13And the Lord said: “… this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, Christ Himself cites this passage in our Gospel reading, where He adds the word “in vain.” While Isaiah speaks of ancient Israel, and Jesus speaks of the religious leaders of His day, it could rightly be said of all people of all time and places. The fallen human heart is ready to make a martyr of itself in its quest to not just be like God, but to become God.
The people in question didn’t worship God properly on two counts. First, they were insincere. They honoured God with mouths and lips, but their hearts were just not in it. It was true in Isaiah and Jesus’ days and it is true in ours too. The will to stand up and be truly Christian just isn’t there for most … at least not if it isn’t easy … and especially if it might actually cost us our comfort, our job, our friends, or our reputation.
Secondly, much or most of what they did is based in human origin, not the Divine Word. They paid no attention to God and His Word in setting up their own rules. God wants His worship to surpass all others, but we godly few know better. We are only motivated by love and good and making the world better … as long as that world conforms to our rules and vision. The worst of sins are tolerated and championed as the people come praising God with the mouth and the lips. For all evils and seductions are done under the guise of godliness. Every calamity begins in God’s name.
But this is the nature of human traditions: They bring only very great fear with them. They are a tyrant that cannot be lived under for long, and must eventually be slain and replaced by something worse. Just ask the dog what it is like when he finally catches the tail he has been chasing. But such chasing after human understanding and wisdom is altogether perverted and opposed to God.
11And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
Because Judah had deeply offended the Lord, He would no longer allow them to see or understand what He was doing. The writing will not be revealed, the teaching of God is hidden from them, just as it is from the hearts and minds of all who harden their hearts against His teaching. The fruit of ungodliness is that understanding disappears. And he self-righteous never even miss it. Just look around you: Dissent from tolerance will not be tolerated, discrimination must be fought by discriminating more in return, perversion is called love, and murder is an acceptable form of health-care. The Bible is gleefully quoted where one thinks they can use it to promote such evil and is soundly ignored everywhere and every time is speaks out clearly against such works.
15Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?
A pronouncement of Woe is a death lament. The sinner thinks they are not seen by God, because they do everything in the pretense and appearance of godliness. “Who told you that our works are evil? How do you know? Who has shown you anything more upright than us? You think that you alone are wiser than we are.” Such foolishness leads down the path of death only. The leaders of Judah both in Isaiah’s day and in Jesus’ time were turning things upside down, ignoring God and even placing themselves in His stead. But the creature will never be the creator, no matter how much it insists. It is a lesson we must learn in our own life as well.
Yet this has always been the ultimate folly of sin, that the people cannot realize that God is hiding from them, think instead that they can hide from God. He won’t answer us because we’ve outgrown Him. The curtain has been drawn back and the great and powerful God has been exposed for a figment of our superstitious minds. Since He no longer is a god we must now be! It is a graphic picture of our own unwillingness and inability to come to God and of our utterly illogical arrogance in concluding that somehow all this makes us gods ourselves!
14therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” …
This is the marvel of divine wrath, the ungodly lack these gifts and have no understanding or faith but always snore away in their own smugness. And when they will be most wise, they will be most ungodly; and when they want to be most understanding, they are the most stupid. This is so because they do not have the Word but their own traditions. Therefore, in an exceptional act of judgment their leaders becoming dull and stupid without knowing it.*
And yet … and yet, in the face of such stubborn ignorance God promises wonderful things. Miracles and signs of His blessings! It is every bit as illogical as the human conclusion just described. Only this is Divine illogic. The illogic of mercy rather than stupidity. Since people can’t and won’t come to God, what does God do? He comes to them. To us who are no better than the worst of all the others! What people cannot fathom God reveals in Christ.
Thanks to God’s action in Christ, the barren and arid becomes lush and fruitful. 17Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In the time of Isaiah Lebanon the great enemy of God’s people, will be humiliated. In the time of the Messiah, there will come a similar divine reversal. The hearts of men, moral deserts without the Lord, will be reclaimed to bear the fruits of righteousness. “I will change things by a wonderful change, so that the Jewish people is not a people and the Gentiles, who are not a people, are a people, as a field is physically changed into a forest and a forest into a field.” It is the same divine reversal granted us in Holy Baptism where children of wrath and death are made Children of God. Where dead and barren branches are made fruitful in every good work by the Spirit of the Lord God Almighty
Thanks to God’s action in Christ, the deaf hear and the blind see the life-giving words of God’s once sealed Book. 18In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. In that day is always a reference to the coming of the Christ, first here in time, and then finally on the last day. And when the Messiah comes, those whose ears had, by their natural perversity, been closed to the voice of the Lord, hear the words of the Book, of the written revelation, and the eyes of the blind, those suffering with spiritual blindness, shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness, for the Lord Himself would enlighten the eyes of their understanding.* It is what happens here every Sunday morning in the Lord’s house, and each day in our private and family devotions. It happens when we are bold enough to share the Gospel with our friends, family, and neighbours, telling them about God’s love in Christ.
Thanks to God’s action in Christ, the meek are made bold and the poor are made rich in their joy in the Lord. 19The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. There is great joy in seeing destruction avoided, the future changed for the better. There is much to praise in our god who loves the unlovable, calls the willful and wandering, forgives the foolish and prideful. There is eternal joys in the Holy One of Israel – the beloved son of God – by whose action we are saved … despite ourselves! When we finally begin to see ourselves for what we really are, through the light of what God was willing to do for us – to save us from ourselves … well, then … The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, the godly among the afflicted finding their one satisfaction in communion with Him, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. Then, and only then does this world change for the better – in the hope of the world to come – and the work of those, like you and me, who await it in humble joy and service.
* Luther, M. (1999, c1969). Vol. 16: Luther’s works, vol. 16 : Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (16:243). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.