Saturday, February 6, 2010

When All Is Lost

Here are some snippets from scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Feb. 7, 2010.
"Woe is me," said Isaiah, "I am lost."
"I am the least... unfit..." Those are Paul's words.
And Peter said: "Go away from me... I am a sinful man."

When have you felt all is lost?  Is there something you have done, or that someone else has done, something you said--has something happened that is so horrible that there is no possible happy ending?

If that is the case for you, God has brought you here today for one reason--God wants you to admit that there is no hope--no hope you can find on your own anyway.
  • God has brought you here so you can be laid out before God as one slain by His Word and almighty power.  
  • God has brought you here so you and I can be dead to ourselves--so that we will depend wholly, completely, totally on Him--and finally be raised up and sent out with HIS love and HIS power alone.
The Isaiah 6 reading (see Sweet or Bitter?) ends with God's words that bring hope only after all is lost--when cities lie waste, when the land is "utterly desolate," after the Lord has sent "everyone far away and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land."

Isaiah 6:13 says this, speaking symbolically of the people as if they were a forest:
"...Even if a tenth part remain in it it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled." The holy seed is its stump.
Where we live now I don't get a chance to do a lot of work outdoors.  I shovel a bit and in the summer do some mowing.  But in other places I've certainly learned how plants and trees come back after you cut them down.  That's the sense here.

Another translation of Isaiah 6:13 says this:
The country will look like pine and oak forest with every tree cut down— Every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps. But there’s a holy seed in those stumps.
When all is lost, when there is no hope left, that's when God's good work really begins.
  • First God's Law comes to us like an axe or like fire or like a chainsaw, cutting down any ability you or I might have to stand on our own.  
  • Then, when we are laid out, charred and dead because of God's judgment on our sin--then the good news--the holy seed--new life--resurrection and purpose and joy--when all is lost the good news comes and we are wholly given to our Lord.
Today you are here to hear God's Word--God's HOLY Word which slays us!  You and I are here so we will give up on our own abilities and know the only hope we have is in a personal relationship with God--with Jesus--and receive that hope direct from God.

Today we are here, first of all, to let God examine us... Is there anything in me that is sinful or harmful or not given totally to God's purpose?  Is there anything in me that stands against my Lord? If so, God needs to cut me down so he can raise me up.

Psalm 139--the psalm after the one assigned for today--Psalm 139 ends like this:
Search me out, O God,
   and know my heart;
try me
   and know my restless thoughts.
Look well
   whether there be any wickedness in me,
and lead me in the way that is everlasting. (Psalm 139:22-23)
Are you willing to let him examine you?  Am I?

On Friday night Toni and I saw a movie where a family takes in a homeless African-American teenager.  There is a scene in the movie where an investigator comes to check on the family's motivations--whether they really have the best interests of the young man at heart or whether they are trying to manipulate the situation for other purposes.

Are we willing to let God examine and try us--to even examine the best of our intentions?
  • Am I part of the church because I feel a dependence on God?  Or am I just trying to look good and be comfortable with my church friends?  
  • Are my attitudes about issues in the church really motivated by God's love and God's truth--or am I just trying to use religion to make me feel good about my prejudices?
These are serious questions.  The Word of God comes to examine EVERY area of my life and yours..

During the upcoming season of Lent we'll be looking at the Seven Deadly Sins.  How have laziness, pride, envy, anger, lust, greed and gluttony infected even our good intentions?

One of the resources we're looking at for the Lent season is a book The Double Cross--it shows us that not only are our sins deadly, but so also are our virtues. Anything we do under our own power are hopelessly infected and useless.

The ONLY way to find hope and help is to let God examine us, judge us, and lift us up by his grace.

We find a word picture of this in Hebrews 4:13... the verse tells us that we are "naked" and "laid bare" to the eyes of God--to the eyes of the one who will judge us.  The English words "laid bare" in that verse are from the Greek verb trachēlizō.  You can hear the word "trachea" in that... and the word gives us a picture of God who takes us and bends us back so our necks are visible...  the College Press commentary says this:
"It is as though God either has us by the throat like a wrestler or has our neck bent back ready to slay us as an animal sacrifice. We may prance a little now in insolent arrogance, but there will be none of that in the judgment."
When all is lost--that's the when the SECOND part of God's Work can take hold in our lives! 

It's when we know we are lost that God's good news comes in the most convincing and powerful way.
  • When we stop trying to protect or justify ourselves, then we, like Isaiah and Peter and Paul--then we can receive the amazing gift of God's grace.  
  • When we say, with Peter, "Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!"--
  • When we, with Paul, know that we are unfit to do any part of God's work--
  • When we, with Isaiah, in God's throne room, seeing the glory and majesty and perfection of God say "WOE IS ME! I AM LOST!" then our Lord can come, cleanse us, and give us new life.
When Isaiah heard the praises Holy, Holy, Holy... he knew he was NOT holy or praise worthy in the least... he wasn't full of praise.  He was full of sin. He could fake it no more.

But then, when all was lost, Isaiah received a gift.  

An angel came--a seraph--a messenger--and symbolically the seraph came and touched his lips with a burning coal from the altar of God.

It's like the gift we receive when we see our sin--when we see our anger, when I see my proud self-righteousness, greed and lust and fear--when God's Word comes through our defenses and when we are laid bare without one excuse and He gives us his sacrifice--his body--his blood--for our unclean lips--for our unclean hearts--for our filthy lives.

And that sacrifice, Jesus' sacrifice for us, it cleanses us like that coal from the altar of God cleansed Isaiah... and it sends Isaiah, and Peter, and Paul--and--believe it--you and me--to do God's Work in this world.

If we wonder why we might not have the joy and energy and peace of God that's needed to go out and bring more people to the Lord, it might be because we somehow are still trying to operate under our own power, because we're good people or something.  But we're not!  We are LOST in sin.

But that's okay somehow!  Because
  • ONLY when we give up on ourselves can we come to know the ONE who has provided the way for us to be forgiven... 
  • ONLY when we stop trying to impress anyone with what we have in ourselves--then we will come to know the POWER and JOY of the ONLY ONE who COMPLETELY FORGIVES and lets us start new and fresh and clean, every day, no matter what our sin has been.
  • ONLY when we know God owes us NOTHING but gives us EVERYTHING--then we can be God's humble, bold, forgiving, fiercely loving workers in the LOST world God loves so much.
Martin Luther says it this way--this is in the Small Catechism section on baptism:
"...our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and... day after day a new self should arise to live with God..."
When we know it's ALL GOD and NOTHING OF OURSELVES, then we go out with power and joy and grace and mercy and love to the lost world we know so well.

The results of our work--that is left to God.  There are times when the work is mainly to let God's Word do its cutting work.  But when that is done, we get to do the best work--lifting and raising and forgiving and sharing the life that comes only and directly from God.


See When Hope Hurts for another take on why it is sometimes so hard to receive God's gift of forgiveness, new life and hope.

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