5th Sunday after Epiphany – C LSB #’s 610, 615, 915
Text – Isaiah 6:10
Make the heart of this people dull, & their ears heavy, & blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, & hear with their ears, & understand with their hearts, & turn & be healed.”
THE HEART OF THIS PEOPLE
People find it encouraging, as they walk in the Christian faith, to cite these words from Isaiah 55: “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, & without succeeding [in the matter] for which I sent it.” (v. 11 NASB) They’re reassuring because we naturally think of those words in the positive sense.
We gladly picture how the Word is carried out into the world & converts people, bringing them to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord & Savior. Yet, there is also a negative side to what God’s Word will accomplish, & it is the same prophet Isaiah who shares that Word with us in the sermon text: “Make the heart of this people dull, & their ears heavy, & blind their eyes…”
Immediately after Isaiah exclaims, “Here am I! Send me,” God commands Isaiah, “Go, & say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’” For Christians who’ve been conditioned all the days of our believing, to go & make disciples of all nations, it seems hardly comprehensible that those are also The Word of God.
They are startling words of frightening consequence: “Make the heart of this people dull, & their ears heavy, & blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, & hear with their ears, & understand with their hearts, & turn & be healed.” It truly sounds like God does not want His own people to be saved. There must be a poor translation somewhere!
That’s how we think of it when we only interpret Isaiah 55:11 in the positive sense, as bringing people to faith: “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, & without succeeding [in the matter] for which I sent it.” Sadly, not everyone who hears the voice of Jesus turns back to Him. In such a case, has the Word of God failed? Has it returned to Him empty? If He is God it cannot do so. It must accomplish what Yahweh desired.
It is His will that people face judgment for their unbelief if they reject the Word, which reveals the love & the sacrifice of God, demonstrated on the cross. Judgment is referred to as the ‘alien’ work of God because He never intended for that to be the end result of His creation. Satan rebelled & brought judgment upon himself. Those who follow him receive the same.
And that judgment comes also through the Word of God as it goes forth. In cases of unbelief the Word of Yahweh does not return to Him empty because that same Word will be a witness of that person as they reject the Word of the Lord. Jesus explained this in John 15:
“If I had not come & spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (15:22 ESV) Jesus tells us that men are guilty & have no excuse for their sin because He came & spoke His Word to them. His Word does not return empty. Men either reject His Word, or they receive the saving faith it brings.
It’s in that context, in that reality, in that state of affairs which Isaiah receives his Word from the Lord. King Uzziah has just died after a 50 year reign. The southern kingdom of Judah is afraid. Who will now defend them? In chapter 5, the Holy Spirit has Isaiah describe the manner in which the nation of Judah will be destroyed by their enemies at God’s command:
“He will raise a signal for nations far away, & whistle for them from the ends of the earth; & behold, quickly, speedily they come! None is weary, none stumbles, none slumbers or sleeps, not a waistband is loose, not a sandal strap broken; their arrows are sharp, all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, & their wheels like the whirlwind. Their roaring is like a lion, like young lions they roar; they growl & seize their prey; they carry it off, & none can rescue. They will growl over it on that day, like the growling of the sea.
And if one looks to the land, behold, darkness & distress; & the light is darkened by its clouds.” (5:26-30 ESV)
It is then that chapter 6 opens with the scene in the heavenly temple. If the people are
looking for a king, here He is, but Yahweh has tried His people, found them guilty, & will punish them. When the Word of the Lord is continually rejected, the capacity to hear & understand it will die. In its long history, the nation that once was God’s people has arrived at this point.
They are God’s people no longer. There’s only one way that some of them will turn back. Yahweh disciplines those He loves. Lutherans have described discipline as God’s ‘alien’ work. The Lutheran Study Bible describes that work of God in this way:
“The Lord kills & wounds so that sinners, blinded by pride, might see the reality that they are wounded & dead in their sin. Upon seeing they will trust the Lord who alone heals & makes alive.” The Holy Trinity knows all things, but that rubs our pride the wrong way.
