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10. Sunday after Pentecost , 08/17/2014

Sermon on Isaiah 56:1-8, by Samuel D. Zumwalt

Thus says the Lord:
"Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
    and my righteousness be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
    and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
    and keeps his hand from doing any evil."

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
    "The Lord will surely separate me from his people";
and let not the eunuch say,
    "Behold, I am a dry tree."
For thus says the Lord:
"To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.

"And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
    and holds fast my covenant-
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples."
The Lord God,
    who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
"I will gather yet others to him
    besides those already gathered."


            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

             My Dad died 39 years ago on August 8. He was 62. Diagnosed with the worst kind of lung cancer about six months earlier, Dad's last months, weeks, and days were not pretty. I was there for his last six weeks and with him the night he died. Those of you who have listened to me for more than 10 years know his death was utterly life-changing for everyone in our family and not just for me.

Mom and Dad had been married almost 31 years. They literally took off a few days from their service in World War II to marry quietly and, then, went back to the Army hospital ship and their jobs, respectively, as Chief Radio Operator and nurse. Now Mom was widowed at 53. Her entire life she had gone from being her Daddy's little girl, to the Lutheran deaconesses' baby nursing student, to Uncle Sam's young nurse, to my Dad's wife and the mother of four. She had gone back to nursing ten years earlier at the local VA hospital. But, as the Scots say, she was gobsmacked by Dad's death. It was like a fist to the mouth. She had seen lots of carnage in World War II, but she was not prepared to handle my Dad's mortality and the aftermath of it.

You can't read a book about what the deaths of your dearest ones will do to you. There is no orderly script to follow as people supposed when thanatologist Elizabeth Kuebler Ross first described the stages of grief as shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. Years later she wrote that you can go through all five of those stages in one day and jump out of acceptance just when you think you have it all back together. What I have learned through the past 39 years is the statute of limitations on grief never expires. It's like riding a huge rollercoaster that never stops going. In time you have more good days than bad, but you can always be gobsmacked by your grief over a dear one when you least expect it.

Like her German immigrant mother, my Mom ended up being a widow longer than she was a wife. When she died on August 17 two years ago, Mom was so worn out by the weight of grief over Dad, over my brother who died in 1992, and over the deaths of her parents and all her siblings, that she had retreated into Alzheimer's just to get an occasional respite from the pain. If, like Mom and now like me, you know more people in heaven than on earth, you understand how each death leaves you saying, "Now what?" or "How do I go on?" And those who have been through intimations of mortality in the form of going away to college, or becoming an empty nester, or by betrayal or divorce, or becoming unemployed, or learning to live with diminishing physical powers. All these experiences, even if they are somehow positive, can leave you gobsmacked, saying, "What just happened?" and "Who am I now that my life has changed?'


            By 539 B.C., the former leaders of Judah, the southern kingdom of God's people, had been in exile 60 years. Four new generations of the old Jerusalem leadership class had been born into exile in Babylon. It's not entirely anachronistic to say they lived in a Jewish ghetto. They were expatriates by their defeat at the hands of these Chaldeans whose capital was Babylon. These Jews had lost their king, their land, the Ark of the Covenant, and God's House, the Temple in Jerusalem, where God had placed His name. And it was a kind of living death. All those things they associated with being God's people had been taken from them. So: "Now what?" "How do we go on?" "What just happened?" "Who are we now that change has come?"

As a result of the rule of unintended consequences, the people who came to call themselves Jews developed a fledgling synagogue system during the Babylonian exile. Much of what we Christians call the Old Testament took written form during the exile in order to try to teach the generations born into exile who and Whose they were. These Jews learned to speak Aramaic in Babylon, and, as a result of that, the Lord Jesus' first language was Aramaic. Because a significant core of Jews didn't want to leave Babylon after the Chaldeans were conquered by the Persians, there remained an important Jewish community in Babylon. The Chaldean Church, which is in union with Pope Francis, emerged from the Jewish community in Babylon. And today those Christians and other Iraqi Christians are suffering mightily at the hands of Islamic radicals in Iraq who are demanding that these convert to Islam, or pay a big tax, or be killed. Compared to the radical Muslims of today, Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king who lived 26 centuries ago, was positively an enlightened despot. So pray daily for Christians in Iraq and for their radical enemies whose hearts and minds belong not to Allah, the Arabic word for God, but to Iblis, the rebellious angel, whom we know as Satan (they call him Shaytan).

