Trust Not in Princes – Sermon for Feb. 7/8

Trust Not in Princes
Isaiah 35:1-10
Quinquagesima
February 7th/8th, 2016
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

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It’s election season again, and has been for some time. We are now several debates in, and the Iowa Caucus is behind us.  We will continue to hear much over the next several months about Bernie and Hillary, about the Donald and Ted Cruz. As the election gets closer, the tensions will get higher, debates will get more heated, and the stakes will continue to rise.  As we brace for the storm, God’s people are called to remember a few things.

First, we have been given the vocation of citizen and owe it to our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as to those outside the church, to participate in the election process. Even if we don’t fully embrace the world of modern politics, we still vote our conscience according to the Word of God as children of God and citizens of this country. That is a good and godly thing to do.  For if we take seriously our confession that God has created us, then we also have to take seriously the details of our lives. Just as our gender and other physical traits are not an accident, but rather are the specifics of the life God has given us, so also our citizenship is not something to be lightly tossed aside.  We were created to live in this time and place, not in Tudor England or the Byzantine Empire. And this time and place asks the citizens of this land to elect its leaders, so that’s what we do.  We are called to cast our vote when the time comes, and then to live in the 4th Commandment by respecting the authority given to those who end up elected. For there is no authority except that given by God, and those authorities that do exist have been instituted by God. We pay taxes to whom taxes are owed, we give honor to whom honor is owed, and respect to whom respect is owed, for that is what it means to live in this world.[1]

But as we go about our lives as members of this earthly kingdom we remember the words of Isaiah that we heard just a few moments ago. I invite you to have those words open in front of you if you’d like, because as you look at them they might not strike you as political words on first glance. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Encourage those who have an anxious heart, for God is coming to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Waters will break forth in the wilderness and the burning sand will become a pool and springs of water. What exactly does that have to do with elections or presidents or the nations of this world?

Quite a lot, actually. For Isaiah 35 is written as a foil to Isaiah chapter 34. These two chapters go together. In chapter 34, the prophet calls the nations and people of the world together and pronounces God’s anger on them. The prophet declared that God had given these nations over to judgment and destruction. He said that they would be like P7EvBJgleaves falling off a tree, that their soil would be turned into sulfur, and that her land will become a desolate wasteland. It will become the home of hawks and porcupines, for no crops will be able to grow there, and it will be useless for grazing flocks and herds. Castles and fortresses will decay into ruins covered with thorns and thistles, and the entire land will become a haunt for jackals and hyenas and other wild animals. In short, the land that was inhabited and governed and shaped by the nations of this world would become a desolate place, an abandoned place overrun by thorns and scavengers.

But chapter 35 gives us the promise of restoration. Following on the heels of the prophecies of destruction and desolation, God gives the promise of a garden, a promise of restoration and reconciliation.[2] The contrast is clear: whereas putting your trust in the rulers and nations of this world will result in a desert, trust in God results in a garden. It results in a place where waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; a place where the burning sand and the thirsty ground will be saturated with so much water that it can’t hold it all, resulting instead in pools for people to drink from whenever they wish. If you look at the beginning of chapter 35, the verses that precede today’s reading, the Lord promises that the desert will rejoice and fill with blooming flowers, that it will become a fertile plain like that of Lebanon or Carmel or Sharon. That’s like saying the desert of Arizona and Nevada will become as fertile as the fields of Kansas and Nebraska, or even the plush rainforests of South America.

If you continue past today’s reading and look at the rest of the chapter, you see that the prophet declares that in this land of restoration there will be a highway, and it will be called the Way of Holiness. It will be a highway that the unrighteous will not be allowed to travel. It will belong to the people of God.  The fools who say in their heart that there is no God will not be allowed to travel this road. There will be no lions or ravenous beasts to frighten you on this road; it will be a path of safety. It will be a highway to Zion, a road travelled by the people of God as they return to the presence of their Lord. Unlike chapter 34, where the ground ruled by men becomes rocky and full of burning sulfur, making it difficult to travel, this ground is perfect for the people of God coming together. The sin of man divides; the holiness of God unites.  The way of man is to make this world uninhabitable; the way of God is to take what is desolate and make it abundant.

In the part of chapter 35 read today the prophet promises strength will be given to feeble hands. These feeble hands aren’t necessarily weak or old hands, but more like hands that have been thrown up in frustration, hands attached to hearts that have given up and thrown in the towel.  When confronted with the nations who use their power ruthlessly, what else is a person to do except throw up your hands in exasperation. To such hands God’s word of encouragement will restore hope. Isaiah 35 promises it will be so.

Because these two chapters are poetic, we shouldn’t spend too much effort trying to assign specific identities to the different details they contain. Rather, we hear their massage, and their message is clear: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.”[3]  As citizens of this nation we are indeed called to participate in the election process, but if we think Bernie or Hillary or Ted or Trump will solve our problems, then we are severely mistaken. For as Psalm 146 reminds us, when these rulers die, so do their plans and visions. Here in America, we don’t even have to wait for them to die, just until someone else gets elected. For all the talk we hear these days of cutting through bureaucratic tape in the name of getting things done, I wonder how many Executive Orders issued by the current administration will last the test of time.  History has taught us that the plans and policies of politicians have a shelf-life; they will all come to an end one day.  Someone else will take office, and no matter who that someone is, they will not be able to solve the problem of sin either. They will not be able to cure the wickedness and selfishness of the human heart. They will not be able to rid the world of poverty or hunger or disease or war. Problems such as these are far too deeply rooted, woven into the very fabric of a sinful world.

Rather than trusting in princes to deliver us from earthly struggles, we put our trust in the one who will deliver us through them. As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, the Son of Man went to Jerusalem to save us from the sin of this creation. He was delivered over to the Gentiles. He was mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. He was flogged andMy-Hope-is-Built killed. But death could not hold him, and on the third day he rose back to life. He conquered the grave. The princes of this world will never conquer the problems of this world. In the end, regardless of who wins the next election, each of us dies.  Our problem runs so much deeper than a political solution could ever hope to touch. But we have the promise of true and lasting deliverance from the struggles and failures that haunt our existence. We have the promises of Isaiah 35, the promises of existence in a new and perfect creation.

Those promises fill us with hope. They don’t excuse us from taking a stand against the oppression and sin we see around us. We do still reach out to those in need, offering the mercy of our Lord by providing for them. We don’t just throw up our hands in defeat, but we continue to speak the truth of our Lord’s Word, even if we feel like no one is listening. We vote our conscience according to the Word of God. While we are looking past the struggles of this world, we don’t retreat into hiding. We don’t ignore the problems of this life and simply bide our time until heaven gets here.

But neither do we act as if worldly solutions to worldly problems will offer the final cure. No, that will come from Christ alone. Regardless of whether our efforts in this life succeed or fail by worldly standards, Christ has won the victory. It is finished – he said so himself. We put not our trust in princes, but we rejoice in the ultimate salvation that is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord, not hiding from our responsibility to this world or pretending like it’s not there, but also not idolizing this life, or its problems, or its solutions. Regardless of what outcome we see from our efforts in this life, the outcome of this life itself is secure, for it rests on Jesus alone. He has promised us resurrection. He has promised us restoration. He has promised us life.

May he who has begun this good work in us see it through to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Romans 13:1-7

[2] Much of what follows is adapted from John Oswalt’s NICOT Commentary on Isaiah 1-39 (p. 618-627)

[3] Psalm 146:2

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