Acceptable to the Lord

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Lord Himself speaks in the verses preceding our text from the 58th chapter of Isaiah: “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily and delight to know My ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of Me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
Isaiah is to lift up his voice, to shout “like a trumpet” to proclaim the rebellion of God’s people. Notice how this rebellion is described. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of rebellion. It seems as if the people are eager to know the ways of the Lord. They observe the worship regulations, including fasting and observation of the Sabbath, outlined in the Law of Moses. They ask God for righteous judgments and seem to be eager to draw near to Him. They look for God’s deliverance. All this seems to be as God demands, but something is deeply wrong.
The people say, “Why have we fasted, and You see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You take no knowledge of it?” They are expecting God to reward their fasting and humility. These people do not understand the grace of God and the promises of redemption through the promised Messiah. They trust in their own works to earn God’s favor. They pervert and destroy God’s grace. Deliverance, in their way of thinking, becomes a reward for their religious fervor.
What is wrong with such thinking? First, it is absolutely arrogant. God is holy, perfect, and separate from everything human—far above all creation. What can any human offer to God to earn His favor and be worthy of His notice? All humanity together cannot offer enough sacrifices or deeds of kindness to move the mind and heart of holy God to bestow His blessing.
Grace, and grace alone, remains the only reason God shows compassion and concern for anything human. He loves not because we love Him nor do anything righteous. He loves for His own sake. It is arrogance to think that we could do something so good or so great that we could earn His love.  
The attitude of the people is wrong from another perspective too. Their attitude opposes God’s clear message. Just a few chapters earlier, Isaiah very clearly proclaims the vicarious atonement of the Servant who suffers for the people. That substitutionary sacrifice serves as the basis of God’s justification of sinners. “Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Human effort cannot earn such blessings, but so many choose to pervert the message, rebel against it, and substitute their own doctrine of blessings earned by human effort. That is rebellion against God and a perversion of God’s expressed and clear Word. Deliverance from sin and death cannot be earned by human effort; it can only come as a free gift of God to undeserving sinners.
The people to whom Isaiah speaks in our text do not believe the Scriptures. They do not believe what God tells them there about themselves or about the deliverance from sin and its consequences. In effect, these people have erected another idol. They worship a god different from Yahweh, the God of grace. They create a god who rewards their fasting and religious fervor with blessings.
That concept of god makes God no different than other manmade gods in the nations surrounding them. In those neighboring cultures, when the crops were bad, people believed that their god was angry with them and that they had to appease him or her. When things were good, they imagined that they had done what the god wanted them to do and that he or she or it was rewarding them for their devotion and zeal.
But there is a subtle and dangerous difference between the gross idolatry of the heathen and the concept of God held by these Jews. Their heathen neighbors fashion statues of wood, stone, or metal and worship them. The children of Israel are not so crass. Most of them know better than to bow down to graven images, but they construct their own idols in their hearts and minds.
The god they worship rewards them for their good effort and punishes them for their evil. He rewards their fasting and notices when they humble themselves. The God of grace has become a god of works. It is as if they take the pure gold of grace, make a plaster cast of it, and paint it with a bright color. They no longer see the God of free and faithful grace. Instead, they worship the painted plaster counterfeit, the god who rewards humans with deliverance because of their deeds.
But they are not alone in their idolatry. As sinners, we are all infected by pride and arrogance. We believe that what we do matters in the court of God’s justice. We want to be noticed, and we want our good deeds to be appreciated and admired. We still have a tendency to exchange the grace of God for the delusion of works to make ourselves acceptable to the Lord.
Deliverance from sin and death by our own efforts is an enticing idea to our sinful human hearts. It sidesteps the harsh demands of God’s holy Law and avoids the confrontation with the just punishment all sinners deserve from God. Old Adam grasps onto any message that deliverance can be earned by his own works. Only regular repentance turns our boast about how much we have done for God to the humble plea of the publican: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
No religious fervor or pious life can earn the blessings only God can give by grace. Every human work, even the most noble and noteworthy, is flawed. When confronted with the harsh demands of God’s holy Law, the human spirit can only make one of two false choices: Either it deflects the harsh demands of God’s Law and becomes self-righteous, or it abandons all hope and turns to despair.
The people described in our text choose the first of the two false choices. They believe that they can do what God demands and God will reward them for their goodness and their devout fasting. But they do not truly understand themselves or the depth of human depravity. They do not know that their righteousness is only a sham and hypocritical. God corrects them here!
