Pastor Gary Wong, January 1, 2021
In that day you will say: "I will praise you, O LORD. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. 2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation." 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 In that day you will say: "Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you."
Do you like to sing? Even if we only sing in the shower or hum a tune in our heads, music lifts our spirits. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hot new song or a “golden oldie”; music just makes a person feel better. Much to the chagrin of my kids, I listen to and occasionally sing along with my favorite rock and roll classics on the Oldies radio station. In defense of my choice in music, I’ve pointed out to my children that at least everyone can understand the words and aren’t embarrassed to sing the lyrics; also, these songs have stood the test of time. Now, I don’t know if there was a list of top songs in the year 700 B.C. But if there had been, our text, which is sometimes known as The First Song of Isaiah, would definitely rank as one of the top songs of that or any other year. Indeed, it is one of the greatest songs of all time. As we look back at a year filled with God’s blessings and look forward with confidence to another year of the Lord’s favor this first day of 2021, may we, along with Isaiah, sing praises to the Lord. Let us give thanks to God for his Son, Jesus Christ, who is our strength and our song. Let us shout aloud and sing for joy because Jesus is the rock our salvation.
Now, if the Book of Isaiah only consisted of the first thirty-nine chapters, a song of praise would be the last thing that anyone would expect to come out of Isaiah’s mouth. Without the last twenty-seven chapters, the main theme of his book would be a message of God’s condemnation of his rebellious, idolatrous people. Rather than a song of praise, Isaiah would have composed a sad song that lamented the unfaithfulness of God’s people; a dissonant dirge that would have offered no hope. Yet, we know that our text is a joy-filled hymn. So, what filled the heart of Isaiah with such joy that he burst forth with this song of praise? Isaiah was looking past the havoc being wrought by the Assyrians. He was looking beyond the Babylonian captivity to the day of the Lord’s deliverance. Where the first thirty-nine chapters largely focus on the law, the last twenty-seven chapters focus on forgiveness through the gospel. It is a message of comfort and hope that centers on our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Isaiah was praising God because though the LORD had been angry with his chosen people, God had turned his anger away from them and had comforted them. We can certainly relate to the relief and elation that Isaiah expressed in this song of praise. Each of us knows that we deserve God’s wrath and punishment. Over the past year, we have given our holy, righteous God countless reasons to be angry with us. If we were to put our individual sins to music, how many stanzas do you think we would be singing? You know, as well as I, that there would be an endless number of verses. King David speaks for all of us when he said, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3). Truly, we have committed too many sins to count. What’s more, the weight of our sins is too much for our consciences to bear.
That’s why when we come to worship in the Lord’s house, we acknowledge our sins before God with this familiar refrain, “I confess that I am by nature sinful …I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment, both now and in eternity.” Note that the first thing we confess is that we are by nature sinful. Like David, each of us acknowledges, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). That fact alone condemns us before God—even before we had committed a single sin in thought, word, or deed. But to make matters worse, we go about breaking God’s law each and every day, three hundred sixty-five day a year. So, after we acknowledge our inherent sinfulness, we then lay our individual sins before God.
At this point in some of our services, we sometimes have a moment for self-examination and reflection. I don’t know about you, but that time seems to fly by. It seems as though I barely get started confessing a sin that has been really bothering me when the pastor’s voice alerts me that we are moving on in the service. Perhaps the same thing happens to you. For instance, we remember with shame how we haven’t always taken a person’s words and actions in the kindest possible way; how we have taken advantage of or taken our spouses for granted; how we as parents have sometimes neglected to train our children in the fear and knowledge of their Savior; how we as children haven’t always honored our fathers and mothers simply by refusing to clean our rooms or by talking back in a disrespectful way; how we have put money, family or our personal comfort ahead of God— the list goes on and on. Truly, we have done what is evil and failed miserably at doing what is good. For our countless sins of doing what is wrong and failing to do what is good in God’s sight, we deserve God’s punishment both in this life and for all eternity. We deserve to die and suffer in hell, forever separated from God’s love.
