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Worship Theme: The Church serves God faithfully

Sermon Theme: A Settled Matter

“Not today. I just can’t do today,” you think to yourself. How did your alarm go off already? There’s no way you got the kind of sleep you needed. Your back still hurts, almost as much as your joints. “How is that possible? I haven’t even moved yet?” The pain escapes your mind for a moment though as your focus turns to the low-grade headache settling in. Staring at the ceiling, you regret that a need for the bathroom is about to force you to get up and move your exhausted body. Then it dawns on you. You remember why your alarm was set in the first place. “Oh, it’s Sunday,” you say, teetering somewhere between mild excitement and mild disappointment. “I guess I better go. After all, we did sign up.” (Or perhaps your scenario is, “I guess I better go. I only need to make it to the couch and turn on the YouTube livestream.”)

And so, your morning routine begins. The scramble is on to get the coffee brewed and leave on time (or turn on the livestream on time). At home, somehow you managed to plop into your comfy chair, jammies and slippers on, coffee in hand, and a whole mess of bedhead hair sticking in every which way. But at least you made it from bed to couch! Meanwhile the in-person folks hustled up the hill to rushed through the doors just in time. “Good morning, Pastor . . . and pastor . . . and pastor . . . and Staff Minister Carter.” Awkward fist bump, or COVID-elbow thing. Let’s see, where can I sit at an appropriate social distance? Phew! You made it! You’re in your living room or in your pew, just barely, (and mostly) on time.

Moments later the service begins. “Good morning!” . . . “Good morning.” “Amen . . . Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy . . . Amen . . . Glory to God in the highest . . . And also with you . . . Thanks be to God . . . Praise be to you, O Christ . . . I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of . . . (man, my back hurts right now) . . . I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our . . . (Lord, can you please end this election business yet) . . . I believe in the Holy . . . (moly can you believe what she’s wearing) . . . and the life everlasting. Amen . .. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come . . . and be with the Packers today. Wait! What time is the game? Think we can make it to the store before the game? . . . and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen. . . Amen (again) stand, sit, stand again . . . “Hi pastor, thanks. Have a good week” . . . Plop in the offering on the way out! Boom! And there it is! I have worshiped! . . .

Ever find yourself in that rut? Ever stop for a moment to listen to that gnawing voice in the back of your head that wonders, “What am I even doing here in worship in the first place?” Some days you find yourself so on autopilot and going through the motions that you can barely remember anything you or the pastor said on the drive home from church. Some days your mind is so distracted that it feels like a news feed is flashing through your mind—election insanity, COVID updates, Thanksgiving meal prep and Black Friday shopping. But hey, at least you showed up, right? You worshiped (here or online). That should count for something, right?

Other days you may sit through worship so overwhelmed. “Why am I here? I don’t even belong. If the others only knew the things I’ve done . . . If the pastors only knew. But God knows. I feel like such a hypocrite. On this side of the doors, out come the praises. On that side of the doors out there in the world, out come the curses and the anger and the evil thoughts and so much more. I feel so stained, so dirty.

Sometimes we may have our brief moments of reflection to pause and wonder, “How did it get like this? When did worship become such a rote routine I fly through on autopilot? When did Christian life become such a chore that I do stuff because I feel like I have to? When did I get so caught up in sin that my public worship life and my private life are like two contradictory sides of the same coin?

Friends, if you’ve ever felt that way or had those experiences, know that you are not alone. There are others here who struggle and wrestle with the same things. So have God’s people of the past, yes even dating back to the days of the people of Israel.

With the first lesson this morning we interject ourselves into a time 2,700 years ago at the time of the prophet Isaiah. Surely they had fallen deep into sin, and Isaiah was going to proclaim God’s message about that. But it’s not like their worship life was a mess. This wasn’t like the time of Josiah when they had completely lost the Scriptures. This wasn’t like other times of Israel’s history where they prioritized their own lives and homes and left the house of God in disarray.

No, at this particular time they were holding their festivals and assemblies. They were bringing their sacrifices. They were saying their prayers. The problem is, they were going through the motions but their hearts were far from God. Either they were on autopilot, or they thought they were doing something special for God with these works, or they were apathetic and half- hearted, not truly committing their hearts to the Lord. God made it very clear though through the prophet Isaiah what he thought about this. Let’s review those words and skim through the first lesson again, but this time let’s do it with some modern-day applications:

“Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” This is actually a stunning start. Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed over a thousand years. But God is comparing Israel to the wickedness of those cities. Shocking! Just wait until you hear the message though, again with some modern applications:

“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me? I have more than enough checks and cash and riches. I have no pleasure in your online or in person offerings. (v. 12) When you come to appear before me, who has asked you to bring your sin and guilt into my church? Stop bringing meaningless offerings to me! Your Advent services and Sunday worship and potluck Lent dinners—I cannot bear them. Your Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve worship—they are a burden to me. (v. 15) You bow your heads and fold your hands in prayer but your heart isn’t even in it and your prayers are often selfish, so I hide my eyes and I don’t listen. Your hands are full of blood from the stains of your sins. Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil out of my sight! Stop doing wrong! Stop posting garbage on social media! Stop perpetuating injustice! Defend the poor! Help those in need! Love others instead of yourself!”

