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Sermon: Isaiah 49:1-6
Epiphany 2 – January 19, 2020 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel

Let’s imagine for a moment that at the end of Jesus’ ministry in this world he would have received a grade for how well he did in his work, received a grade like a student in school receives a grade. We all of course would say Jesus deserved an A+. But humanly speaking, and by today’s business standards, there would be those who would probably give Jesus a D or even an F, a C- at best. You might say, “Well, how can that be? How could anyone imagine that Jesus didn’t do a very good job here in his ministry?”

The unbelieving, secular world thinks differently than we do. Let’s look at Jesus’ success purely from a human or secular standard, a business standard. Jesus had a responsibility to gather twelve disciples whom he was to train to be his followers. By the end of his ministry eleven of them were left. One of them, Judas, had betrayed him to his enemies and took his own life. Another one of them, Peter, who was considered to be a leader of the disciples, had denied knowing Jesus three times.

One of the verses in our text today from Isaiah even seems to suggest that Jesus himself questioned his own success: “I have labored to no purpose.” Had Jesus done a poor job? Had he labored to no purpose? And if that were the case then we would have to question our own efforts at proclaiming the gospel, our own efforts at personally enduring in our faith. Have we all labored to no purpose? Are we just wasting our time as Christians?

Today we’re going to consider these prophesied words of our Savior:

Isaiah prophesied 700 years before Jesus was born, but he writes as if Jesus is already speaking in this world. The Savior, Jesus, calls upon all the nations to listen to him, not just Israel, but all the islands and nations of the world and he proclaims, “Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name.”

If there’s one thing we could most certainly give God an A+ for it was his sure and certain plan to send a Savior to the world. It’s difficult for us to understand, but God knew how he was going to save sinners before the world even began. Not long after creation when Adam and Eve plunged the world into sin, God promised that he would send a Savior who would crush the head of the serpent and destroy the power of the devil. God the Father called God the Son to be the world’s Savior long before Jesus was born. He even called him by name. He would be Immanuel, God who is with us. He commanded Joseph to name the Savior Jesus because he would indeed save his people from their sins.

And Jesus knew how well God the Father would prepare him to be the Savior. “He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.” Jesus was a perfect weapon that God the Father revealed to the world at just the right time. Or we might say that Jesus used a perfect weapon in this world. He spoke the word of God that had the power to convict sinners of their guilt and lead them to turn to God for his mercy and forgiveness.

Think of how Jesus’ words convinced cheating tax collectors to repent of their sins and follow him – Matthew who became Jesus’ disciple and Zacchaeus who climbed a sycamore tree in Jericho just to get a chance to see Jesus. Or think of how Jesus’ words convicted the woman at Jacob’s well of her sins against the sanctity of marriage but then pointed her to Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world. There was also the woman caught in adultery and many more.

Has the sharpened sword, the polished arrow, of Jesus’ words pierced your heart and conscience? In a society and world that seems to be growing more immoral, more godless, more self-centered, more entitled, anything but repentant, it’s becoming more and more critical that you and I are keenly aware of our sin and guilt and that we repent and turn to God for his mercy and forgiveness.

Remember Jesus’ graciously powerful words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus didn’t labor to no purpose in his effort to save you and me from our sin. He perfectly did all that God the Father sent him to do, and because he did we sit here today perfectly forgiven.

But there must have been days when Jesus himself wondered if his efforts were of any effect, if he had labored to no purpose, if he just wasted his time. Isaiah prophesies his thoughts: “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” When Pharisees and Sadducees refused to believe him, disrespected him, plotted against him, crucified him, Jesus must have been tempted to think, “I have labored to no purpose.” When many of his early followers turned away from him when they were offended that he called himself the Bread of Life, Jesus must have been tempted to think, “I have labored to no purpose.” When Jesus’ own disciples misunderstood him, had little faith, or argued among themselves about who was the greatest, Jesus must have been tempted to think, “I have labored to no purpose.”

Have we labored to no purpose here at Immanuel? When the church pews are far from full, when confirmation students aren’t faithful, when we probably have to close our school, have we labored to no purpose? Have you labored to no purpose as an individual Christian? When you sense the weakness of your own faith, when you see yourself committing the same sins over and over again, when the people you love the most and care about don’t believe in Jesus and don’t worship him, have you labored to no purpose?

I would imagine that Jesus had a lot of those days when it seemed like he was wasting his time. But Jesus was too wise to be overcome by such pessimism. He says in these words from Isaiah, “Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” Jesus knew he would complete his task in this world. He would die on a cross for the sins of the world. He would rise again victorious over sin and death. His followers would proclaim forgiveness and salvation to all the nations of the earth. Eventually millions would believe and be saved.

At the end of Jesus’ ministry the world might have given him a C or a D or even an F. I wonder how the world would grade Immanuel Lutheran Church and School. Maybe a C or a D or even an F. How would the world grade you or me as individual Christians? The secular world is pretty critical of us Christians. Probably a C or D for our efforts at living Christian lives. Definitely an F for our Christian faith, what we believe. To the world what we believe and teach is ridiculous, pointless, and foolish – definitely worthy of an F.

But, you see, the secular, unbelieving world doesn’t see or understand our purpose as a Christian church or individual Christians. The secular, unbelieving world doesn’t see or understand the results of preaching the gospel. The world only understands numbers, big statistics, money, profits, fame, self-indulgence, godless knowledge, and self-serving materialism.

We need to think like Jesus: “Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” God has called us to believe the gospel message of Jesus Christ. God has called us to teach the gospel to our children and proclaim it to the world. As long as we are faithful in what God has called us to do God will take care of all the rest. His gospel will accomplish what he desires in whatever places, in whatever numbers God desires.

The truth is that God will accomplish through us his people and through his gospel far more than we even imagine, far more certainly than the world will ever be impressed by. Listen to what God the Father says to Jesus: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” We might restate God’s words to Jesus this way: “In case you think that you’ve wasted all your time, in case you think you’ve labored to no purpose, let me tell you that you are going to accomplish far more than you imagined. You, my Servant, will not only proclaim the gospel to Israel, to the Jews, but your gospel is going to be proclaimed to the Gentiles, to every nation on earth. By the time you return to this world in your second coming the gospel will be translated into every language under heaven, preached in every nation on the face of the earth, and there will be millions and millions and millions from every nation, from every generation of history, who will welcome you as Lord and Savior.”

Things are changing here at Immanuel in major ways and in what might seem like disappointing ways. But do you think God is going to speak to us as the world would?: “I give you D for your efforts. I should give you an F for your failures. You really wasted your time and my time.” Or do you think God ever speaks so negatively to you personally about your Christian life? If we think that God is speaking to us that way we better think again. What he’s really saying to us is this: “I’m changing things here at Immanuel in really big ways. The world has changed. Your community has changed. I have new ministries for you. I have new plans for you. Your efforts to proclaim the name of Jesus will never be wasted effort. You efforts to endure in the faith, to live a Christian life, to encourage others to believe will never be in vain. Just be faithful, and I’ll take care of all the rest.

In our adult Bible class today we’re concluding our study of the book of Revelation, the last chapter of Revelation in which Jesus reigns victoriously forever with us his people. On that last day when Jesus comes there will be A+’s for us all, for Jesus who won salvation for us and for all who have endured in the faith. Jesus did not labor to no purpose and neither have we. Amen.