The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12, 2021
Be Strong! Do Not Fear!
Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
If you are at all familiar with the book of the prophet Isaiah, then you know that this portion of God’s holy Word— especially chapters one through thirty-nine— are very “heavy” on proclaiming God’s Law. Through His servant Isaiah the Lord God Almighty pronounces His judgements on a rebellious Jerusalem and Judah, on the nation of Assyria, on the nation of Babylon, on the Philistines and the Moabites, Cush and Egypt, Edom and Arabia. In Isaiah chapter 34 (the chapter preceding our text) the Lord God Almighty announces His judgment on all the earth with these words, “Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The LORD is angry with all nations, his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter” (34:1-2).
And yet, amidst all of this Law, included among all of these powerful pronouncements of God’s judgments on the rebellious and the unfaithful, God the Holy Spirit led the prophet Isaiah to include some of the sweetest gems of God’s Gospel message in all of Scripture! “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’” (1:18). “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).
This pattern of proclaiming both Law and Gospel, judgment and salvation continues here in our text for today. With that pattern in mind let’s see how through these ancient, inspired words, the Lord God Almighty continues to proclaim to you and to me: Be Strong! Do Not Fear! Be strong, do not fear because the Lord your God will come with vengeance! Be strong, do not fear because the Lord your God will come with salvation.
We’ve already noted why God’s faithful people in the days of Isaiah’s felt weak and fearful. The judgments that the Lord would bring down upon the unfaithful people in Jerusalem and Judah would also be endured by the faithful. The death and the captivity that the unfaithful would experience would also be experienced by the faithful. That’s why God the Holy Spirit led Isaiah to proclaim to the faithful among God’s people that two-fold pattern of both judgment and salvation. Look once again at the opening verses of our text. We read, “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’”
The all-knowing and all-seeing Lord knew exactly why His faithful children had “fearful hearts.” He knew that His judgments against the unbelievers and His judgments against the unfaithful could cause His children to feel weak and helpless. To overcome this weakness, to drive out this fear from their hearts the Lord Himself says to them, “Be strong, do not fear”! These bold words set troubled hearts at peace. When the Almighty God of heaven says, “Be strong, do not fear,” this is far different from an empty platitude. This is far more than just a command. These words have the power to cast fear out of our hearts because these words promise that God Himself is going to actively intervene to on behalf of His children. These words have the power to assure God’s people that they can be strong and they can get rid of their fear because the Lord their God is going to “come with vengeance.”
God’s people never need to fear that if they don’t do something to “get back” at the people who are causing them grief, if they don’t do something to “even the score” with the people who have wronged them— that these people will simply “get away” with what they have done. God’s response to that is, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance.” Whether it is in this life or on Judgment Day, the holy and just God will see to it that justice is done! As the apostle Paul said to God’s people in Thessalonica, “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you” (2 Thessalonians 1:6).
Do we ever have “fearful hearts,” my friends? Yes, we do. Why? Think about it. There are the uncertainties of life that we have to deal with whether we like it or not. Diseases like COVID-19 stalk even healthy bodies. Hearing, eyesight and mobility can and are lost due to accidents, disease or old age. The Lord has revealed to us that the “last days” in the history of this world— the days in which we are now living— will be times of stress and anxiety as wars and hatred, famines and pestilence and natural disasters, false Christs and false teachings become more and more prevalent. Far from “evolving” toward a state of harmony and perfection, this earth and the life it sustains is careening toward destruction. There are times when it seems as though evil is winning. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of 9/11— the worst terrorist attack our country has ever endured. Not only does 9/11 serve as a graphic reminder to us of how far some people are willing to go to destroy us “infidels,” but it is also a graphic reminder to us that we are still in their crosshairs. As we look around in our own country, we see examples of how the righteous suffer while the wicked seem to prosper. As we look around on an international level it seems as though all too often injustice prevails. And, of course, the end of every human biography is physical death.
