Epiphany 5a

Preached: February 9, 2014

Beware Earthly Repentance
Isaiah 58:5-9

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word of God through which the Holy Spirit works repentance in our hearts is Isaiah 58.

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself ? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:5-9a NIV84).

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

“I really feel bad about what I did. I hope God can forgive me.” “Why aren’t things going better for me? Is God getting back at me for some sin?” “Have I been sorry enough? How long do I need to keep on repenting before things improve?” “I hope I get a chance to repent before I die..”

Have any of those kinds of thoughts gone through your mind? Some of them may never occur to you. Some may be a regular struggle you battle daily. Some infect us and we don’t even realize how much they sicken our attitudes and undermine our faith. But all of them are earthly, fleshly, sinful. Beware earthly repentance.

A. Godly repentance ignites the heart

Earthly repentance figures we have to make ourselves feel sorry enough before God can forgive us. The people the Lord spoke to through Isaiah figured that fasting would show how sorry they were. In fact, they came to fast more often than the law of Moses required. By Jesus’ day, many of the religious people fasted twice a week to show how dedicated to God they were. Surely God would accept them!

And yet they wondered why God hadn’t treated them better. In verse three they say to God, “Why have we fasted … and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed” (Isaiah 58:3 NIV84).

But all their fasting and humbling of themselves did not come from a new heart. God answers, “Is this kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:4 NIV84). Their hearts were still stone-cold and dead in sin. Beware earthly repentance.

Now maybe you are ready to confess, “Yes, I know that my outward actions can’t bring me forgiveness. I know it has to be a change of heart. That’s why I try to make myself feel sorry, so that it’s on the inside.” But that thinking is still earthly repentance. It’s not a new heart.

Whether it’s outward actions like fasting, praying, giving to charity, helping others or whether it’s inward actions like feeling sorry, trying hard, or doing our best—it’s all focused on me. What can I do to get God to forgive me? And that thumbs your nose at God’s grace. How guilty you are! How guilty I am! Earthly repentance infects our hearts and souls, and we fail to see how deadly it is.

Imagine if someone offered you a mansion. You know you can’t pay for it. But instead of receiving it as the free gift the owner intended, you say, “I can’t pay for this, but here’s the fifty dollars I have in my wallet so that you know you made the right decision in giving me the mansion.” Do you see how that’s a slap in the face of the giver and actually rejects his charity? Beware earthly repentance. Beware imagining that our sorrow or internal efforts in any way demonstrate that we ought to get God’s gifts. Confess with the hymn writers: “Not the labors of my hands Can fulfill the laws demands. Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; Thou must save and thou alone.” (“Rock of Age, Cleft for Me” Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal 389:2).

Fire cannot come from stone-cold rock. A dead body cannot make itself alive. And we, who were born dead in sin, cannot make our hearts new. We cannot make ourselves produce godly repentance.

Only the Holy Spirit does that. He works in us godly repentance to ignite our hearts. First he crushes our hard hearts with the hammer of the Law: Do continuously what God commands. Do it from a heart that loves him above all without ever imagining that he requires too much from you. Don’t do anything at all that he forbids. Refrain from all evil without a single regret, without wondering even once whether what he forbids might be fun. How we have failed! And how the Law damns us. Whoever sins but once rightly deserves death and unending hell. And the very thought that what I just said doesn’t sound fair proves your sinfulness and mine. How the Holy Spirit crushes our hearts with the hammer of the law!

“But here is Jesus,” the Holy Spirit says, and how sweet those words are. “Here is Jesus. He fulfilled the laws demands. He paid for your sins, fully. See his blood and death, the sacrifice in your place. All this is God’s free gift to you. Jesus has risen and ascended. He prepares the mansion of heaven for you. Believe this good new, the Gospel of Jesus.”

That Gospel ignites our hearts. Only the Holy Spirit can work this repentance in us. Godly repentance ignites our hearts. For godly repentance trusts in Jesus alone, since the law has crushed our hearts so that we have no hope but Jesus.

Godly repentance does not stay locked in our hearts. It shines out into our lives.

B. Godly repentance shines out into our lives

Godly repentance rejoices in God’s great love toward us: his grace that reached out for us undeserving, unlovable, unworthy sinners and his mercy that rescued us from the filth of our sins and the suffering our guilt deserves. Godly repentance rejoices in God’s great love by shining out with love toward others.

Through Isaiah the Lord describes that love in action: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6, 7 NIV84).

Now many people may do those kinds of things for the wrong reason. Even atheists will support charities in our day. Beware earthly repentance. But when acts of love, kindness, and helpfulness flow because you know and believe in God’s love that freely gave Jesus to you, an undeserving, unworthy sinner, how precious those acts are! When Godly repentance shines out into our lives from hearts ignited by the Gospel of Jesus, what a light that is!

Isaiah describes that light: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8 NIV84). That reminds us of Jesus words from the Matthew 5: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 NIV84). Notice how our light is to bring praise to our heavenly Father. We want others to glorify the Lord and know that he is our righteousness.

So as important as it is to help those in physical need, how much greater is the spiritual need we see in the world around us. You have the Gospel that sets sinners free from the chains of death and the yoke of slavery. Share that Gospel, the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. You have the life-giving food, the words of Jesus. Feed the starving souls with the pure milk and sweet honey of God’s Word. You have the clothes that last for eternity, the white robe of Jesus’ righteousness. Cover the nakedness of sinners with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Your Savior is your mighty fortress and he has prepared a mansion in heaven for you. Invite others to live with you in the house of our God. What a shelter! Godly repentance shines out into our lives.

Let it shine brightly as you rely on Jesus alone. Go to him for the strength and power to shine out. Call on him for help. He will answer. Through his word and sacraments he will answer and be with you. In the Bible he speaks to you, and in the Lord’s Supper he gives you his body and blood to eat and drink. Could he be any closer? Call on him, for he is with you in his word and sacraments. Through the prophet he promises: “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:9a NIV84). Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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