Bethel Evangelical Lutheran worshiping Jesus at 8th and N. East Ave. in York, NE.402-363-0022

April 2, 2017 Sermon

Click HERE for an audio version posted on our Facebook page.

Isaiah 43:18-21

Dear Friends in Christ,

What is your purpose in life? Why were you born? Why are you still here? Why have you survived when others have not? Those are questions everyone asks at some point in life. Maybe those questions come to mind in High School as you are thinking about what you are going to do for a job someday, whether or not you should go to college, or learn a trade, or enter the military. Many people who are in nursing homes, or who have become disabled in some way, wonder why they are still alive, what their purpose in life might be.

God doesn’t tell us whether we should go to college, or learn a trade, or enter the military, or change careers, or exactly what we should be doing at each stage of life. But he does tell us what our purpose is. He does tell us why we were born, why he chose us to be his children, why we are still on this earth. Whatever it is we are doing, whatever job we might have, whatever stage of life we are in, we are to be his witnesses. He has formed us for himself to proclaim his praise.

In order to keep his Old Testament people focused on their purpose God has Isaiah tell them forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. That sounds kind of strange because God had just reminded them of what he had done almost 1000 years ago in Egypt; how he had divided the Red Sea for their forefathers and then caused it to come crashing down of Pharaoh’s chariots. He had commanded Israel to remember, to celebrate the Passover every year and recount the plagues and everything he had done to rescue their forefathers from Pharaoh and bring them to the Promised Land. But, it seems that Israel was letting the remembrance of the former things distract them from their purpose. As they reviewed the past they thought, “that’s great, but where is God now, what is he doing for us today? If only we lived in the good-ole-days.”

We can understand why they might think that way. Things were not going so well for them. The northern kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians. The Assyrians had devastated Judah too. They had laid siege to Jerusalem and it looked like they would be successful in caputring the city, but then 185,000 Assyrians died in one night. But more trouble was coming for Judah. Isaiah prophesied that the Babylonians would come and they would be successful in conquering Jerusalem and taking people captive to Babylon. You can understand why, as people celebrated the Passover and remembered the miraculous deliverance God had provided in the past, they would wonder, “where is God now? Why isn’t he providing this kind of deliverance for us today?”

It’s not always bad to remember the past, but when it keeps us from focusing on our purpose, God says, forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. Paul said in our second reading today that he forgets what is behind so that he can press on toward the goal.

There are a couple of ways that dwelling on the past can keep us from focusing on our purpose. One thing that often happens is that we get stuck dwelling on sin. We remember all the sins of our youth. We remember all the foolish choices we have made. And that might lead us to think that we are worthless to God. How could we ever fulfill our purpose of serving him with our checkered past?

I’m sure Paul felt that way at times as he remembered how he had persecuted Christians, and was at least indirectly responsible for the death of some of those he persecuted. If he were to dwell on the past he would lose sight of his purpose. He had to constantly remind himself, just as we do, whenever his past sins came to mind, that Jesus paid for each of those sins. Then he would be refocused on his purpose. Then he would be inspired to witness to what God had done for him and to proclaim his praise.

Another thing that can happen when we dwell on the past is that we get stuck dwelling on the sins of others. We remember abuse, or hurtful words that were spoken, or times our spouse didn’t live up to our expectations. We are tempted to hold on to our anger, to hold a grudge. That distracts us from our purpose. Instead of being witnesses for God and proclaiming his praise we spend all our time licking our wounds, feeling sorry for ourselves and maybe even plotting revenge.

If this describes you, God says forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. “Think about the fact that I have chosen you to be my child, and that I have work for you to do. I have a purpose for you and I can use the bad experiences you have had in life to help you accomplish your purpose.” Think of the example of Dr. Mark Christian. He was certainly abused by his father. His father even tried to kill him, but he now gives witness to the way that God used those things to help him realize that Allah is not forgiving and merciful; but the one true God is. He sees his purpose is not to seek revenge, but to be God’s witness and proclaim his praise.

Dwelling on the past can also distract us from our purpose when we focus on the good things we have done. Paul talked about that as he listed all that he had done as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. When dwelling on the past makes us brag about all the things we do for God, like the Pharisee in the temple did, so that we look down on others and think we have earned blessings from God, we are not focused on or fulfilling our purpose. We are proclaiming our own praise, not God’s.

Paul said that in order to focus on his purpose he had to consider all the good things he had done to be the equivalent of rotting garbage. Isaiah says something similar when he reminds that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags before God. Even the best things we do are tainted with sin. Paul says that he is only able to focus on his purpose when he realizes that he has no righteousness of his own, that righteousness cannot be obtained by keeping the law, but righteousness before God comes only through faith in Christ. When he remembers what God has done for him in Jesus he presses on toward the goal, proclaiming the praise of the one who has called him to be his own both now and forever.

God, through Isaiah, says forget the former things. “I did some great things in the past, but the best is yet to come.” See, I am doing a new thing. That new thing was first, the fact that he would have Cyrus send those who had been taken captive to Babylon back to the Promised Land to rebuild the temple. No one had ever heard of anything like that happening. Conquered people usually either died out or were assimilated into their new culture. We still refer to the northern ten tribes as the lost tribes. But some of those taken captive to Babylon did return, and the temple was rebuilt. And yet, that wasn’t the greatest new thing that God was doing. In bringing the captives back to Jerusalem and having the temple rebuilt, he was paving the way for the coming of the Messiah. That was the ultimate new thing. It was the new covenant that Isaiah mentions a few verses later in this chapter and that God proclaims through Jeremiah. God says, I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.

The gospel of free forgiveness in Jesus is a new thing. It is an unheard of thing. It is an unimaginable thing. It is something no human would have ever dreamed of. Because of our sinful nature all we can think of is a merit based arrangement with God. “If I do enough good things then maybe God will forgive my sins.” But that can never work. No one can do enough good things to pay for even one sin. The new thing, the unheard of thing, the unimaginable thing is, as Paul says, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Look how Jesus pictured it in his parable in our Gospel lesson. After three servants were mistreated he still decided to send his son! Even though we had done, and could not do anything to earn or deserve our forgiveness or eternal life in heaven, God saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

Peter summarizes the message God gave through Isaiah and applies it to each of us today when he says, you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Focus on Jesus and what God has done for you in him. Then you will see your purpose. Whether you go to college, or trade school, or the military; whether you are a farmer or a lawyer; whether you are a father or a mother, a husband or a wife; whether you are healthy or confined to a wheelchair; whatever your place or position in life, you have one great purpose. God has formed you for himself to proclaim his praise; to be his witness that He is the one and only true God, the Savior. Focus on that purpose as you eagerly await the second coming of Jesus who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body so that we can do what God formed us to do, proclaim his praise perfectly and for all eternity.