In times of uncertainty or trial, there is a temptation to unbelief. We heard it in the Old Testament Reading when Isaiah confronts the children of Israel for their little faith, when he asks them why they say, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my just claim is passed over by my God.” In other words, Israel wanted to know why God was ignoring them, why it seemed He had abandoned them and left them to their own devices. And Jesus, knowing that the same temptation will exist for His disciples after His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, begins preparing them for His departure. When those same kinds of questions asked in the Old Testament are repeated by Jesus’ followers, He wants to make sure they have the right answer, that their gaze is redirected from themselves and their present trials to the joy and full consolation that is theirs by the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Old Testament Reading needs a bit of context. It comes from the end of Isaiah 40. In Isaiah 39, King Hezekiah recovers from a great illness, is visited by a delegation from Babylon to whom he shows all of Israel’s riches, and Isaiah tells Hezekiah what evil Babylon will soon do to the people of Israel as they are taken into Babylon as captives. Isaiah 40 is then a bit of preemptive comfort to those people. It begins with words we know well from the Advent season: “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned’” (Is. 40:1-2). The chapter ends as we heard it today—Isaiah giving comfort to God’s people, that God knows all of His people by name, that none of our suffering is missed by His omniscience, and that God will renew His people in the courts of heaven.
On the other side of the Ascension, but still waiting for the Second Coming, we often feel like those children of Israel carried off into captivity in Babylon. It’s hard to sing God’s song in a foreign land. We manage to do it, but the joy is temporary. Just like the joy of Easter fades once the lilies have died and the gold has given way to white, our Easter exuberance fades and we fall back into the doldrums of life in a sinful world. We wonder if God really loves us, if He’s really watching over us, if He’s really taking care of us. Compounding those feelings are all the depressing things that come to us in our daily life. We are hurt by people and situations, change frightens us, it seems like evil is winning the day. We weep and lament. The world rejoices. Sorrow seems to be our daily bread.
And then Satan with his temptations sneaks into our depression. We forget that we are sojourners and pilgrims, that all the terrible things that depress and frighten us will pass, and that Jesus is with us always in the midst of the evil. We give into those fleshly lusts that war against the soul. Instead of living in the joy and confidence of our salvation, we settle into the gray of life in this world, and use our liberty as a cloak for vice, sinning however we want, using our sadness to justify it, and say we’ll repent when the time seems right.
When that sorrow and sin threaten to gain the upper hand, this Gospel Reading is what gives you comfort. It gives you the comfort in the crosses we bear, and that Jesus knows what you are enduring. And because He knows what you are enduring, He knows how to help and how that help will be best given to you. Jesus has promised you that there is no place in your life where He is not, and that includes your suffering, your sorrow, and your darkest days. He is with you to walk with you, to carry you, to see you through to the end. He has promised you: “Your sorrow will be turned into joy” and “Your joy no one will take from you.”
And on top of that promise never to leave you and to give you an eternal joy, He has promised always to hear you when you pray. When you pray to the Father in the Name of Jesus, that is, trusting in all that Jesus has done for you, your request will be answered. That doesn’t mean that whatever request you make, as long as you tack on “in Jesus’ Name,” to the end, will be answered with a yes. What Jesus is telling you is that anything that is prayed for that is in agreement with His purpose for coming to earth will be granted. The Name of Jesus brings with it all that Jesus has accomplished for your salvation. Therefore, whatever you pray for that will aid in your salvation, that will help keep you in the faith, Jesus will give to you.
And when Jesus gives, He gives in concrete ways, that is, ways you can see and hear, taste and feel. He will give you everything you need here, by Word and Sacrament. He will give you forgiveness of all your sin, comfort in sadness, strength in the face of temptation, and light amid the darkness. Here He renews your spirit and prepares you for the day when He will renew your body in heaven.
Yes, the world will rejoice, and you will sorrow and lament. But your days of sorrow are limited. And even the ones you do endure are in the hands of Jesus, those same nail-pierced hands that are holding you. You will see Him here at this Altar, and you will see Him in heaven. And in the mean time, though you may be singing in a foreign land, God is still with you in this exile. He will give you comfort here until He gives you comfort in heaven for all eternity.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.