Fifth Sunday of Easter – Cantate – May 18th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Unchanging Mercy - Isaiah 12:1-6, James 1:16-21, John 16:5-15
James says that in God there is no variation or shadow due to change. That God is a solid, consistent, unchanging Rock, is a very comforting promise, if life is going well. But if life is going badly, if threats surround and the weight of suffering crushes, then an unchanging God is scary as hell. When sun and light and moon and stars are darkened, when our dust is returning to the earth from whence it came, when we are unraveling, and our sins and the sins of our fathers bear down on us, this is not the time for anyone to wax poetic at how fearfully and wonderfully we have been knit together by our unchanging Creator. Job sits, scraping his sores on the ash-heap, sitting there, waiting to be burned with all the other worthless things. This is no place to prattle on ad nauseum, about on the unchangeable morality and justice of God’s laws, like Job’s three worthless friends did. If that’s what you’re going to say to the suffering, you might as well cut to the chase with his shrew of a wife, who advised Job to curse God and die. And if such a sermon about the unchangeable justice of God is wrong on the deathbed and the ash-heap of suffering, when is it good? And yet, how often do we, on bad days and good days, agonize and wonder aloud, why God does what He does? There must be some set rules, right? We may not think it consciously, but at our core we hope that if we can figure out the rules, we will be able to checkmate God into doing things differently.
In fact, the corruption by sin of our minds and emotions reveals itself over and over again, in our thinking and hoping that we will have a handle on God, if we can just get a handle on the rules of His creation, if we can just rightly understand His Law. Adam named the animals, very systematically, and then thought that with just the added knowledge of good and evil, he’d be able to run the place all by himself, without God’s help. He was wrong. He sinned, missed the mark. He aimed to become god, which was bad enough. But he sinned doubly, aiming to become the wrong god. Adam, in seeking the knowledge of good and evil, sought to be Lord of justice, the Master of legal formulas and recommended minimum sentences. But God as punisher is only the God we see because of our sin. To judge and punish is God’s alien work, His unnatural work, true and right and required by our rebellion, to be sure, but not God’s desire, not His essence. God is something other than the sum of unchanging natural and moral laws. Likewise, saving faith is something other than thinking if we follow these unchangeable rules, we’ll be able to play the game well, or at least well enough.
You see, if God was the merely the unchanging sum of all rules, the Scriptures we have before us today would be irreconcilable. On the one hand, James says in God there is no shadow of turning, no variation, no change. But on the other hand, what a change Isaiah speaks of! O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. And wait, there’s more. For it is the Lord Himself who puts this promise of turning into the mouth of his redeemed people. It is the Lord who declares, “You will say in that day:"I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.”
But wait a minute. The unchanging God instructs His people to sing for joy at His turning, his change, from anger and punishment to comfort and blessing? Is this another Bible contradiction to add to the pile of passages we don’t understand. How can God never change, but also change his mind about us? Doesn’t that break the rules?
God is not a box of rules. James is right, God does not change. But Isaiah is right too. The thing that is without change in God is that, for His redeemed, for His people, God is always turning from wrath to mercy. As Isaiah says, he is angry, but his anger turns, not so much turning away, but back. The anger of God against sin is turned back, even upon God Himself.
This is not a human conclusion reached after observing the working of the rules. Neither is this turning really only some moderation, a turning down of God’s wrath against sin, so we can handle it. No, what God has said about His hatred of sin stands, unchangingly, without reduction. But nevertheless, this Word of His turning He himself puts in us, implants in us. “You will say,” he says, “in that day.” Now is that day of salvation, and God plants in us the Words He would hear us say back to Him: “I will give thanks to you O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned back; and you comfort me. I will trust, and not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” And so we see, as James also said, “of his own will He has brought us forth by the word of truth.” This is why it is all joy to “receive with meekness the implanted word,” for it is “able to save your souls.” This implanted word of God’s turning from anger to mercy is how the Spirit of Truth comes and guides us into all truth, taking what belongs to Jesus and declaring it to you. All that the Father has is the Son’s, and the Spirit takes what is of Jesus, and declares it to you. And that declaration is that God’s anger has turned away from you, and is no more, in Jesus.
This is God’s declaration to you-for you, and for others - this word of the God who is unturningly turning, unchangeably changing, always turning from wrath to mercy, from anger to comfort, from condemnation to deliverance, from Law to Gospel, for you. This is not simply one metaphor among many, to help us understand God, not merely a rule for putting out sermons that might get things done. Turning from wrath to mercy, from Law to Gospel, is not just one thing God did. Nor is declaring this Truth just one thing among many that we do. No, this is the way of speaking bound up in the identity of the God himself, who was angry at me, but His anger turned back on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem, so now God comforts me.
Wrath to mercy, anger to comfort, Law to Gospel, this is the way of speaking bound up in the Lord who is Jesus Christ, the Son whom the Father loves because he laid down his life for sin, as the Law requires, in order to take His life up again in justification, which is Good News for sinners. The unchanging thing about God is how He shows His righteousness by putting his own life forward as propitiation, that is, the atoning sacrifice that wipes clean the slate of our guilt. God shows us this righteousness by implanting His Word, creating the faith that receives God’s unchanging gift. This unchanging turning of God, this Word of Law and Gospel, is the power of God for salvation, the very “the implanted word which, (unlike the law or your works) is able to save your souls.”
And we know this. Yet we fritter our lives away waiting for changes, different changes, more exciting changes, trying to figure out the rules to make changes happen-especially pastors do this. What will make a difference with the indifferent? What’s going to sell an unchanging Word to a world that worships change? What will keep the Church going forward, when pastors and people are scurrying in so many different directions? What does God mean by not making things go the way I think they should? How can I change his mind, by what rule and why and wherefore?
Be still, and hear God. For the Spirit says to Pastor and People, “You will say in that day, ‘You, O Lord, were angry with me, but your anger turned back, and you comfort me.’” And precisely there, in the turning from anger to mercy, God is your salvation; you may trust and not be afraid. “For this faith [in the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake] God imputes,- he counts as - righteousness in his sight.” Not our works, not our plans, not our understanding, simply our trust, in His blood bought mercy. And “where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” This is your life and the Church’s life, and your holy charge, that with joy you may draw water from the wells of salvation, and shout and sing for joy, even in the midst of tears and suffering.
“Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus breathed on His Apostles, in the upper room, on the evening following Resurrection Day. “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whosoever sins you bind, they are bound.” This is where the promise Jesus made in today’s Gospel was first delivered. And still the Spirit is speaking the things He has heard from the Father and the Son, declaring to you what is to come. The Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and the Father and declares it, even commands it, to you. For the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the God who justifies the ungodly. And this is not just what God does; this is who God is, the One who was angry with me, and you, but His anger turned back upon himself, and now He comforts us.
And so Jesus is glorified, lifted up above the limitations of the rules and workings of this earth, lifted up to do His proper work, which is granting repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and thereby drawing all men to Himself. “Grant, therefore, O God, that we may love what you have commanded and desire what You promise, that among the many changes of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys are to be found,” in your unchanging mercy, Amen.”
Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dr. John Sias at the 2014 Dual Circuit Pastors’ Conference, Southern and Eastern Circuits of the Montana District, LCMS, held at Concordia Lutheran, Forsyth Montana.