Pastor Kyle Bitter - Unity Sunday - Sunday, September 12, 2021

Text: Isaiah 42:8-13

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On Unity Sunday, I suppose a question worth asking is this: what unites you with other Christians? Of course, the obvious answer is shared faith in Jesus as our Savior, but what about beyond that? What unites you with other Christians? Maybe for many it’s what we are doing right now – gathering together to hear God’s word, to receive the sacraments, to see our Christian friends and join together in learning and praising God. Maybe for others the connections made through our school. Maybe you have attended, or your kids have, or in some cases both! Perhaps it’s the sense of shared purpose that comes from working together with other people. Those are all good examples of the kinds of blessings that come from membership in a congregation like ours, but today I’d like you think about an even bigger one. When you look at scripture as a whole and observe some of the things that are the same for people in all kinds of different times and places, you start to see a number of common themes emerge. One such theme that can be seen in the context of today’s first lesson is the theme of captivity and freedom. You find it all over scripture, and even though it might sound odd, it’s something we can identify with even amidst the freedoms we enjoy in our society.

Perhaps the most well-known example comes from Old Testament times. The ancestors of Jesus, a nation known as the children of Israel, were enslaved in the land of Egypt. They lived as captives there, longing to return to their homeland. Through the leadership of Moses, ten terrifying plagues on the Egyptians, and the parting of the Red Sea, God leads them on an epic journey to freedom as they make their way to the Promised Land. But that’s far from the only example. In time, the people are overly influenced by the pagan nations around, and they end up turning away from God and forsaking his help. Left to their own devices, they are quickly overpowered by the nations around and find themselves in captivity once again. God raises up leaders, the people are delivered, and life is good once more. The cycle repeats again and again over the course of generations. The prophet Isaiah, writer of today’s first lesson, saw it in his day too. God charged him, among other things, with carrying a message of warning to the people that their wickedness was leading them into captivity again.

Now, I suppose all of that so far seems rather far removed from 21st century America. After all, we live in the land of the free, our God-given rights are enshrined in the Constitution, we choose our own leaders, our military keeps war far from our own land…but realize that the experience of captivity doesn’t have to be a political thing only. You and I don’t have to look very hard to find people who are captive in various ways to difficult economic situations where it seems impossible to turn things around and reverse generations of hardship. We don’t have to look all that hard to see that our world is captive to violence and bloodshed. This weekend marked 20 years since 9/11, and that event is just one small blip on a world history united by continual warfare and violence! We don’t have to look very hard to find people who are held captive to disease or disability or other physical or mental ailments. We don’t have to look very hard to see the captivity that comes from being trapped in addictions, from sinful habits, or from the long-standing consequences of bad decisions made years ago! It might not be the visible sort of captivity we see in Bible times, but it’s still an all too real effect of the damage sin has inflicted in our world and lives.

For many of us, hearing a list like that shows reason to be thankful that we have been spared from experiencing the full breadth of possible hard things, so a question worth asking is this: How do people tend to respond when God grants his blessing and does deliver his people from many of the potential hardships that can be found? The examples the Bible shows us aren’t pretty. It’s not long after God delivers his people from Egypt that we find them making a golden calf in complete defiance of God’s instructions about worship and then proclaiming – “these are your gods O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt!” They had been set free in a physical way, but they were still completely captive to the sinful rebellion against God that comes so naturally! They gave glory due to God to something they had made with their own hands. Sadly, a close look at ourselves today shows that we are united with these people of the past more closely than we might wish to acknowledge. It might not show itself in the blatant idolatry of the golden calf, but it’s still there. Think about a couple of examples. How often is it the case that if we manage to escape difficult economic situations, it’s because we worked hard and made wise decisions? When we enjoy our good health, it’s because we have good habits and take care of our bodies. When we manage to avoid some of the more visibly obvious forms of sinfulness, it’s because we know better, and we just wouldn’t do that kind of thing like some people out there. But what is reality? It’s God who gives us the ability to work hard, it’s God who grants us with the opportunity to succeed, it’s God who blesses us with good health, and in many cases it’s God who keeps us from many sins by making sure we don’t have the opportunity to engage in it! And yet, we find ourselves taking credit for what God has done.

