Download or listen to Lenten Midweek V, “The Song of the Future” (Isaiah 12:1-6)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A lot of people want to know what it’s going to be like in heaven: what age will we be, will we know our relatives and friends, etc. And it would not surprise me if from a very early age many people who grow up hearing about heaven think it involves a really long—that is, neverending—church service. How many of you—be honest—are afraid it’s going to be that way? I admit to occasionally having that nagging fear when I was younger. Church is boring. It’s somewhere you go because you have to, and you’re happy to have an excuse for not going on some Sunday. And then when we grow up, we wonder why the children aren’t here anymore. (Although, I suspect that even when we grow up, we’re just better at hiding the fact that we’d still rather be “having fun” somewhere, or sleeping in, than in the church building.) Partly, this is because of the number of distractions we’ve created for ourselves; partly, this is simply our sinful nature at work driving us away from the forgiving words and gifts of Jesus; and partly, this is because we still think of “going to church” as primarily about what we’re doing. So if we’re tired, if we’re distracted, if we’re hurried, then we can’t use church for whate we’d like to use it for: a little inspiration, a funny story, or learning how to live a good life before we die and go to heaven. So, we’re back to heaven, which we all know is supposed to be a good thing, but we’re not sure it is, especially if it involves an organ and a dull speech.
Funny, though, that no one in the Scriptures is ever bored in the presence of God. No one falls asleep, no one checks his watch, no one wonders how long this idiot is going to drone on. Instead, they fall on their faces, they hide their eyes, they even die from coming into contact with holy things. And the joy! I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the House of Yahweh! (Psalm 122:1) Where is our joy? Why such a gap between the things that we say are happening in this place and our response to them? Is it because the liturgy is dull? If so, we have to say that God’s Word is dull, since that’s all the liturgy is. Can we ever exhaust its meaning, no matter how many weeks we hear it or say it? What, then? Perhaps a beginning of the solution to this problem, whatever its source in you and me, is found in Isaiah 12. Isaiah 12 is the hymn of Isaiah after he’s heard the Gospel. That is, he’s heard, and repeated it to the people, that God is going to deliver them from exile in Assyria, just as He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. In fact, the similarities are obvious: nearly every time the Exodus is mentioned in the Psalms and the Prophets, water is mentioned. Both the bitter water turned sweet by a piece of wood, and the water that came from the rock at God’s command to Moses. For example, Psalm 105: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant. So he brought his people out with joy, his chosen ones with singing” (Psalm 105:41-43). And then in Isaiah 12, after hearing that God has not forsaken His people, Isaiah repeats part of the song of Moses after Israel had crossed the Red Sea: “I will sing to [Yahweh], for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. [Yahweh] is my strength and my song and he has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:1-2). Isaiah is simply paraphrasing Moses’ song of joy.
So the question is not, what’s wrong with our church; it is, as always, what’s wrong with us? If you’re parched and exhausted, if your spirit is dry, if you can’t feel anything in this place, then the words of God through the mouth of Isaiah are for you. They speak of that day when God delivers His people once and for all, when a new, tiny growth will come from the stump of Jesse and grow into a Tree under which the whole world can take shelter. That day, when the wood on which God died was thrown into all our poisoned wells to make the water sweet with salvation. That day, when the works of God are repeated in the hearing of people who have no other hope. That day, when we look and see that the Reign of God is among us, because Jesus is here, as He promised He would be until the curtain drops on this age and the Second Act of the new creation begins.
“For [Yahweh] comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of [Yahweh]; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3). “And the ransomed of [Yahweh] shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. I, I am he who comforts you” (51:11-12a). How does He comfort us, those whom He has redeemed with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death? He says, “You will draw water with joy from the springs of Yeshua” (Isaiah 12:3). Jesus literally means salvation. As He Himself said, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). On the cross, pierced in death, from His very heart flowed blood and water, and His wounds were not like the death-wounds of every other man. In your death and mine, only the stench of sin and decay can be found. But from His wounds, as St. Ambrose put it, flowed the fountain of eternal life (Ambrose, ACCS, Isaiah 1-39, 113).
What we experience in all our earthly congregations, built of sinners, is nothing compared to the joy of the resurrected redeemed when they are led into Zion by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That will be everlasting joy, untinged by sorrow and sighing. And even as we sometimes experience indescribable feelings of joy in these earthly congregations, even that is not the hint of eternity that we often take it for. No, what really connects our humble songs here on earth with the majesty of God’s eternal presence in the new Jerusalem is that Jesus is here. That every word we speak, every action we do, every syllable declares the mighty deliverance of our God. He has brought us out of slavery to sin, and joined us forever to His own Son. Great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel! He comforts us with the words of His own mouth! He feeds us with His Son’s very Body and Blood! Sing and shout for joy, O inhabitant of the eternal Zion! “[T]hat is, church, rejoice, because you already have the forgiveness of sins, peace, the Holy Spirit, salvation, life, God, and all good things. You have been set free from all enemies, you are safe and will not be forsaken. Therefore you have enough reason for rejoicing. This would be true even if you saw damnation and despair in yourself” (Luther, LW 16:131). Through all the chances and changes of this life, our God’s salvation, His Jesus, never changes, neither tomorrow nor into all eternity. There we will proclaim His works forever and ever, clear-eyed and loose-tongued. For He has turned His anger from us and as long as our spirits grow faint, we can drink as deeply and as long from the springs of Jesus as we need. His mercy is never-ending and His grace is sufficient, even for us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/13/13