Pentecost 13a

Preached: September 7, 2014

The Lord Gathers Outsiders
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us is Isaiah 56

This is what the Lord says, “Preserve justice and do what’s right, because my salvation is so close to coming and my righteousness is so close to being revealed.”

“The foreigners who are joined with the Lord to minister before him and to love the Lord’s name so that they are his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it and who firmly holds on to my covenant—I will bring them to my holy mountain, and I will give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be pleasing on my altar. For my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The declaration of the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: “I will gather still more to the ones already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:1, 6-8)

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

A while back I received one of those emails that people forward around. This one was a quote from Teddy Roosevelt advocating one language for America, the English language. But then I started thinking what were the non-English languages that would have bothered Roosevelt at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It wasn’t Spanish, as we would think today. Rather one of the largest non-English-speaking groups in the United States back then were those German. You know, they even had their own churches and schools were only German was used. Children were brought up speaking German in their homes. They published newspapers, magazines, and books in German. How could English speakers know if there wasn’t something seditious in them? And we’re not just talking about Pennsylvania Amish speaking German. This was happening right here in Minnesota and Wisconsin and elsewhere, especially with those Lutherans.

How quickly a group can go from being the outsiders to looking at others as the outsiders!

As we hear the Lord God talking about outsiders in these words he gave the prophet Isaiah to write, he’s talking about you and me, dear friends. Since most of us have been brought up in the church, we’d like to imagine that others are now the outsiders. But the right heart begins by seeing how much we too were on the outside and how much we too needed the Lord's mercy to gather us to himself and welcome us. So as we focus on the theme: The Lord gathers outsiders, don’t just think about people out there; think about what he has already done for you. How welcomed he wants us to feel! How his acceptance changes us!

A. How welcomed he wants us to feel!

“The Sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: ‘I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered’ ” (Isaiah 56:8 NIV11). What words of welcome for you and me, since we are among the others who were outside of Israel! This verse brings to mind that beautiful picture Jesus’ words present to us in John 10. He calls himself the good Shepherd and then says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16 NIV84). He gathers the outsiders, the other sheep. That’s you and me, dear friends. He welcomes us into his flock.

But how easily our hearts forget how undeserving of this welcome we are, especially once we feel that we're now on the inside! Instead of astonished gratitude continually overflowing from us, our hearts begin to puff ourselves up, thinking “So God welcomes me. I mustn’t be all that bad. God has standards, you know. Yes, I’m a sinner, but I mustn't be as bad as some of those people out there, even some of the other church members. I do my part.” How deadly those thoughts are! They completely misunderstand God’s welcome.

For you see, God’s welcome is totally undeserved. It's not as if some of us were less undeserving than others. The text brings that out by focusing on the foreigners. In Old Testament Israel there was no reason at all for the foreigner to be welcomed into God’s temple. God’s promise of land and nation were to Abraham and his descendants, not to some foreigner. So it must be God’s grace alone, his totally unmerited kindness, his completely undeserved love that welcomes the foreigners and says, “These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer … For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 55:7, 8 NIV11).

That’s what we were, dear friends. Foreigners. But because of his grace alone, God sent his Son to bring even outsiders like you and me close to him. The Apostle Paul describes this marvelous truth as he writes to the Ephesians. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:13, 19, 20 NIV11).

By nailing your sins to the cross in his own body, Jesus has brought us foreigners into his flock. He gathers the outsiders. He has gathered you and me and welcomed us into his flock, his family, his church. What joy! How can we not welcome others?

Yet we personally don’t always feel welcomed, do we? In fact, it's our fellow Christians who can at times make us feel unwelcomed. Maybe it was an unkind word or a side-ways glance. Maybe it was something said behind our back that we heard about later. Maybe it was being ignored or taken for granted. Cold indifference can strike deeper than a flash of anger. How unwelcomed such things can make us feel!

Now, not in anyway to excuse unkindness or indifference, yet when you or I find ourselves feeling unwelcomed, maybe what we need at that moment is to say to ourselves, “So what. So what, if someone else has mistreated me or hurt my feelings. God has welcomed me. He has welcomed me into his family and gathered me into his flock. Why should I let what someone else does overrule what God has said? Why should I let them keep me away from God’s house? Why should I let them make me feel unwelcomed?”

Go back to what the Lord says about the foreigners, “These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar” (Isaiah 56:7 NIV11). The Lord has gathered you around his holy word to bring you the Good News of forgiveness that purifies us in the blood of his Son. Don’t let the unkindness of others rob you of that joy. Even if others pay no attention to your words, the Lord welcomes your prayers. Even if you acts of service go unnoticed and your hard work is unthanked, know and believe that all that you do out of faith in Jesus are pleasing offerings accepted by your Lord. Why would we need the praise of people when God himself rejoices in what you do out of love for Christ?

Because the Lord gathers outsiders, because he has gathered even you and me, how welcomed we can feel!

Now since God’s grace gathers the outsider and welcomes even sinners like us, some have surmised that God accepts them as they are so they can continue to indulge in whatever their natural self desires. But that’s not faith. For you see, dear friends, as the Lord gathers us, his acceptance changes us.

B. How his acceptance changes us

We see this change described at the beginning of the text. “This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant’ ” (Isaiah 56:1, 6 NIV11).

Now some of those words describe Old Testament forms which the New Testament makes clear do not apply to us in exactly the same way, but the underlying truths have not changed. The Lord’s acceptance changes us to maintain justice and do what is right. How clear those words are still today 27 centuries after Isaiah. Yet how much they cover! Do what is right in God’s sight. Do what measures up to his standards, for he alone is the Judge.

And this doing right is not just an outward change of behavior but an inward change of heart. For truly right actions must flow from a heart that loves the name of the Lord (the text says), a heart that treasures the Lord and his revelation above all else. For he alone is the Savior-God, who freely makes his promises of eternal life and faithful keeps them. He is the Lord. That is his name, his revelation. Who would not want to serve such a gracious God?

And who would not want to set aside time to find rest in his word? For his word brings us his promises, his unconditional covenant of forgiveness sealed in the blood of his Son. Faith holds fast to this unconditional promise and gladly hears and learns his word. Faith holds fast to the new covenant remembering the death of our Lord for us and celebrating his victory over sin and the grave. What rest for our souls is in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ! This all is the true keeping of the Sabbath, not tied to any particular day of the week or outward rules concerning physical labor, but rather tied to the word and sacraments of our God, which alone bring eternal peace and true rest for souls.

And finally, note that these changes happen because he has gathered us, and not the other way around. It’s not as if we had to change ourselves first and start doing right before he would gather and accept us. Look again at the text and note the cause of us of doing right. The Lord says, “Do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1, 6-8). He saves. He declares us righteous. That's what causes the change. That's what leads us to do right. In Isaiah’s day his salvation and righteousness were close but still coming, because Jesus was still coming. For us, we have seen the full revelation of his salvation. Jesus covers us with his righteousness. For God counts Jesus right record as yours and mine. That’s what it means that God has gathered you. He has taken us outsiders, us sinners, and clothed us with his Son. He has clothed you with the Lamb of God, so that we are his sheep, gathered into his flock. How his acceptance changes us!

So dear friends, whether you feel like insiders or outsiders in the society around us, know and believe that the Lord has gathered you into his flock and family. And there are many more he wants to gather, as he uses you and me to draw them to himself. How welcomed he want us and them to feel! How his acceptance changes each of us to do his will! For he gathers outsiders into his flock, just as he has gathered you and meAmen.

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

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Pastor Gregg Bitter

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

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