Singing with the Exiles
One Little Word…
A sermon based on Isaiah 49:1–6
Sunday, March 20, 2016 – Palm Sunday
When I first received the call to serve as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, a well-meaning member was trying to pitch the state of Alaska to me. So he asked me, "Do you know what you need to do to have a concealed weapon in Alaska?" I admitted that I did not. So he told me, "There are two steps you need to take: 1) buy a weapon, then 2) conceal it."
So I don't know if any of you are packing heat this morning. But would it surprise you to know that God is a fan of "conceal and carry"? In fact, in our text for this morning, he describes Jesus as his concealed weapon—his sword or dagger hidden in hand, his deadly arrow concealed in the quiver.
And as we celebrate Palm Sunday this morning, we see how Jesus was a concealed weapon. He didn't look very special riding into Jerusalem. In fact, he sat on a donkey, not in a chariot pulled by white stallions. And he didn't look very special as he carried out the mission rode in to Jerusalem for. He didn't look special when he was dying on the cross. But what a powerful weapon he was. He destroyed the devil, demolished death, and disintegrated sin.
With one little word, God's concealed weapon won the war. Our text for this Palm Sunday is from Isaiah 49:1-6…
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor." 4 But I said, "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the Lord's hand, and my reward is with my God."
5 And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—6 he says: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."
"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." How horribly false. Words have incredible power. Tell a lie about someone and it can cost them their job, their relationship, their life. Encourage someone and it can alter the rest of their life and generations to come. Our words have incredible power. Your tongue may not seem an impressive weapon, but you know it's really the most powerful muscle in your body.
James, Jesus' half-brother, put it this way: "When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire…" (James 3:3-6)
And watch any TV drama and you quickly learn that just as the pen is mightier than the sword, so too, the tongue is far mightier than the gun.
But as powerful as our words are, God's Word is infinitely more powerful. He speaks things into existence. He speaks life into the dead. He speaks and we are righteous. His word may not seem all that impressive, but one little word of God is more powerful than anything else in the world. It is his concealed weapon.
So let's listen to that word. Let's listen in now to a conversation between Jesus and the Father. And we can eavesdrop without being rude because we're invited to listen to the conversation. We're even commanded in Isaiah 49:1-6…
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations…
What does he want us to hear as we listen in to this conversatoin? He wants us to hear about his concealed weapon—his powerful word—that returns us to God. He wants us to hear that he would, "restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel… [and be] a light for the Gentiles… [to] bring [God's] salvation to the ends of the earth."
But why did Jacob need to be restored? Why did Israel need to be brought back? How were Gentiles in the dark? What about us who, from Israel's perspective, live at the ends of the earth?
Well, you know the answer: It was sin that separated us from God. Our sinful action, our sinful thoughts, and our sinful words—those careless words we speak that hurt others, those thoughtful words that we intend to hurt—don't just damage human relationships. They damage our relationship with God. What power our words have!
James says, "The tongue.,.. is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell."
And you know, it's not just the words we say that cause such damage. It's also the words we don't say. If your husband or wife were so embarrassed by you that they refused to introduce you at parties, if they pretended not to know you, if they refused to speak to you or about you, wouldn't that sting?
What do we do when we refuse to speak about our Savior and pretend not to know him? We try to justify it, "They're not ready to meet him yet. They wouldn't believe anyway. Every time I've tried talking about my faith, well…" "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing." They didn't believe then and they won't now.
But you don't know that. The seed you plant may lie dormant for many years. Or it may be growing a root beneath the surface before any shoot ever springs up. And you may not see what's taking place in the heart this side of heaven. So it's best to just speak up and leave the results to God saying, "Yet what is due me is in the Lord's hand, and my reward is with my God."
By our careless words, by our hurtful words, by our loveless silence, we've separated ourselves from our God. We've wandered into darkness and we've begun down the path to hell. But it's so dark, that we can't find our own way back. We need help. We need rescue.