Even though the fires of hell are a fitting punishment for us, Isaiah tells us why we don’t have to be afraid of burning for all eternity. Isaiah reminds us that though God had been angry with us, he has turned his anger away. The question is, why did the Lord do that? Is it because he has poor aim? Is it because God had changed his mind and become soft on sin? Absolutely not! Because God is holy, he hates and punishes sin. He cannot turn his back on a single transgression or trespass and pretend as though it had never happened. Yet God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Rather, God encourages us to turn from our sin and live. Because of his undeserved love for all people, God turned his anger away from us and directed it at his one and only Son. Jesus suffered the agony of death and hell so that we would never have to experience it ourselves.
So even though we might be experiencing hardships and problems now, we are comforted knowing that we don’t have to be afraid of what is going to happen to us when we die. We are comforted knowing that Jesus is always with us. When we find our strength fading and wonder where we will find the motivation to keep on going, we turn to the Lord and are reminded that the gospel, the good news that we have complete forgiveness through Christ, provides all the motivation and power we need to live a God-pleasing life.
Isaiah sums up our reason to rejoice by quoting a verse from another hymn of praise recorded by Moses in the Book of Exodus. Just after they had been freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and pharaoh’s army. The Lord then miraculously rescued the Israelites by drowning their enemies in a watery grave. We, too, have been rescued by the Lord. We have been rescued from the slavery of sin. God has delivered us from the hands of our enemy, the devil. Through the waters of holy baptism, we have been made children of God and heirs of eternal life. So, like Moses and Isaiah, we praise God with this song: “The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (Isa. 12:2).
How, then, do we respond to God’s goodness and grace? In the second half of his song, Isaiah tells us. The very first thing is to “give thanks to the Lord.” We thank him for all the blessings he showers upon us each and every day of our lives. We thank him for providing for all of our physical needs; but most importantly, our spiritual needs. We thank him for sending us his Son to be our Savior. Friends—that is news that is too good to keep to ourselves. So, another way that we respond to God’s grace is to, in Isaiah’s words, “call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.” In other words, Isaiah is talking about outreach—telling others who don’t know that Jesus is their Savior about the great things that the Lord has done.
Of course, it’s not so easy to tell others about Jesus if we don’t have a good handle on who Jesus is or what he has done for us. So, where do we find that knowledge? We find it in the Bible. Jesus himself said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:38). Jesus is the living water that gives eternal life to all who drink it. Isaiah therefore encourages us to “draw water from the wells of salvation.” Finally, Isaiah tells us that we can respond to the gospel by praising God. The prophet exhorts us, “Sing to the LORD a new song.” Even if you don’t count singing as one of your gifts, we can all learn to sing songs of praise to the LORD. Think about it. If a little child who can’t read a single word or note of music can learn a new song, so can you. Little kids learn by hearing a song over and over and over again until they know the words and melody by heart. And then they sing that song over and over again. They never get tired of hearing it; they never get tired of singing it because their song comes from the heart.
We also never tire of singing songs of praise to God. Because of the great things he has done for us, we shout aloud and sing for joy. It doesn’t matter if we can’t carry a tune even if it has handles on it. Our songs of praise are music to the Lord’s ears. So, let us ring out the old year and ring in the new singing a song of praise to the God of our salvation: “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense; and he will be my Savior.” Amen.
“Help Us, O Lord, for Now We Enter” (CW 70)
Text: Johann Rist, 1607-77, abr., adapt.; tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1827-78, alt.
Help us, O Lord, for now we enter
Upon another year today.
In our hopes and thoughts now center;
Renew our courage for the way.
New life, new strength, new happiness
We ask of you—oh, hear and bless.
May ev’ry plan and undertaking
Begin this year, O Lord, with you,
When I am sleeping or am waking,
Help me, dear Lord, your will to do.
In you alone, my God, I live;
You only can my sins forgive.
And may this year to me be holy;
Your grace so fill my ev’ry thought
That all my life be pure and lowly
And truthful, as a Christian’s ought.
So may I, while I’m living here
Your faithful servant through the year.