All that shows us what the sad reality really is – despite what we might tell ourselves about the progression of society, we are united with people of past generations in a tragic way. Through his prophet Isaiah, God warned his rebellious people of all generations: “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8 – NIV84). Taking credit ourselves for what God has done or what God has given to us ultimately makes us no better than those Israelites happily dancing and celebrating around the golden calf. And it would be perfectly just if God were to leave us to our own devices and allow that captivity to sin to progress all the way to final confinement in the horrifying prisons of hell.

God Declares New Things

But the good news is, God doesn’t work that way today and God never has worked that way. Alongside the ongoing biblical theme of captivity is the constant theme of God’s deliverance. Time and again he raises up prophets and military leaders, driving out the captors and setting his people free. The political efforts of the past never fixed the problem in a permanent way because the people were still captive to sin, but it did illustrate what was to come. In today’s sermon text, Isaiah records God’s far bigger promise of deliverance from captivity to sin: “See, the former things have taken place, [In the past I have promised deliverance from other nations, and I have come through for you, but that’s only the beginning.] and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.” (Isaiah 42:9 – NIV84). What were these “New Things” God was announcing?

The verses immediately before this section give us a clue. Isaiah records God’s description of his servant whom he would send to bring “justice for the nations…to free the captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:1, 7 – NIV84). In another place Isaiah again described this servant as one who would “proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1 – NIV84). It sounds like what God had done in the past, but as events unfold, we see that this New Thing was actually far bigger than anything God had done to date – bigger even than the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea! Some 700 years later, in a synagogue in Galilee, Jesus himself would read some of Isaiah’s words about this promised deliverer, the servant, and then he made this earth-shattering proclamation: “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21 – NIV84). God’s “New Thing,” promised centuries earlier in the time of Isaiah, was coming to pass, just as God had said that it would. And it would be a new kind of deliverance. Jesus didn’t bring the temporary freedom from an oppressive foreign nation. He didn’t grant some short-lived relief from financial or physical hardship. He wasn’t a human leader who would serve for one generation and then die himself. God’s New Thing, to use the words of Isaiah, was something far, far better! God’s one and only Son. Taking on human flesh. Living himself in the captivity of a sinful world, but never taking part in it. Taking on this captivity so he could suffer the punishment sin deserves by giving up his own life, making payment once and for all for the universal problem of sin that has tragically united people of every generation. “New things I declare, says the LORD!” A new way of uniting God’s people of every generation – not in captivity to sin, but in the freedom that comes from forgiveness! “New things I declare, says the LORD!”

We Sing a New Song

And because of these New Things that God has done, we are united with the rest of God’s people – here at St. John’s, throughout the world and over the ages of history. United in freedom from sin means being united in purpose. Isaiah describes it as singing a new song – a song that is only possible because of the new things God has done. Isaiah wrote: “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth”. Isaiah’s description shows how wide-spread and unifying this song is. He covers geography as far as people of his day could imagine it! “Sing to the LORD a new song…you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands and all who live in them. Let the desert and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. Let them give glory to the LORD and proclaim his praise in the islands.” (Isaiah 42:10-12 – NIV84). No matter where you are from, no matter what has happened in your life, in Jesus you are united in singing this new song. It happens when we join for worship, but that’s just the beginning. The song continues to be sung in all the ways that God brings us together, whether in serving alongside fellow Christians in things here at church, living as godly influences in our families, schools, and workplaces, or trying to help physically or spiritually those who are held captive to sin and its effects! Sing to the LORD a New Song!

It's a powerful thing to be a part of because the notes of this New Song sung in the lives of God’s people cut through the chains of sinfulness that bind our world so tightly. Even as the world remains distracted by pandemics and consumed with politics and filled with hardship and violence, even as temptation and spiritual danger lurk around every corner, the song continues to be sung and the good news continues to be broadcast to the four corners of the earth, uniting us in playing our own unique part in seeing the fulfillment of the final thing Isaiah prophesied today: “the LORD will march out like a mighty man, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.” (Isaiah 42:13 – NIV84). The good news about Jesus, the New Song of God’s people, will go out and be heard. There’s no stopping it, and you and I get to be part of it! That’s what unites you and me with each other, with God’s people around the world, and even with generations past. Sing to the LORD a New Song! Amen.