It is the first Sunday in Advent, and when I was planning my preaching for the season I looked and saw three texts from Isaiah in a row, and I felt the need to preach a little on the Old Testament. The sermon elaborates a little bit, but this text is from “third Isaiah”. For someone like me who sees no reason to reject the received tradition – that Isaiah the prophet saw foresaw – third Isaiah is simply the portion of Isaiah addressed to those who have returned from exile, what we would call the intertestamental period. And this particular text is one that resonates deeply.
Oh that the Lord would come down. It is Isaiah working out his desire for signs and wonders that would rescue his people. And debating with God, and with himself, if that is possible. Which of course it is, but first the Lord must come down in grace. The power teaches us to fear, but if we are wise we know to fear. It is the grace which moves to abiding love.
The text is a juxtaposition of a couple miracles of Jesus. One a seemingly minor healing, and the other a resurrection. But this juxtaposition soon sucks in not just the miraculous but everything we like to think about. It is status, popularity, wealth and health, faith and doubt, fear and courage. In other words it is a juxtaposition that cleaves to the marrow of life. It is also a message that cleaves a tough spot in my faith. I accept, but I don’t really understand God’s use of actual miracles. I have an intellectual understanding, but my heart still doesn’t like it. This sermon is my attempt to express both that intellectual understanding, but also to reach for something that might begin an emotional peace. I don’t know if anybody else has such a similar problem. I also don’t know if I succeeded. But here it is. A meditation on signs and wonders.
Recording Note: Sorry, the live recording was unusable, so this is a re-recording after the fact.
I was sure walking into the pulpit this morning that I had failed. I was a page or more short. And I felt like that shortness wasn’t because I had successfully condensed a good word, but simply because I had wrestled with the text and lost. The Samaritan Leper is an easy story to just make into a moralistic word. There is nothing wrong with saying “give thanks”, the law is good and wise, but such often comes off not as “give thanks” but “give thanks because there are starving children in China”. There is always something specious about that old common phrase to get kids to eat. It doesn’t bring about thanks. It rarely made you eat your vegetables. So what I was struggling with was a way to preach not just “give thanks” as the law, but to make thanksgiving like the Samaritan Leper, full of wonder and joy and recognition. I thought I had failed, but somewhat surprising to me is that I got more good feedback than I would have expected. My inner cynic would say that is because it is only 10 minutes long, but I’m going to dismiss him as the crank he is. The Spirit takes the lessor and makes it greater.
Worship Note: Because of the recording problem you won’t hear it, but an important thing was this service started with a baptism. Baptism’s place in the sermon’s conclusion rests partly on what we had all witnessed that morning. Also, I just want to put this here. Lutheran Service Book 788, Forgive Us Lord, for Shallow Thankfulness, was the hymn of the day, surrounded by the staple hymns of Thanksgiving. This is also probably part of the rescue. Those are some of the best hymns in Christendom. But 788 is a powerful text. It is a comparatively modern hymn from 1965. I could wish that the text had a better tune, although Sursum Corda is not bad. It is the text that carries a necessary message about recognizing the greater and less, and not confusing them. The fifth stanza stands out to me: Forgive us, Lord for feast that knows not fast/for joy in things that meanwhile starve the soul/for walls and wars that hide your mercies vast/and blur our vision of the Kingdom goal. I’m sure it was written by a old fuzzy commie, but one that never let his politics become unmoored from the signs and wonders of the true kingdom.
John intentionally uses and structures half his gospel around a different word than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those synoptics describe what we call miracles as works of power. John calls them signs and the first twelve chapters of John are structured around seven signs. And I think John tells us the difference at the end of Cana. To John the signs due two things: 1) they manifest glory and 2) they inspire belief. What this sermon attempts to do is three things: a) ponder that difference between works of power, both natural and supernatural, and signs, b) flesh out what specifically Cana as the first of the signs encourages us to believe and c) apply those encouraged beliefs to our lives.
I’d add here, something that the sermon doesn’t, that works of power can also inspire belief. They are just as much signs as the ones John picks out like Cana. The big difference is the emphasis between the two aspects. Is the primary purpose a manifestation of glory, or has that manifestation worked itself into our understanding of ourselves and our actions. Does seeing the glory change us in deeper ways.
I’d also add here a second note about this sermon. A better preacher could make this much better, but my reflection after delivery is that I rendered a very deep text in a meaningful way. It is one of the rare times preaching on John that I don’t feel defeated.
2 Kings 2:19-25, 4:1-7
The proofs of the prophetic office, The abundant nature of the miracles of Christ
The Law as the “rules of the household”, how Paul ties 9th/10th commandments back to the 1st