After his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus the Persian allowed all the Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem to go home to rebuild both the Temple and their lives there. Cyrus did not care which god they worshiped just as long as they did not rebel against Persian rule. And so many of the Jews went back to Jerusalem where in time they rebuilt Jerusalem's walls and its Temple and its piety but remained under foreign rule for 400 years until the time of the Maccabees. Without kings from David's family, the leadership class was comprised mostly of priests and the landed gentry. By the time of Jesus and now living under Roman occupation, the cream of the crop of the Jewish leadership class came to be known as the Sanhedrin, the group of leaders who condemned Jesus to death and demanded that the Romans crucify Him.

So, then, lurking behind today's Old Testament reading, which addresses the post-exilic situation of the Jewish people, is that sense of "Who are we?" and "How do we go on now?" Unlike the priestly class who drew sharp lines between Jews and Gentiles, the prophet Isaiah hearkened back to the promise to Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12 where God's people are constituted in order to be a blessing to all the nations (ethnic groups) of the earth. For eunuchs, whose physical condition made them unclean like Gentiles and precluded them from being able to fulfill God's promise in Genesis 1 (that His people be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth), God still promises that He will remember their names as His beloved children even though no one else does. Unlike the post-exilic Jewish leaders, the prophet Isaiah recognizes that God's people are called to witness to God's love and God's mercy for all people.

This Old Testament lesson was chosen to complement the Gospel lesson in Matthew 15 in which the Lord Jesus makes clear that sin is much deeper than popular understandings of  ritual uncleanness. All sin begins in the rebellious heart and mind of broken people. The Lord Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman is a marvelous foretaste of the Gospel that will be preached to all ethnic groups after His death and resurrection. While the various gates  of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem promised death to any Gentile who entered into the Temple proper, God's New Testament House, the Church, will be a house of prayer for all ethnic groups. While disabled persons and disfigured eunuchs were not welcome in Herod's Temple proper, the Gospel of Jesus Christ declares there is a place in God's Church for all who seek His mercy.

"Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved," declares the Lord in Mark 16:16, for He has lived the life we cannot live and died the death we cannot die to save those lost in sin.


            Holy Baptism is not a mere one-time water ritual. It is, for us Lutheran Christians, a way of life in which we daily drown the rebellious old person in us through confession and repentance. Living our Baptism is about being raised daily to a new life in which Christ now dwells in us. We confess that being part of the people of God is no longer a matter of ethnicity or culture or physical wholeness as it was for Jews in the period after the Babylonian exile. One doesn't have to read very far into the book of the Acts of the Apostles to see that Gentiles are as welcome in Christ's Church as Jews. Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. And by the end of Acts, the apostle Paul is preparing to proclaim the Good News of Jesus even to Caesar in Rome.

            This American (or European or any other thoroughly secularized) culture in which we live places human beings rather than God at the center of everything. It is not that our culture is divided into naughty and nice by a cosmic Saint Nicholas. Rather even when we are certain we are doing good, there is a very real danger that it is just a nicer face of the narcissism that plagues this age. Like the old nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner eating his Christmas pie, we often put in our thumb and pull out a plumb and say, "Oh, what a good boy (or girl) am I!" As the Lord Jesus pointed out to His hearers in Matthew 15, sin is much deeper, human brokenness is much worse, than how our culture wants to define it. A focus on feeling good is hardly godly!

            The Gospel of Jesus Christ, as Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, calls each person to die daily to her or himself. How exceedingly difficult it is to hear the Lord Jesus' voice in a culture that makes everything all about "me" and in moribund churches where the Gospel gets reduced to being nice or being tolerant or being fair or coexisting or doing acts of random kindness. If you put all of that up against the crucified Jesus who says "Follow me," then both the world and the churches are stripped naked like a corpse in a morgue. If you and I are going to be the baptized people of God, we don't get to be cafeteria Christians who pick when we'll let God be God as opposed to when we decide we are in charge because, after all, this is what feels right to me and this is what seems OK to me because I'm... "me!"

