2nd Sunday after Epiphany – A LSB #’s 761, 575, 746
Text – Isaiah 49:4
But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing & vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, & my recompense with my God.”
FOR NOTHING & VANITY
You know the saying, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” Then there’s Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong – it will!” Both sayings give us a picture of our world – a world that is broken, full of sorrow & frustration. There are only two solutions to the despair. Either human beings must fix it, or there is some greater power out there who will.
All the belief systems of mankind can be boiled down to those two categories. People may believe in themselves, or other human beings. People may believe in some kind of supernatural god. When the events of our lives 1st collapse into the pit of everything going wrong, with nothing but bad luck, the normal reaction is to search for a solution.
God’s chosen nation would be stuck in the land of Babylon. They would end up there because they needed discipline from the hand of their Creator. Their pride & arrogance already stunk to high heaven. At their initial defeat & captivity they may have blamed it on bad luck & Murphy’s Law, but after a time, more faithful people were born of the struggle in captivity.
All of this was being prophesied by Isaiah in, what turned out to be a futile attempt to turn the people back from their destruction. They refused to listen & so their “Promised Land” was taken from them. They would regain humility, & turn back to their Creator, only through suffering. Babylon is pictured by Isaiah as a type of death & burial for God’s people.
Yet, Isaiah does not predict only suffering, humiliation & death. Due to God’s great mercy, Isaiah also prophesies of rescue, forgiveness, life & salvation – even the hope of resurrection. Because the Promised Land was viewed literally as life itself, to be taken from the land was to die. Likewise, the return from exile, to the Land, is looked at as resurrection from the dead. It was that dramatic. For the Israelites, that’s how tightly tied together were the promises of land & life. And under the right conditions, even apart from the Promised Land, simply the promises of God would bring life out of death also in Babylon.
The events of Daniel in the lion’s den, along with Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego in the fiery furnace, both occurred there. The people of God had been humbled by their defeat & captivity. Some were now turning back to Yahweh in repentance & humility. They were willing to die in Babylon rather than turn away from the One who brings life out of death.
The ultimate Promised Land does not reside on this earth but in heaven. So the words of the sermon text ring true with our experiences on this earth: “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing & vanity…’” The Holy Spirit tells us that is true in each of our daily lives: “For all have sinned & fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23 ESV)
Try as we might, no matter how many things we achieve that appear as success, not a one of us can fix this broken world. King Solomon was the wisest man to ever live, & in that wisdom he tried to fix things & make everything successful. Here’s what he concluded. It sounds a lot like ‘nothing & vanity’:
“Everything is meaningless, completely meaningless!” What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come & generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises & the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, & then turns north. Around & around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers & flows out again to the sea… No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, & in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now... I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, & I lived in Jerusalem. I observed everything going on under the sun, & really, it is all meaningless – like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-12, 14-15 NLT)
That’s a large selection of Holy Scripture but it makes Isaiah’s point so well, & it fits with our own personal experiences. Life in this world is hard, & by it, many people end up crushed. We want to fix them, & we think that trying to do so is what God wants from us. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors unconditionally, not to fix them. There’s a difference.
Our faith in Jesus as Savior – from all that is wrong in this world – can grow. Our relationship with God & with our neighbors, can grow. However, our neighbors, & we ourselves cannot be fixed. We don’t get better & better each day, even if we try. Our sinful nature must be put to death, & you may have noticed, that is neither a simple nor a painless process.
The people of God had to be put in exile in a foreign land; enslaved & surrounded by people who followed false gods. That is what it took to humble them so they’d turn back to the true God, who, by the way, offers life instead of death. The problem is, in our current state of sin, you & I really struggle to tell the difference between life & death.
If we even believe what we’re saying at the beginning of the service, our confession is half-hearted at best. Many people don’t believe, & actually object to, these words, “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” The words bite & cut at the very core of our pride & our arrogance. The words speak of humiliation & surrender. They are words of death to our sinful nature.
In & of ourselves, none of us would speak them. In & of ourselves, none of us are able to speak them. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit, who raises us from death to life, that you or I can say those words in truth & honesty. And yet, it is because we are poor, miserable sinners that we look at our lives with discontent & believe that we see nothing & vanity.
Our heavenly Father is working miracles every day, but we do not have the eyes to see nor the ears to hear. So God sent His only & perfect Son to take on human flesh, to suffer the anguish & the woe of our sins. You see, although Isaiah wrote them, the words of the sermon text are not his. They are the words of the Suffering Servant who is Jesus Christ: “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing & vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, & my recompense with my God.” In other words, from the perspective of Jesus’ human nature, even He struggled to ‘see’ the good He was accomplishing.
So many people turned away from Him. So many people shouted, “Crucify him!” So many people, like us, struggled & even refused to confess their sin. As a pastor, it is sad for me to see so many young adults abandon worship & Christian living so quickly after confirmation. They seem to openly ignore what they’ve been taught in the 3rd & 6th commandments.
We spend hours & hours teaching the basics of the Bible, & what good does it do in the end? I’m sure you’ve had the same frustrations with your children & grandchildren – it’s even more personal for you.
Or maybe it’s an inner struggle against sin, where you keep on repenting & keep on seeking strength to deal with a weakness, but it keeps coming back again & again. Some just give up & quit. Why even try? But it’s interesting to see how Jesus deals with this seeming lack of success & return for His work.
He says, “yet surely my right is with the Lord, & my recompense with my God.” Though He could not see it, He entrusted the reward to His Father. He let Him take care of the results. It reminds me of the classic movie “The Karate Kid.”
Daniel is told by Mr. Miyagi, “Wax on, wax off.” Hour after hour he goes, & he finally blows up, demanding to know what good it is to do the wax on & wax off. Then, Mr. Miyagi starts throwing punches at Daniel, only to have him feign off the punches by using the same motion he was using to put the wax on & the wax off. Then it all made sense.
Jesus, however, didn’t throw a fit & demand to see results. He trusted that the results
would be what they would be. He would only do what God called Him to. He’d keep swinging the sword & using the arrows in hopes that sooner or later the weapons would hit their mark & people would see that He really was Messiah.
God calls us to be faithful at repentance. He doesn’t call us to be successful. How often do we quit & give up because we aren’t getting the results we want. Maybe we stop praying for someone. We stop reaching out. We stop taking care of someone that needs our help, because we don’t get the appreciation we want.
When we quit, or when we complain the whole time we are doing something, we aren’t being faithful at repentance. Leave the rewards up to God. Be faithful in the way you raise your children. Be faithful in prayer. Be faithful at your job. Be faithful as a spouse.
It’s in the nothingness of the cross that Christians are victorious. It’s in defeat that Christians are triumphant. That makes life complicated. We’d rather be #1. Yet, all human beings have value & worth even if their lives appear to be nothing & vanity. It’s just not easy to live a life that appears to be filled with nothing.
The Epiphany message is that our labors are not in vain. The sweat & the toil may grind us into the dust in this life, but we know that the true life is yet to come. Through it all God in Christ Jesus has & will give light & life, for His sake, & in His name.
You have heard these words so many times that it’s likely you barely even hear them anymore. Consequently, these words of God may seem like nothing to you anymore. Yet these simple words create life where there is death:
“Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called & ordained servant of Christ, announce the grace of God unto all of you, & in the stead & by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all human understanding will guard your hearts & your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen
Pastor Dean R. Poellet