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21th Sunday after Pentecost / The Feast of St. Luke, 10/18/2015

Sermon on Isaiah 43:8-13, by Samuel Zumwalt

Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
    who are deaf, yet have ears!
All the nations gather together,
    and the peoples assemble.
Who among them can declare this,
    and show us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right,
    and let them hear and say, It is true.
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord,
    “and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
    and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
    nor shall there be any after me.
11 I, I am the Lord,
    and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
    when there was no strange god among you;
    and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13 Also henceforth I am he;
    there is none who can deliver from my hand;
    I work, and who can turn it back?”

 

CALLED TO BE HIS: CHOSEN WITNESSES

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

The question is not “Are you and I witnesses?” But rather “For whom are we witnesses?”

Those who do not know God cannot witness to God in more than an oblique way as bearers of a fractured divine image. In other words, those who do not know God are blind and deaf to whom it is that is at work in their lives and in the world. And, in short, these spiritually blind and deaf persons frequently attribute God’s work to themselves or to luck or to karma or to fate or to destiny. And so it is that they cannot be God’s witnesses in more than an evidentiary way. The artist who produces something beautiful without an awareness of the Great Artist, who is the source of her or his talent and inspiration, does not see God or hear His voice. Those who know God see and hear what that spiritually-impaired artist cannot or will not.

The LORD declares to the people of God in bondage in Babylon: “You are my witnesses” (in Hebrew “eday”). They are in Babylon having lost the use of the Promised Land, the Davidic king, and the Temple built by Solomon, because God’s people had stopped seeing and hearing the one true God. Tempted by the devil’s empty promises, they forgot who and Whose they were. They forgot the former things that God had graciously done by rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, by delivering them through the Red Sea, by making short work of their enemies, by making covenant with them at Sinai, by giving them the use of that Land promised long before to Abraham and Sarah. And finally by promising David an everlasting dynasty and by placing God’s Name in the Jerusalem Temple. His people had forgotten, of course, the caveat that failure to respond to God’s grace by keeping covenant would result in a logical consequence. Namely, if you choose not to be God’s people, then God will sadly let you have your way with all that such wrong choosing entails!

God’s purpose in graciously making of Abraham and Sarah a great nation was to bless all the nations (goyim) of the earth. God’s purpose in making covenant with his great nation at Sinai was that His people would, by their faithfulness to the covenant, attract the nations (Gentiles) of the earth to Israel’s God. God’s purpose in promising David an everlasting dynasty was to have an ongoing dynasty of earthly princes that would lead everyone to know and to love the eternal King of creation as the only God. But God’s people had turned out to be as spiritually blind and deaf to the one true God as all the other nations. They forgot who and Whose they were. So all of that resulted first in the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians (721 BC) and the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah by Babylon (587 BC).

 

Going Native

So, as I have often anachronistically put it before Bible classes, God’s people in exile have kids growing up in Babylon, learning to speak the local language (Aramaic), going to Babylon High School and beginning to wear Babylonian letter jackets, riding up and down the Babylonian drag in their ’57 Chevys on weekend nights, and getting invited to Babylonian youth groups at the local ziggurats where they learn to worship Babylonian gods. Oy veh! It’s enough to drive an observant grandmother to an early grave! These kids today don’t know Jerusalem from Nineveh! The danger of growing up in a foreign country is you know longer know who and Whose you are!

As Bobby Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) used to sing: “You got to serve someone.” You will be a witness to somebody whether it’s to better living through chemistry, better living by Botox, better living by Jack Daniels, hemp, Titleist, ESPN, Wall Street, or some combination of the above. You got to serve someone. To whom or to what are you witnessing? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What keeps you going when the going gets tough? What puts a smile on your face? What do you think about, dream about, get excited about? Because whatever that is or whoever that is...that’s to what or to whom you are witnessing!

The question is not whether we are living in Babylon, dear ones. We are! The question is to whom are we witnessing? If you can’t remember the former things, all that God has done for you, then how are you going to be able to see and to hear what God is up to today, and how are you going to live with hope in the only One who can save you from bondage – and not merely bondage in this present Babylon but – bondage to sin, death, and the old evil one? Going native in Babylon, forgetting who and Whose we are, leads to no longer knowing we need rescuing!

But living in Babylon is difficult, dear ones, because the natives are quite content to be spiritually blind and deaf, since they do not know the LORD God and have gods of their own making. Here’s the trickier part: they are quite secure in enlightened contentment to let your god have his or her own place (who’s to say) among the Babylonian gods which they fear, love, and trust in above all things. “You have your god. We have ours. Hey, it’s all good,” they say.

But it’s not OK, because there is no God but the LORD God who is a jealous God who has said definitely: “You shall have no other gods.” Those other gods what are they? And those who cling to them do not have the one true God. They cannot. They do not know Him.

So exiles living in Babylon are God’s witnesses. There are those who still remember the former things – all that the LORD God has done to save them. There are those who can still teach new generations of Babylonian exiles who and Whose they are. There are those who can still say that God’s people are in Babylon, not because of the superiority of Babylon’s gods (which are no gods), but because God’s people played the harlot with false gods and had to experience the logical consequences of sleeping with the enemy. There are those who still confess the LORD God alone is Savior, Deliverer, and Redeemer. He has acted and will act!

 

St. Luke, Evangelist and Physician

Luke, author of the third gospel and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, was a native of Syrian Antioch, a companion of St. Paul, a trained physician, and traditionally celebrated in the Eastern churches as the first iconographer (writer/painter of holy pictures) of the Virgin Mary. After Paul’s martyrdom, Luke continued to preach the Gospel and was martyred in Thebes.

St. Luke reports the charge of the Lord Jesus to His apostles just before His ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8). Ten days later, when they receive the Holy Spirit, they begin to preach in many languages the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the Lord Jesus’ name. In response to their preaching, three thousand of the more than 150,000 Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost repent and are baptized. The Christian Church is born. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and to the breaking of the bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

Luke’s orderly account of the spread of the Good News moves from initial success and favor to the persecution, arrests, beatings, and even martyrdom of those faithful to the Lord and to His Gospel. As with God’s people in Babylon, the apostles and the first converts soon discover they too are pilgrims and exiles. Being God’s witnesses means they can no longer be at home in a Babylon not bound to a specific Near Eastern city but as wide as Rome’s empire. By the end of the first century AD, the reconstituted and expanded twelve are all martyred except for John. But John’s disciples Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp are martyred in the 2nd century.

Now you and I have been joined in Holy Baptism to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus through no effort or merit of our own. This Baptism is no mere act of obedience, no choice of ours to demonstrate we really believe, as if to say to Him: “Yes, we do believe, you can count on our sincerity, Lord, no fooling, cross our hearts”...but not really hoping to die! No, dear ones, Holy Baptism is God’s gracious act whereby we are crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). And it is a daily drowning. A daily leaving behind of the old life with its old loves. A daily repenting of sin. Since we live in Babylon, we return daily to our Baptism like drowning folks grab hold of a boat and are pulled back in to safety.

Our baptismal security is not this world’s diabolical security (which is no security but endless bondage to Babylon’s false gods). Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are freed to join in the song of (what the Te Deum Laudamus calls in the language of St. John’s Apocalypse) “the white-robed army of martyrs.” But from where will we get the strength we need for witness? Certainly not from within ourselves. Certainly not from Babylon.

No whistlers past the graveyard, we take into our empty sinful hands and into our earthly perishable bodies the True Body and Most Precious Blood of the Crucified and Risen Son of God  knowing that we “...were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from...our forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19)...“for this is...[His]...blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). Martyred Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, writing to the Ephesians, calls the Eucharist: “...the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”

Yes, Christ alone can be Savior, our strength in weakness. Yes, Christ alone our down to earth True God and True Man – and not some spiritualized Gnostic Christ far removed from the muck and mire of Babylon – Christ alone can fill us with the Holy Trinity’s eternal life and love that will not be taken from those He has made His own through no effort or merit of our own.

To Babylon we will say as St. Luke encourages us to witness: “We believe, teach, and confess there is no other god to whom we will give our allegiance, for there is no other god who saves, delivers, and redeems. No one can snatch us out of our Good Shepherd’s hand, because we are His, marked with His holy cross and sealed with the Holy Spirit! And there is room for all who are sick to death of Babylon and its nobody gods. Repent and be baptized!”

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

 



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

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