You know, these words are almost like taking the Polar Plunge on January 1. They take your breath away and freeze you on the spot. It makes you gulp down guilt as you squirm in your seat. But what can we say? What could Israel say? How can we stand before a holy God? He’s right. We’ve sinned.

So, then we hear God say in verse 18, “Come now, let us settle the matter.” It’s similar language to the gospel today where the Master came back to settle the accounts with his servants. We hear about God wanting to settle the matter and we think, “Uh oh.” We feel like the kid who breaks the neighbors’ window and dad says, “OK let’s go settle this with them.” We feel like those times when you were way over the speed limit and you see the lights in the mirror. We feel like the hardened criminal about to hear the judge’s verdict and death sentence to settle the matter and bring justice. “OK, God. OK, let me have it. I deserve it.”

But then, the LORD, Yahweh-Jehovah, the God of faithful love speaks words we would never expect, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

 “How can this be?” we wonder with the Israelites. How could God settle the matter of our sin like this? But our gracious LORD goes on to explain through this same prophet Isaiah. Later he says that there would be a virgin who would give birth to a child and he would be called Immanuel, because God would be with us. That child would be an heir to the throne of David, a righteous branch from the root of Jesse. And when he comes, the people walking in darkness would see a great light because he will be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And he would bring peace because he would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities as the punishment that brings us this peace would be upon him as by his wounds we are healed.

With fear and trepidation, we come into the presence of God and we stand before our Mighty Judge, guilty as can be. We know our sins, our guilt, our apathy, our lack of effort or care. “OK, let’s settle the matter. Let’s get this punishment business over with.” But the LORD, whose mercy knows no ending, declares by grace, “My child, the matter is already settled. It was settled at the cross.”

So indeed, we see that our once blood-stained hands have been washed in the blood of Jesus that purifies us from every sin. So, we see that his zeal for his Father’s house, his compassion for the poor and the needy, his love for his people and for his enemies has been draped over us as a beautifully bleached-white robe of righteousness. In fact, we see that all the sin is gone, the guilt is gone, the shame is gone. Though we were like scarlet, like crimson, black like death, we now are as white as snow, as wool, as perfection and eternal life. Forgiveness, life, eternity—it’s all ours in Jesus, and it’s already A Settled Matter in God’s book.

So now, now I can finally wrap my head around other amazing words of grace that we hear from our God. Next week we will wonder along with the Gospel reading, “Lord, when did I see you hungry or thirsty or in prison or sick or in need?” But the Father will look at us as he looks at his own Son, spotless and white as snow, and will say, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these you did also for me.” And one day we will ask Jesus our Judge face to face, “But what have I done? Who am I to stand before you and enter your heaven?” And the Savior will smile, show us his hands and side, and see us with his own life given to us, and he will say as we heard today, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness!”

Suddenly Paul’s words in the second lesson today become so much more clear, don’t they? Paul said in Romans 12, “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” Indeed! Knowing what Christ has done, knowing that I once was stained like scarlet, but now I have a new life as white as snow, I can’t wait to offer myself in worship! No matter the back or body pain, I can’t wait to jump out of bed and head to 1209 N. Broadway (or my couch) to receive more of God’s gifts of grace. I can’t wait to join in the Amens with God’s people as we plead Lord, have mercy, and each week he answers with the same mercy and forgiveness. I can’t wait to erupt with Glory to God in the Highest and later to declare to the world, “I believe in the God the Father Almighty . . . I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.” I can’t wait to offer up our prayers together to a God who does listen by grace and answer in love. And I can’t wait to receive a 3,000-year-old blessing from that same Jehovah Lord who has been pouring out blessing on his people for all these millennia. Because then, I can’t wait to bounce out these doors with a joyful pep in my step to continue my worship. I can’t wait to offer myself as a living sacrifice, worshiping God with my offerings as I leave the building, with my life as I love my neighbor, and as I’m patient and careful on social media, and as I’m selfless with my family, as I let his light shine into the darkness through me.

Yes, I can’t wait to worship at Grace and to live in grace, until that day that I stand before the throne and the Lord says to me by grace, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And then, then, I will only begin to know what true worship and praise are for an eternity to come.

Oh, what grace! Oh, what joy! To know this already is A Settled Matter in Christ Jesus our Lord! Thanks be to God! Amen.

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