“It’s time to sing!” I just love how our Lutheran hymns end. The stanza 4s or 5s. You can look this up - usually the last stanza either praises our triune God or ends with the joyful bliss and glory of heaven. It doesn’t matter the topic or the trouble - for example, we have hymns that confess our sins “with broken heart and contrite sigh”(Christian Worship #303) - so real - let’s your crushed spirit convey your disappointment and lowly plea - “O God , be merciful to me.” And yet, when I find myself surrounded by … me and my own wrongdoings, I hope I learn from these hymns that it’s time to sing. Who would’ve thought? It’s time to sing so I don’t leave all that Jesus has done unused. The hymn ends, “And when, redeemed from sin and hell, with all the ransomed souls I dwell, my joyous song shall ever be: God has been merciful to me.”
We have hymns about worldly troubles and suffering, about false teaching, temptations and Satan’s attacks, about the end of my life and the end of the world, yet time and time again these hymns teach us that these are the very occasions for believers to say “It’s time to sing of our God!” and we sing to “finish the thought” about sin, suffering, trouble, death, and to do so safely by his side. A forever joy with God is often the hymn’s final stamp and sentence.
The LORD through Isaiah gives us just such a hymn to sing to God - complete with meter and rhyme! Listen to it in Hebrew...it’s going to sound like I’m sneezing, but here goes: [recited Hebrews from Isaiah 25:6]. Can you hear the repeated and patterned sounds? Like rocking back and forth - you can’t read that in Hebrew without swaying! What are we doing, Isaiah? We’re dancing! Isn’t this just like the joy of a banquet, the fun at the feast?
Today Isaiah teaches us how to write hymns: with a faith and trust that ever looks up on the mountain of the Lord’s Word, and never down, and whenever you do, you always end with a full table from his hand and a heavenly hymn of praise on your lips.
It should come as no surprise that the hymns we use and sing and call Christian are about God. And Isaiah’s is too. Like a sermon or anytime you speak for God, the hymn better get it right - this too the holy ground of his name, this is his mountain, Mountain Zion, the almighty God’s turf where he caused his name to dwell and makes himself known in our world. Listen again to the serious “oompf” of these grand hymn stanzas:
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.
There’s something you need to know about this hymn. This hymn is buried. Not in the sense that it can’t be found or God doesn’t want anyone to know where it is or what to sing. But it’s buried in the sense that it’s only sung by the dead. This is a hymn for those who are spiritually six feet under, who hear Isaiah say “shroud that enfolds” and they go - “uh-huh, my life feels like it’s got a burial cloth on it sometimes,” where you recognize some global layer of dust and ashes that covers this fallen world. Or mention “death” and they say - ‘he’s talking to me,” sinners who make no claim for themselves before God, except to own their sin and lay all their trust for what is good outside of themselves. Isaiah says this feast is prepared by God for all people, but by “all people” he means “all sinners” because all people and need God to do something about it! This is for those with “tears,” for those who have “disgrace” all over the place in this world.
That’s no different from the other readings we have today. Remember Jesus’ parable of the king’s wedding banquet for his Son? There were those who lots they wanted to live for who didn’t care for Jesus’ song of a wedding banquet. They were not hungry and thirsty for his righteousness. Instead, “one went off to his field, another to his business.” And the king destroyed them and their city. And still another one was there at the end of the parable who denied his grave. He’s the one that’s hard to understand when you just read it. But kings back then used to give proper wedding clothes to those who didn’t have them. So that all would be equally and splendidly dressed for the occasion. But this rotting corpse of a soul decided to reject the beautiful robe of Jesus’ righteousness and said, “I’m going to stick with these rags - I like them - it’s a little bit of me I don’t want to give up.” So he refuses to receive the wedding clothes of the king, because he insisted he wasn’t spiritually dead and in need of Christ’s clothes.
When Paul couldn’t wait to bring the hymn of the gospel to Rome, he did so with the assumption that mighty and powerful Rome lacked true life, and those believers who received his chapter 1 hymn of the “power of God” and “the righteousness of God revealed” that is a gift by “faith from first to last,” agreed with him that they needed God’s power, they needed such a gift and they rejoiced to copy and paste his good news message to put at the end of their hymn in life.
Isaiah calls for this understanding with his hymn too: the only works worth singing are those of God alone for the sake of those covered by a shroud, blanketed by a sheet of separation between them and God, with a death they deserve that must be swallowed up forever. This hymn is for those who cry to God, “look at this sheet of my shame, my curse, this is my sin, this is my death and grave - deliver me as I can’t do it myself!”