That's what God the Father and God the Son want us to hear as we listen in to their conversation. So let's keep eavesdropping…
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor."
Previously Isaiah introduced us to God's servant, Cyrus, who would return God's people to Israel. But now it's clearly another servant he's introducing here. And we have some clues as to who he is: First, he was famous before he was born. (Like there were prophecies written about him thousands of years before his birth.) He was set apart for a holy purpose—to carry out a special mission for God. (Namely, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.) And his fight would be without swords or arrows, guns or tanks, but his mouth would be his weapon. His word would be arrows. (The powerful Word of God.) Of course, we're talking about Jesus—the servant in whom God would display his splendor, the one who would "restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel… [and be] a light for the Gentiles… [to] bring [God's] salvation to the ends of the earth."
But how would go about it? He didn't seem to be too special as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. He didn't look like much of threat. He wasn't particularly attractive. Isaiah tell us that, "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2) His ministry turned many people away because he wasn't the hero they expected. He wasn't their kind of Savior.
But he was the Word made flesh by God, his concealed weapon, who would surprise everyone by winning the battle in an instant, in the most unlikely of ways, in a twist of history that no one but God saw coming. Though he didn't look like a threat, as he rose into Jerusalem, as he washed feet, as he was deserted by his friends, as he was put on trial, as he was scourged, and nailed to a cross, tortured and killed…
Nevertheless, he packed more power than an atomic bomb. An atomic bomb can only destroy. But he had the power to bring to life. And his power isn't in a sword or arrows. He didn't come to lead armies or slay the Romans. But his greatest power was in becoming as servant. His greatest victory was in his death! For by his perfect life and innocent death, he returned Jacob. He restored Israel. He brought them back to God. But even more…
"It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."
So even we Islands, we distant nations, who live at the ends of the earth are invited to listen in to this powerful Word and hear that his grace is for all. That's how we know it's for us. With his Word, he creates faith in our hearts.
His Word gives power to Baptism. "It is certainly not the water that does such things, but God's Word which is in and with the water and faith which trusts this Word used with the water. For without God's Word the water is just plain water and not Baptism. But with this Word it is Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit." (Luther's Small Catechism, Baptism, Part 3)
His Word gives power to the Lord's Supper. "It is certainly not the eating and drinking that does such things, but the words 'Given' and 'poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.' These words are the main thing in the sacrament, along with the eating and drinking. And whoever believes these words has what they plainly say, the forgiveness of sins." (Luther's Small Catechism, Holy Communion, Part 3)
And it's his Word that conquers all of our spiritual enemies. His mouth is a sword that cuts off the devil's head. His mouth is an arrow that pierces death in the heart. His mouth blows up our sin so that not a trace can be found. No dental records can identify it when he's done. He bespeaks you righteous. And that same Word that called the universe into existence, that same Word that called the dead back to life, has brought you from spiritual death into life and declares you to be sinless. That Word has the power to do whatever it says. So sinless you are!
Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us, We tremble not, we fear no ill; They shall not overpow'r us. This world's prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none. He's judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him. (CW 201:3)
Now in thanks to God—for returning us back to him, for restoring us, for bringing us his salvation—we're eager to use our words to bring glory to God, not ourselves. We're eager to become servants. We're eager to empty ourselves to serve others. And we know that our labor is not in vain. Our reward is with our God. "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." (1 Corinthians 15:58) And someday soon we will receive our reward in glory. Because he lives, we too will live.
So, in the meantime, while we wait for him, let's use our tongues as our concealed weapons. Let's use our words to build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Let's use our words to encourage each other to focus on the cross and to live for God in thanks. Let's use our words to share his Word—the message of his love with the islands and distant nations as we become lights to the nations, "that [we] may bring [God's] salvation to the ends of the earth." (cf. Acts 13:47) In the name of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, God's concealed weapon, amen.