            In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah anticipates the restoration of God's original design before people rebelled. Just as the day of Pentecost reversed the scattering and confusion of people described in the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11, so the Gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down the walls of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, between the fertile and the infertile, between the able and disabled and gathers them all through Holy Baptism into a covenant people who worship each Sabbath and who seek not their own will but God's will!

When we say that Lutheran Christians are people of grace, it is something altogether different than saying, "Anything goes!" or "I'm free to do whatever feels right to me." Rather grace is getting what we don't deserve, namely, forgiveness of sins. And mercy is not getting what we do deserve, namely, judgment and death. When we say we are prisoners of hope who are called to mercy, that means our lives belong to God and not to us. And we are called to invite every person we meet to die to her- or himself in Holy Baptism and to give our lives away in humble service even unto death...just like the Lord Jesus Who makes us His and Who lives in us!

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Samuel D. Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

Prisoners of Hope: Called to Mercy


“Look in mercy, O Lord, upon your family and pour out upon us the gifts of your grace, so that, aflame with faith, hope, and love, we may always watch and pray, and walk in the path of your commandments; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 617).


Isaiah 56:1 “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come...”

St. Jerome: “...But we are called into freedom, and by this freedom Christ grants us that we do not work for food that perishes. Instead, cleaving to the Lord, let us say with the prophet, ‘It is good for me to stay close to God, and let us become one spirit with him, and let us fulfill the delightful sabbath, and we shall not belong to the six days in which the world was made” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah, 192).

Isaiah 56:5 “I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

St. Cyril of Alexandria: “The house and wall that are strength and security seem to describe the church that is above somewhere in the heavens, that is, over the earth. People dwell there who have grown in holiness and virtue and who shine forth and receive the honor of self-control along with a greater inheritance. They receive from God and eternal glory. There is nothing lacking of grace in them” (194).

Isaiah 56:7 “...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Cassiodorus: “As if you did not know that all human beings come from Adam and that it is written that the nations will believe in Christ, as it is said, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’...The saints were uncircumcised before they were circumcised, and Abraham before circumcision had faith, since there is one God who justifies a circumcision of faith. And he proclaims that each nation ought to be saved through the faith of Christ, that is, by faith in him”(195).

Isaiah 56:8 “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”

Procopius of Gaza: “The Savior, however, is gentle not only with the nations. For he says, ‘I will gather the scattered of Israel,’ For these were far from the community in the law, being far away from Judah, and [they] were idol worshiping and teaching doctrines and precepts of human invention. Those who were thus gathered included the godly of old and even the disciples of the Savior” (195).


1. Do I hear “justice and righteousness” as the language of civil rights rather than God’s covenant demands upon those who belong to Him...more defined by the world than God?

2. Do I understand that God’s mercy means not getting what we deserve for our rebellion?


Table of Duties (from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism)

Certain passages of scripture for various holy orders and positions,
admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities

To Parents

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction
of the Lord. Eph. 6:4

To Children

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and your
mother"—which is the first commandment with a promise—"that it may go well with you and
that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Eph. 6:1-3


1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.

2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.

3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend what God expects of Christian parents and Christian children in their relationships with each other. When God is the center of each life, how does that change and shape parent-child relationships? How can parents teach faithfulness to God without the extremes of harshness or disregarding their child’s (or children’s) bad behavior? How can children and youth balance respect without disregarding their parents’ bad behavior? What part does mercy play in all of this?

4. Pray daily for every relative by birth, by adoption, or by marriage. As a new week begins, set aside time to nurture the relationships within your household. If you live alone, resolve to communicate, as you are able, with family members at a distance. If, because of brokenness in your family, you are unable (which is not the same thing as unwilling) to be reconciled with family members, pray for God’s mercy to enfold and change the hearts and minds of those who remain comfortably adamant in their brokenness. Set aside time to nurture your relationships with members of Christ’s family, the Church.

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.”