I hear the confused reactions to tragedies like hurricanes, mass shootings and wildfires - miserable reactions with questions and confusion and despair: “my life is over”; “why us? “How do we make sense of such evil?” “There seems to be something bad in the cards for our country.” People don’t connect this to their own sin, they don’t see connections in the faults of others to their own faults. They don’t react to these tragic consequences of sin with confession on their lips. They are still deceived and I worry that I begin to treat evil the same and point fingers in the wrong direction.
But I think of Adam and Eve, how perhaps all evil and all tragedies were easy to explain and understand. What was in Adam’s heart when he planted a seed in the ground after the fall into sin? “Oh little seed. The weeds are coming, and the rain may not fall, and some plant disease may spread to your leaves too and I may not get to harvest you - but You are my reminder that now the grass withers and the flowers fall but only the Word endures forever. That’s because of sin - my sin, not yours.” And he lifts his faith-eyes to the mountain of God’s promise and sings “My Shepherd will supply my need, Jehovah is his name…” But he didn’t stop until he finished the hymn: “and may his house be my abode and all my work be praise. There will I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” (Christian Worship, 374)
And what does Eve think about the baby in her womb? Who knows how many children she had. What was it like to consider their fragile lives? “Oh little seed, there is no guarantee that you will survive this pregnancy. That’s because of sin come into the world. And so is the difficulty with which I’ll give you birth - it may even cost me my life when you are delivered. And your nature - surely you too will naturally prefer the lies of Satan to the truth of God, and sin will seek to be your master and devour you as its prey...and Satan will be ready to attack you spiritually from the moment you are born and all the more should you trust in God. Yes, all these because of sin - my sin.” But - it’s time to sing! “I walk in danger all the way, the thought shall never leave me, that Satan who has marked his prey is plotting to deceive me.” and she rehearses the name of her gracious Lord and proclaims his unchanged promise to crush the serpent’s head and she doesn’t stop until the stanzas get to heaven - “My walk is heav’nward all the way...Await my soul the morrow, when you farewell can gladly say to all your sin and sorrow.” (Christian Worship, 431)
This is the true-to-life place, and no other, here, below the ground, knowing the sheet that covers us and death that waits, with no weapons of our own - this is where God says to his prophet Isaiah - “It’s time to sing! Fill their hearts and mouths with a taste of heaven, with the results of my redemption. Give it rhyme and make it dance and don’t let leave them hanging or wondering or in doubt about my work and my gifts. Make it great, the best banquet ever!” This is the serious stanza 5 of the LORD - his stamp and seal of gracious and great victory - as Isaiah put it - the Lord has spoken.
Stand in your dust, and start the hymn. Talk about Satan, lament the power of sin in your life, confess your unworthiness, talk about the evils and the suffering - let it be real - this is you and your shroud in this wasteland, in the valley of death, from this grave - I know - get it down on paper for a couple stanzas - this is a time to sing and meet all danger for body and soul with the hymn that comes from the LORD almighty on his mountain! Find it buried there for you! This is just like the poets who wrote our hymns or the believers who composed the book of Psalms!
The Lord will prepare a feast for you - look to this work of God, yes, to God himself, who is preparer and the nourishment. This most joyous feast and richest, superlative cuisine is for all people through the work of Christ. See the table, have a seat, celebrate new life! I see his perfect ways, I see his humble sacrifice, I see his your will be done and his it is finished, I eat up his resurrection and victorious tromp through hell. “Hey, if hell can’t hold Jesus, it sure won’t hold me either! Cheers to that!”
He will swallow up death forever. Do you remember how Paul said that the last enemy to be destroyed is death in 1 Corinthians 15? In this most bountiful feast of blessings and perfect deliverance, Isaiah zooms in to the last act of our great Redeemer who does not stop until he has redeemed us whole - body and soul forever. See the saving work of Jesus spread like a hand to take away the entire sheet of our curse, to undo every last consequence of sin. He will completely remove it and he will not leave any part of us unredeemed. Yes, even this physical body will be made new. He will not just redeem the soul, and be stopped short. On the Last Day, he will raise our bodies imperishable, glorified, and we stick it to stanza 5 of our creed - “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
This is the Word of God, his mountain he makes and establishes for my soul to dwell and live forever with him and his holiness and his righteousness and his blessedness.
Take your hardships, take your sheet of sin-sorrows that frustrates and covers and makes a big old mess of your life and become a psalm-writer, compose your hymn. What would I write about this? And when you do, having heard this Word of the Lord, I know that no matter what trouble, what sin, what danger, what devil, you’ll find a way to end your hymn here, with your God, on his mountain. Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on October 15, 2017