- Advent MW 2.17 “Ask Not What You Can Do For God…” Is. 61
It is one of the most beloved and oft-quoted parts of the bible, this 61st chapter of Isaiah. It demonstrates that Jesus has literally been around forever, not just from the birth in the stable in Bethlehem. He speaks to us through Isaiah His prophet, way back in the 8th century BC, telling us what He’s told us from the beginning—what He will do for us and for our salvation. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,” the Lord Jesus says. “Because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified…”
I never get tired of hearing those words. You could just read them over and over. In fact, it’s hard to stop here, and not just read the the whole chapter again! But since we did that a few minutes ago (and you can do it yourself) what’s the point? How shall we sum it up? Well to reverse JFK: “Ask not what you can do for God; ask rather what God can do for you!” That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell…
And yet, it is a proclamation so little heard in modern Christendom. This is what Luther was on about 500 years ago—nearly everyone, most especially the Pope and his henchmen. have gotten Christianity 180* wrong! They’ve turned it into a bunch of legalistic, pietistic, moralism about what we do for God to justify ourselves and earn a spot in heaven. But if you actually read the Scriptures (something almost no one then or now actually does!) you will see that’s just dead wrong, the exact opposite of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is that GOD will do everything for you!, who are least, lost, and last, dead in sins and trespasses and powerless to free yourself. Sin has made your life unmanageable, if you are honest. Only God could fix it. But God certainly promises to do exactly that!
You’d think a church that calls itself by Luther’s name (something he hated by the way!) would get this right, especially in this, the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. And yet, we don’t get it right, the vast majority of us. We get it just as dead wrong, most of the pastors and congregations of the Lutheran Church bodies in America, as those Medici popes got it wrong. And the bigger and more popular the congregation, the more likely it is they’ve got it wrong. Because to appeal to the masses, you pretty much have to falsify the Gospel—as Jesus promised it would never be popular with the masses or the well-off but only with the poor, brokenhearted wretches of Zion.
How do we get it wrong? Well we’re back to thinking it’s all about what we can do for God, how we carry out His mission for Him, how much we’ve learned about Him, how well we will do on that spiritual SAT test He’ll have for us at the pearly gates. And woe betide the pastor, like Luther, who will point out the nudity of the missional emperor! It will not go well for you, institutionally, in the church if you point out it’s still about what Jesus does for us, 100%, and not at all about anything we might do, even incidentally or instrumentally for Him…
God doesn’t need your works. At all. OK? You need His works! Totally! It’s not that the Gospel is only for the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive souls in prison, the sad and mourning. It’s that we’re all of us poor, brokenhearted, captive to sin, death, and hell, yet only those who will confess this truth, who will admit it about ourselves, will actually hear and believe the good tidings of great things that Jesus is and brings. Every breath wasted on morality, good works, and missions, about what we do for God is only shackling the prisoners, not freeing them. It’s not Jesus who does that, but the devil, who loves to masquerade as an angel of light and good works and Christian mission.
The mission of the Church is spelled out for you in these 11 verses from Isaiah 61. There’s nothing you can or need to do. God will do it all. This is a rescue, God breaking into the prison hole of our hell to bust us out. So it begins and ends with repentance—total rethink of our situation, to see it as God sees it. And when we look honestly at ourselves this way, we see poor wretched, miserable, stubbornly blind sinners who are captive to sin and powerless to free ourselves. And only then, only with this truth opening our eyes, can we see Jesus, as He is—the Friend of sinners, come disguised in our lowliness and wretchedness to save us. He takes our sin upon Himself, crucifies it with His own body on the cross, buries it in a tomb, drags it down a three day’s journey into the depths of hell and says to all He finds in that ontologically lowest place, “Let’s get the hell out of here! You’re with Me and I am the Way out!”
The Gospel is the story of the most daring rescue ever—the greatest prison break. Jesus gets Himself condemned by all the powers as sin personified, gets dragged down to hell by way of the death of the cross, only to break hell beyond repair, to bust all the locks and cages, to open the prison house and lead the captives free.
So, the old ruins of Zion will be rebuilt—the former desolations. The ruined cities will be repaired by strangers, who shall also stand and do the menial work for us as our servants while we are named priests of God whose honor and glory is to worship Him in His temple night and day, to see Him as He is, and—in that beatific vision—to be made ourselves just like Him, kings and queens to reign with Him forever…
That we will have servants(!)—that the foreigners who oppressed and abused us on earth will be our footmen and butlers and valets is a little mentioned part of the Scriptures (in this egalitarian age!) but it fills the hearts of the faithful with joy. We are happy to take on the humble servant role of Jesus under the cross because we know it is for a short time; for the high and mighty of this world will be waiting on us hand and foot so very soon! I get why they cut those verses from the reading for Sunday, but I stuck ‘em back in tonight for you. You’re welcome!
So, the punchline: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord… for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, with the robe of righteousness.” You better believe you will! Quit asking what you can do for God! For He has done everything for you in Jesus. And, paradoxically, when we quit worrying about what we do for Him, the works He’s done for us come flooding out from us to wash over a dark and weary and dreary world—as the earth once again brings forth its bud, the Garden of Eden springs forth again as when it was first newly, perfectly made, and the unbidden song of praise naturally wells up from our hearts as Peace surpassing understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Forever. Always. Amen.