The people take pride in their fasting; but as devout as their fasting may appear, it is not sincere. They do as they please, not as the Lord demands. Their fasting ends in quarrels, strife, and brawling. Their hearts and lives have not been changed by the worship of the Lord. No compassion, generosity, humility, or love marks their lives. They remain combative, arrogant, selfish, and greedy. Yet they imagine that God will reward them for their religious fasting and devotion.
These people reject God’s grace. They abandon what God has told them about the Messiah and are trying to earn God’s blessings by their fasting. That’s impossible. Without Christ, God accepts no human effort, no matter how good it appears. With Christ, human effort comes to the favorable attention of God, who forgives the failings and sins. God sees the blood of His own Son instead of the stain of the believer’s sin. Then, by virtue of His love for sinners in Christ, God empowers His faithful to persist in their efforts to live as He desires.
The Lord describes such a pious and faith-filled life this way: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am’” (Isaiah 58:6-9a).
When faith enters our hearts and we understand the word of reconciliation, we become God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). The light within our hearts shines. So Jesus encourages us in our Gospel: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Good works. Because we Lutherans so rightly emphasize salvation by grace through faith apart from good works, it’s easy to get the impression that we think good works are a dirty word. But that’s not so! There is a place for good works: “before others.” For the neighbor, for that person that God placed next to you. Jesus shines His light on your works not so you can see them or God can see them, but so that your neighbor can see them (and experience them)!
That’s how faith is made visible. Faith itself is invisible. You can’t see my faith; I can’t see your faith. As St. James reminds us, you can talk about faith all you want but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like saying “be warm” to a person who needs a coat. Or “be filled” to a person who needs some food. Faith talk is meaningless to others, because faith is between you and God. God sees your faith; people see your works. Keep those straight, and everything works out just fine.
One of the verses from our sermon hymn explains this relationship well:
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof the faith is living.
Let your light shine before others, your neighbors, that they may see your good works. They are watching closely, you know. They want to see what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. They want to see what difference it makes. They need to see the light. They need to taste the saltiness. There’s no point in talking about your faith, because that’s… well, that’s your faith—the faith that God gave to you. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. You show your faith with what you do. Good works. Concrete, real, get-your-fingernails-dirty, self-sacrificing good works—these make an impression.
In 2nd century Egypt, the 10% or so of the Christians in Egypt did the vast majority of the social work. They didn’t rely on government programs. It was the Christians who went to places where the poor congregated. They fed the hungry, they clothed the naked, they did works of mercy, not to merit God’s favor or earn their salvation, but to serve their neighbor in love. People took notice. They wanted to know more about those Christians who went out of their way to do good.
The Rev. Matthew Harrison, our synodical president, has been talking about this a lot. He was asked about congregations losing touch with their communities and what we can do to make people notice our congregations again. He said three words: works of mercy. Go into your community, find out what the needs are, and fill one of them in the name of Jesus. Let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
God doesn’t want to see your good works. He knows about them before you wave them around. He prepared them for you to do before you were around to do them. And you can’t do enough of them well enough to earn your way into the kingdom. Jesus warns: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And don’t kid yourself, the scribes and Pharisees were pretty good at the religion game. If anyone nearly earned their way in, it was them. And yet your righteousness has to exceed theirs.
No, good works won’t get you into the kingdom of heaven. The best of your good works are still soiled with sin, with your inherent selfish self-centeredness. Even the noblest act of charity has something less than charitable in it. That’s where Jesus comes in. He comes to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He doesn’t come to set aside the commandments, as though God changes his mind midstream. He comes to fulfill them, to literally fill them up with His own perfect obedience.
Jesus comes as the Light of light, the true and only Light of the world. His righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. His is the righteousness of God. He keeps the Law perfectly. He fulfils the word of the prophets down to the last stroke of the pen. And the wonder of all wonders is that He gives that righteousness to you. He credits you with something He did.
That’s how you become acceptable to the Lord. That is worship acceptable to the Lord. Those are good works acceptable to the Lord. Not by what you do; but by what He did and does for you. You are baptized to be the light of the world. You are given to live and love under the umbrella of God’s undeserved kindness in Jesus. And under that grace you cannot fail. You cannot fail as light of the world unless you hide the good works God is doing in you and through you.
At the close of the day, at the end of your life, you are covered with a righteousness not your own, a righteousness that exceeds that of even the scribes and the Pharisees, the righteousness that comes as a gift through faith in Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the prophets. For His sake, you have a place in the kingdom of heaven, for you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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