Because of sin, the underlying reality is that all human beings are conceived in sin. Spiritually, we are born dead. If we refuse to hear the voice of the Shepherd nice things will not turn us back to Him. So death must come. That is what sin has done to this world. Everything works backward & upside down. Death to self must precede life from Messiah.
The Word of God will turn your heart to Him, or your heart will turn away from that Word. There is no middle ground! The death to self, of baptism, is not all that physically painful, but if we reject it, more serious approaches must follow. The nation of Judah was beyond even that point. Though individuals might still be saved, their nation was lost.
Some day that point will come for our nation, for our people, for our pastors, & for our congregations. Not paying attention to the Creator & His will leads to termination that can come like a thief in the night, too quiet to be noticed until it is too late. For that reason the 1st words of Jesus, as He entered His ministry, were the command to repent & believe the Good News.
Otherwise, instead of faith in Jesus, your Creator will grant you a dull heart, along with heavy ears & blind eyes. As St. Paul was writing to the struggling church in Corinth, he penned these words that apply to us as well, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2b ESV) The prophet Isaiah was given a vision in which there was a manifestation of God enthroned in His holy temple, huge & clothed in a robe that filled the temple. Fiery angels flew over Him, declaring His holiness & glory.
We sing the Sanctus, the Holy, Holy, Holy, before we approach the altar to receive the forgiveness of our sins in the Lord’s Supper. We are inspired & uplifted by those words, but we should realize from the OT reading that Isaiah was not. He was struck by the prospect of his death. But once forgiven, he immediately cried out, “Here am I! Send me.”
So what was your initial reaction to the sermon text? Did you feel it was too harsh? Was there the thought that it needs to be interpreted in a more tolerant manner? In verse 11, Isaiah himself asks, regarding this discipline, “How long, O Lord?”
Yahweh replies, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, & houses without people, & the land is a desolate waste, & the Lord removes people far away, & the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 6:11-12 ESV)
That description can be seen as a description of the suffering to come that Christ would endure in our place, on the cross of Golgotha. There, in death, Jesus became blind & deaf. His heart became dull to the point that it finally stopped beating. There, Jesus was forsaken as the heavenly Father moved Himself far away.
The people of Judah had been trusting in their king to provide for them. He’s now dead. Since they have left God & turned away from Him, He must allow the once mighty tree of King David’s line to be cut down. As long as the people can depend on themselves or their human king they will remain lost. So God will dull their heart & blind their eyes & stop their ears.
Once the people are again helpless & fully aware of it, they might turn back to Yahweh.
As Isaiah 30:15 tells us: “In returning & rest you shall be saved; in quietness & trust shall be your strength.” At the end of verse 13 of the OT reading, Isaiah offers people true hope in the correct place: “And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.”
That phrase holy seed is a reference to the Son of God who would be born to Mary. Once those who have hardened their hearts against God have been removed, then those who still trust in the Lord can sprout once again. Yahweh loves to bring life out of death, & the picture of the stump with a new shoot sprouting forth is one that Holy Scripture uses to refer to Christ.
Where God was making hearts dull, once people receive Him, then He creates clean hearts, of living flesh that are no longer cold, as Ezekiel 11:19 states: “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh & give them a heart of flesh.” (ESV) As Isaiah received that heart of flesh through the burning coal, we receive it through the body & blood of Jesus at the Lord’s Supper.
If the sermon text gave you pause for its harshness, keep in mind that our Creator is holy & without blemish or sin. We can’t begin to comprehend what that is, since all we have ever known is sin. Yet, God’s purposes are always good, but sometimes like a surgeon He has to cause us pain before He can heal us. Remember in returning & rest we shall be saved. Amen.
When in the hour of deepest need we know not where to look for aid; when days & nights of anxious thought no help or counsel yet have brought, then is our comfort this alone that we may meet before Your throne; to You, O faithful God, we cry for rescue in our misery. For You have promised, Lord, to heed Your children’s cries in time of need through Him whose name alone is great, our Savior & our advocate. And so we come, O God, today & all our woes before you lay; for sorely tried, cast down, we stand, perplexed by fears on every hand. O from our sins, Lord, turn Your face; absolve us through Your boundless grace. Be with us in our anguish still; free us at last from every ill. Amen. LSB 615:1-5.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet