,' declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel."
The Lord is not some football coach trying to rally his team to "win one for the Gipper." Nor is He some talk-show host who wants us to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Our God is not some sentimental grandpa who helps those who help themselves. No. He is "your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel."
The word "redeemer" appears here in Isaiah 40–55 for the first time and will come eighteen more times in this section. A redeemer is your next-of-kin-relative who buys back your inheritance, frees you from slavery, and pays off your debt. Whatever has gone bad, your redeemer will make good.
So how did God redeem us? How did he help us? By becoming a worm like us! Would anyone here seriously volunteer to become a maggot? Would you take on the flesh of a leech to save other leeches? Yet, in the fullness of time, God humbled himself. He came low to the dirt—to this earth. He became our next-of-kin-relative, literally!—taking on human flesh. And the gap between God and human is much greater than the gap between us and a leech!
And as "the Holy One of Israel" he lived a perfectly sinless life. He was not a maggot because of his sin, but because of ours. He never got dirty with pride or greed or lust. He always loved, always served, always did what was right—for us.
And then He took another step. He became dirty, despised, and dismissed. And then he took another step. He was tortured, not with a threshing sledge, but with a scourge. And then he took another step. And he went to the cross.
And there, from that cross, he quoted Psalm 22:1 when he cried, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?" And knowing Psalm 22 is Messianic then, we can't help but think of Psalm 22:6, "I am a worm and not a man." Here is Jesus, the God
Now listen up, you maggots! He did it all for you! He did it to take your sin away. And it's gone! He did it to lift you up out of the dirt and the mud. And he has! And by the power of his Word, he's made you into something new: "See, I am making you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. You shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them."
Leeches are lifted up! Worms become winners! Maggots move mountains! The once lowly and despised are now victorious over every enemy—over satan, over sin, over death—and crush them underfoot! Our Lenten sackcloth and ashes are not the last word. But, in Jesus, we receive a robe of righteousness.
So listen up, you maggots! We're worms no more! We're not even bears, or lions, or eagles! We're victorious, sinless, saints! And we no longer wallow in the dirt and in the mud of sin, but "rejoice in the Lord and glory in the Holy One of Israel," and live for him in thanks every day of our lives! In Jesus name, dear friends, amen.