“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that was not called by my name.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixty-fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, the face of the Christian Church is changing. For centuries Christianity was centered in Europe, and when it came to America, it became dominant here as well. Sure there were Christians in other places, as the missionaries went forth, but the primary face of the Church was European, people like you and me. Not so anymore. Christianity in Europe is dying a slow and painful death, and while we aren’t nearly as far along here in the United States, there are signs that we are headed down the same path. Meanwhile, Christianity is thriving in the global South and East. The Church is flourishing and expanding in China, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Central and South America; there is an explosion of growth wherever you look. The center of Christianity is shifting; away from Europe, away from America. People like you and me are no longer the face of Christianity; instead, that face is African, Asian, and Hispanic.
God’s declaration is especially true in days like these: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.” God’s call, His Word, is going out to the nations, to peoples that have never sought Him, that were not called by His Name. He has revealed Himself to them through the proclamation of countless missionaries and evangelists. This is cause for celebration, for great joy! God is doing great things, His Word is not returning void, but is gathering a harvest! The pagans are becoming Christian! But as wonderful as these words are, God doesn’t speak them to cause celebration, but weeping; not for our joy but for our sorrow does He tell us of the conversion of the nations.
For His next words are words of accusation, spoken against His people Israel, against His people today, against you and me: “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices.” The pagans are becoming Christian—thanks be to God! But as the nations come to God, as the pagans become Christian, the Christians are becoming pagan. God is holding His hands out to His people, but they are refusing to come to Him. The pagans, who didn’t seek Him, are coming to God in droves, while the Church, those who are called by His Name, the baptized multitude, is spurning His persistently open hands. The Gospel is being lost, and the Church is melting away, in places where it once was strong and established. Martin Luther warned the German people that the Gospel is like a passing rain shower; it waters the earth with abundance, but if it is not appreciated, if it is not protected, it will move on to somewhere else, leaving dry, barren ground.
Why is the Church in decline among us? The same reason it has always declined, the same reason that God proclaims through the mouth of Isaiah: the Church is in decline because it has tried to become like the world. “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and making offerings on bricks; who sit in tombs, who spend the night in secret places; who eat pig’s flesh, and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels.” As the pagans become Christian, the Christians become pagan. God’s people, in both the Old and New Testaments, are to be set apart from the world, chosen out from the nations to be His own. And we are to live that way. Your heavenly Father has called you to be separate from the world, in it but not of it. The corporate Church should be the same: she should be a beacon light in a world of darkness, she should stand against the world, calling the nations to repentance and proclaiming forgiveness.
But more often than not, the Church as a whole and individually stand with the world, and not against it. Statistics show that there is little or no difference between the divorce rate of Christians and non-Christians, and that is only one example of the sins that are as common among us as among unbelievers. The Church often fails to speak boldly on the sinful actions of our world, and in some tragic cases, parts of the Church have followed the world in endorsing and even celebrating sin, as we have seen with the issue of homosexuality. In so many congregations, the dominant approach is to let the world’s desires drive the practice and message of the Church, instead of calling the world to repentance and then proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness. Much closer to home, President Harrison has been studying the decline of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and he has come to the preliminary conclusion that the primary factor for our decline is that we have followed the culture around us in marrying later and having fewer children.
So much for the Church at large—what about you? Is your life in this world as a Christian distinguishable in any way from that of a non-Christian? Are you in the world and also of it? Are your attitudes, desires, and actions shaped by God’s Word or by the world around you? Like God’s people Israel, we don’t even realize how far we’ve fallen; we add to our rebellion and wickedness the sin of self-righteousness, we still think that we are holier than those around us because we bear the label ‘Christian,’ saying, “Keep to yourself, for I am too holy for you.”
Luther’s prophecy is on the verge of becoming true; the passing rain shower that is the Gospel seems to have left Europe high and dry, and on the other side of the ocean we too can see the signs of coming drought. When the Church becomes like the world instead of calling the world to repentance and proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness, the Church has no more reason to exist, and soon, it will cease to exist. It will pass away under God’s wrath and judgment. “These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all the day… Because they made offerings on the mountains and insulted me on the hills, I will measure into their bosom payment for their former deeds.” Sin and rebellion must be punished, and it will be punished by God’s righteous wrath. One of the most dramatic, and frightening, images of God’s wrath over His people’s rebellion is that of a winepress. In Isaiah 63, God declares, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel.”
God’s chosen people, Israel of old, the Church of today, you and me, were ready to be thrown into the winepress of His wrath. Indeed, that is all that we deserve for living no different than the world. But then our situation changed entirely. “Thus says the Lord, ‘As the new wine is found in the cluster, and they say, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,” so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.’” There is a blessing in the cluster, new wine, and for the sake of that blessing, the cluster will be spared the winepress. In the days of Isaiah, God didn’t destroy all His people, but preserved a remnant; one cluster was spared the winepress. That cluster was spared for the sake of the promise it carried, the seed of a woman, the promised Messiah Jesus Christ. For His sake they were spared, so that salvation could come to all people.
Sin must be punished by God’s righteous wrath; it must be put through the winepress. God in His justice demands payment. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their bosom both your iniquities and your father’s iniquities together.” God demands payment, and when Jesus, the Messiah, came as God in the flesh, He freely, willingly paid the price. He was put through the winepress of God’s wrath upon the cross for you, He felt the fire of God’s anger over your sin and the sin of the entire world. God repays Christ for your rebellion! The terrible wrath that God promised in Isaiah 63 describes Christ’s own death in your place. And so you are spared from God’s wrath; He says of you, “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it.” You are delivered from God’s righteous wrath because there is a blessing in the cluster, and that blessing is Christ Himself. As Saint Paul declares in our Epistle lesson, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Through baptism into Christ, through faith in Christ, there is a blessing in the cluster, and you are spared from God’s wrath. Christ delivers the remnant from the winepress of God’s wrath, giving to them an eternal inheritance.
“I will bring forth offspring from Jacob, and from Judah possessors of my mountains; my chosen shall possess it, and my servants shall dwell there.” Those who are claimed by Christ, who belong to God as His beloved children through their baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, are inheritors of God’s mountains. Christ died in their place, for His sake they were spared from eternal death, and so they will live forever upon the mountains of God, the mountains of His peace, the mountains of His joy, the mountains where He dwells. There we will dwell with the nations; the Church, the forgiven, will be gathered from every corner of this world and from every generation to enjoy the riches that Christ has won for them. You will live, even though you die, in a new creation filled with perfect peace and joy. He has an inheritance for you, the new heavens and the new earth, described later in Isaiah chapter 65. “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” We rejoice today, and we will rejoice forever, for we are the forgiven, we are the Church, offspring from Jacob that come out of every land and nation and language, who together will dwell on God’s holy mountains forever. In the Name of Jesus, the blessing in the cluster who spares the cluster from the winepress, Amen.