Pentecost 15 – Proper 18 – Series B (September 6, 2015)
“Strength for Anxious Hearts” (Is. 35;4-7a)
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’”
So says the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah. And who among us does not have an anxious heart? You may be perfectly calm and content at the moment, but there are times when your heart starts to beat more quickly. You become nervous, even frightened. You start to sweat. You have trouble breathing. You feel like there is a ton of bricks on your chest. Or perhaps you are someone who deals with chronic anxiety. You experience severe panic attacks that are out of your control, and you need medicine to help you focus and function.
What brings this on? It could be any number of things. Maybe it’s the new school year. You are anxious about your new teachers, your new classes, your new classmates. Maybe it’s a job interview. You are nervous about how you are going to present yourself to your potential employer. Maybe it’s news stories that create a sense of unease. Maybe it’s news from your doctor that you have a serious disease. Or maybe it’s something that no one else knows about. Maybe it’s a persistent sin that troubles you, that constantly tempts you. Maybe it’s something you’ve done in your past that still haunts you. You are afraid and anxious to tell anyone about it, even your pastor, because you are so ashamed. You are anxious because you wonder if God can even love you or forgive you. Before I go any further this morning, let me assure you that he does love and does indeed forgive you. I don’t want you walking out to use the bathroom or blow your nose before the sermon is over without hearing the marvelous news, that yes, indeed, for the sake of Jesus Christ, you are fully and freely forgiven. I suppose you could say “Amen” to that right now and my sermon would be over, but there’s more I want to tell you from our text today.
What was creating anxiety for the people of Judah to whom Isaiah was sent to preach? They were living under the threat of invasion by the Assyrian Empire from the north. Judah’s cousins in the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed around 20 years prior. Utter destruction and captivity could be just around the corner for them, too. The fertile land would be stripped bare and become a place of “burning sand” and “thirsty ground,” the “haunt of jackals.” There would be nothing left to give shelter or support for their bodily needs. Their leaders had forgotten to rely upon the Lord for their safety and well-being, and instead relied on pacts with foreign powers around them. In fact, they had been reaching out to Egypt for help, but the prophet says a few chapters earlier, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!” (Is. 31:1). Likewise, I imagine that you and I could think of many things that we look to for our comfort, our security, our contentment, rather than looking to the Lord first and foremost. We look to our national leaders to provide a strong defense, yet also know that our nation’s laws have gone far astray from God’s will and ways, especially in life issues and marriage matters.
Isaiah promises that God “will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God he will come and save you” (35:4). In other words, it’s payback time! The Assyrians did eventually lay siege to Jerusalem, but the Lord intervened. The Angel of the Lord put to death 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. The Assyrian king Sennacherib turned tail and headed back to his homeland and capital city of Ninevah.
But this vengeance and recompense of God points forward to an even greater day of payback. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just returned from Tyre and Sidon on the northern coast where he cast a demon out of the daughter of a Syrophoenecian woman. Now he enters the region of the Decapolis on the east side of the Sea of Galilee and heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. These were both pagan, Gentile regions. Prior to the presence of Jesus, they were places devoid of the Word of God. They were like a dry and weary desert that Isaiah describes, that is, until the Living Word comes to visit with his life-giving, refreshing presence and power. He comes with a vengeance over sin and its life-destroying effects. He comes to show how he inaugurates a new creation where evil is cast out and bodies are made whole. He comes to die as the recompense for our sins … as the holy and righteous payment for the sins of the world. He comes to give his Shalom … his peace … his wholeness … the exact opposite of anxiety and worry and brokenness and guilt and shame. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, all your guilt is paid for and your shame is covered.
“Say to those with anxious hearts, 'Be strong, fear not!’ Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Jesus has indeed done this. He did it for you at the cross. He does it for you today as the forgiveness of sins is given to you. And he will do it for you in the future when he brings the new creation in all its fullness for his Church.
Even though our hearts are parched and thirsty like dry ground, we are refreshed with the waters of Holy Baptism. The Holy Spirit given in Baptism is a never ending supply of refreshment, life, and salvation.
Even though we are often blind to his presence and his working among us, our ominiscient God is never blind to what you are going through. He never closes his eyes to your problems. He sees all and knows exactly how best to care for you. And his Word opens our eyes so we can see with the eyes of faith and recognize the ways in which he is present and working among us, especially in those humble means of Word, water, bread, and wine.
We can be hard of hearing, even deaf to his Word at times. But his Word of promise unstops our ears so we can be encouraged and trust in his gracious presence and merciful care. Moreover, his ears are never deaf to our cries for help when our hearts are anxious and afraid, when we know our guilt and shame and cry out for forgiveness.
We lamely limp through life, beaten down, bruised, damaged. Healing may not be in God’s immediate plans for you (although it certainly is in his plan in eternity). But your heart can leap like a deer, full of joy, because Jesus was beaten down, bruised, damaged, even killed for you … and leaped out of the tomb on the third day, the firstfruits of the new creation that is in store for you when he raises his baptized, forgiven, chosen ones on the Last Day.
And our tongues are often mute. We don’t know what to pray. We don’t often feel like praising God or giving him thanks for our circumstances. Yet God’s tongue is never mute for you. In this place, you hear him most clearly when through the mouth of your pastor God says to you that you are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Here you also hear those wonderful words spoken from the table in the Upper Room and now spoken to you from this table, “This is my body … this is my blood … given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” And God loosens our tongues to praise him and give him thanks.
At the Lord’s Table, you have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the new creation…
…No more blindness, but seeing God with our own eyes.
…No more deafness, but hearing God’s own voice.
…No more lame limbs, but resurrected bodies made whole again.
…No more mute lips, but lips that join with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven … no longer only on this side of the veil.
…No more anxious hearts, but hearts full of the everlasting peace of Jesus.
Until that day, be strong and fear not … because your God has already come and saved you. His peace be with you today and always.