That’s why the Lord God Almighty says to our “fearful hearts” exactly what He said to His people in the days of Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear”! Those bold words now set our troubled hearts at peace because they not only assure us that the justice of our God will prevail, but those bold words set our troubled hearts at peace because of this wonderful promise, “Your God will come…to save you.” The Almighty God who has the power to fulfill His promise to bring His enemies (who are also our enemies!) to justice also has the power to fulfill His promise to save us— His dearly beloved children. This glorious promise applies to us on at least four glorious, intertwined levels. First, our God fulfilled His promise to “come and save us” when the eternally begotten Son of God came into this world as our true flesh-and-blood Brother with just one “goal”— “to save us from our sins”! Through His perfect life, through His innocent suffering and death (Pointing to the cross) and through His physical resurrection from the dead, Jesus has “saved” us for all of eternity! Second, our God fulfilled His promise to “come and save us” when He came to us through the water of Holy Baptism. Through this precious and priceless Sacrament the Lord God Almighty “saved” us by washing away all of our sins and by adopting us to be His own dearly beloved child. Third, our God fulfills His promise to “come and save us” when He comes to us through His powerful Means of Grace— the Gospel in both Word and Sacrament— to assure us that all of our sins are completely forgiven and to strengthen our faith and trust in Him. (Pointing to the cross) And finally, one day, our God will fulfill His promise to “come and save” us by visibly returning to this earth as the Victor over sin, death and the devil and ushering us into the eternal glories of His heavenly Kingdom.
Now look at verses five and six of our text. Here we see that God’s promise to “come and save us” is pictured in a very beautiful way when He says to our “fearful hearts,” “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy.” These prophetic words of Isaiah dovetail perfectly with portions of Scripture such as our Gospel lesson for today. (Mark 7:31-37) Think of how many times Jesus used His divine power to “open the eyes of the blind,” to “unstop the ears of the deaf,” to heal the “lame” so that they could “leap like a deer,” and to “loosen the tongue of the dumb” so that they could “shout for joy”!
As we are reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, as we read example after example of how Jesus used His divine power to grant physical healing to anyone and everyone who came to Him for help, we need to see each and every one of those miraculous healings as a testimony to the fact that Jesus also uses His divine power to grant even greater healings— spiritual healings! Jesus used His diving power to “open” the eyes of the spiritually blind so that they could see that He is the long-awaited Promised Messiah! Jesus used His divine power to open the ears of sinners so that they could hear and understand the Truth of God’s holy inspired Word. Jesus used His divine power to loosen people’s tongues so they could share with others the glorious message of God’s Gospel. And as proof that Jesus continues to use His divine power to achieve all of these glorious miracles right down to this very day— just look in the mirror! This is what Jesus has graciously done for you!
Ah, but there is one more picture that the Holy Spirit wants us to rejoice in today. Isaiah says to you and to me, “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear…water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.” It certainly does not take much to imagine the impact that these words must have had on the people of Isaiah’s day and age. They knew all too well that without water the land all round them was nothing but a dry and barren desert. But where there was water there was life! Where there was water there was a lush oasis!
Once again it is not difficult for us to “connect the dots” between these prophetic words of Isaiah and the ministry of our Messiah. Do you remember what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well? After she asked Jesus to give her some of the “living water” He had spoken about, Jesus said to her, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Jesus expanded on this truth when He said to the people in Jerusalem, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:37-38). Just as physical water is essential for physical life, so also spiritual water, the “living water” that only Jesus can provide, is essential for eternal life!
“Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear.’” When we strive to put ourselves into the sandals of the people who first heard these words of Isaiah, it is very easy to understand why they needed to hear such powerful words of comfort. As they also endured the judgment that the Lord God Almighty was going to bring upon the unfaithful and the rebellious, they needed to hear that the Lord their God would come to save them.
“Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear.’” When we find ourselves in danger of being overwhelmed by the fears and the disappointments of this life, when we find ourselves being overwhelmed by troubles and by troublemakers today, we also need to hear these powerful words of comfort. May God grant that these words of the prophet Isaiah will always serve as a pool of refreshing water for you and for me. Our God knows, my friends! Our God understands! Our God is always with us! Our God will always faithfully fulfill all His promises to us! Be strong! Do not fear!
To God be the glory!