Pastor Gary Wong August 30, 2020
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
This is what the Lord says. Protect justice, and carry out righteousness, because my salvation is coming very soon. My righteousness is ready to be revealed. 6 Then the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him and to love the name of the Lord and to become his servants, every one of them who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, those who take hold of my covenant—7 I will bring them to my holy mountain, and I will make them glad in my house of prayer. Their whole burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar. For my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples of the world. 8 This is the declaration of God the Lord, who gathers Israel’s dispersed people: “I will gather still more people to my house besides the ones already gathered.”
It is the largest country on the face of the earth; one fifth of the world’s population lives within its borders. Yet for hundreds of years, this ancient nation tried to protect its borders and people from the outside world. They were so afraid of foreigners that they built a wall—a great big four thousand mile long wall—to guard their northern border. Then they put one million soldiers along that wall to make sure that absolutely no foreigner could get into their country. But a dozen years ago, this country that had tried so hard to keep foreigners out, did an about face. China flung open the doors to the Forbidden City and invited the world to pour through its walls as it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, world class athletes gathered in Beijing, hoping to win a medal of gold that tells the world that he or she is the best of the best.
Friends, today we have gathered in this special place. You and I have come to the Lord’s house at his gracious invitation. We have not come here to compete for a medal; rather, we have come to worship the Lord. Here is where we hear of God’s love for all people in sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to save the world from the consequences of sin. Here is where God gives us his precious Word and the Lord’s Supper. Here, in his holy house of prayer, we are reminded that through faith in Christ, we have been given a prize worth more than all of the world’s gold and silver. This invitation to the Lord’s house is not only for us who believe; God also extends his gracious invitation to those who do not know him as their Savior. So as we meditate on this portion of Scripture, may the Good News of Jesus encourage us to eagerly worship and serve the Lord with joy and move us to open our doors and hearts to others so that they, too, will worship the Lord with believing hearts. Praise the Lord, for this is where the world worships.
Much like the Chinese who tried to keep foreigners out of their country, the Jews living in Judah in Isaiah’s day held a similar view toward foreigners. As neighbors go, the Jews weren’t just a little bit unfriendly and stand-offish; they were downright un-neighborly toward all non-Jews. Basically, the Jews didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone who wasn’t a Jew. A question we might have is why did the have this kind of attitude? The Jews kept their distance from foreigners as much as possible because God had told them to do that! Now, please understand. God was not telling the Jews to be mean and nasty. He was telling them that they were to keep away from non-Jews because of the danger that foreigners posed. What kind of danger? God wasn’t so much warning his people about potential physical threats to their bodies; rather he was warning them about the very serious spiritual threats to their faith.
God did not want his people to be corrupted by the unbelieving nations that surrounded the Israelites. So God built a wall of laws around his beloved children. Along with the Ten Commandments—God’s moral law—God gave ceremonial and civil laws to the Israelites to remind them that he had set them apart from every other nation. Since they were different from all other people, they were to live a lifestyle that was very different from everyone else living in their community. In so many words, God was telling the Jews, “Don’t mix and mingle with any non-Jewish neighbors. Don’t host a come one come all block party. Don’t go over to the Ammonite Legion for a pork chop dinner; don’t sit down with the Moabite family next door for a meal of pigs-in-a-blanket and brats. You may have to put up with having Moabites and Ammonites as neighbors; but you don’t have to be friends with them. Whatever you do, don’t even think about inviting them to the temple to worship. Any foreigner who worships false gods or bows down to idols made of wood or stone is strictly forbidden from entering my sacred assembly!”
So, how did the Jews respond to God’s directives? Unfortunately, many took these restrictions against foreigners the wrong way. Since God granted access to the temple only to believers, they mistakenly concluded that God didn’t want any foreigner coming to him and hearing his Word; that God’s blessings were intended only for the Jews. The Jews turned their favored nation status into a source of sinful pride. Rather than viewing their free access into the assembly of the Lord as an undeserved privilege, these arrogant Jews regarded it as their God-given right—a right that they deserved simply because they were Abraham’s descendants. But what if you were a foreigner and you wanted to enter the temple gates? Barring the door, one of these Jews might smugly say, “You can’t come in! Nothing personal, you understand. But the law is clear: your status as an alien automatically excludes you from entering the Lord’s house.”
Imagine, then, how shocked those Jews must have been when God made this declaration through the prophet Isaiah: “Foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer” (Isa. 56:6,7). You can almost hear those Jews sputtering, “What?! I can’t believe what I just heard! I thought that the Lord wanted to keep foreigners out of his holy temple. But now it sounds as though God wants to let them in. What did I miss? Did these foreigners do something that has made them worthy of entering God’s holy place? Or did God simply have a change of heart? I just don’t get it.”
Friends, the reason why the Jews were so confused is because they did not understand God’s will. Simply put, God wants all people to be saved. God wants everyone in the whole world to be in his presence. So, the question is who may stand in his holy place? The Bible puts it this way: “whoever who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? All a person has to do to be worthy of being in the Lord’s presence is not commit a single sin with his hands; never have a sinful word cross his lips; never have a sinful thought in his mind and never have an evil desire in his heart. Unfortunately, no one can make that claim. No foreigner or Jew living in Isaiah’s day could claim to be righteous before the Lord. You can’t make that claim; neither can I. Because of our sins, none of us is worthy of standing in the Lord’s presence. What’s more, there is nothing that we can do to make ourselves worthy. Our sins separate us from our holy God and make us worthy of his wrath and condemnation.
So, what hope do we have of ever standing in the Lord’s presence? None— if we had to depend on our own works. Now, since we cannot make ourselves worthy, someone else would have to do it. Who is that someone? God! Because God so loved the world, he sent his one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of the world. As the sinless son of God, Jesus could not only claim that he had “clean hands and a pure heart”; he proved it by living a perfect life. Jesus kept all of God’s law perfectly. He then offered the perfect sacrifice of his own life on the cross of Calvary. On a holy hill called Golgotha, our Savior paid for the sins of the whole world—not with gold or silver; but with his holy blood. By his perfect life and innocent death, Jesus has torn down the wall that separated Jew from Gentile; most importantly, Jesus has destroyed the wall that had separated God and man.
Because of Jesus, we have peace with God and free and unfettered access to him 24/7, 365 days a year. This priceless gift has been given to all who believe in Jesus. That is the key point that Isaiah makes in our text. Yes, God had first limited access to the temple to the Jews. However, it was never God’s intention to permanently limit access to him to the physical descendants of Abraham. God wants to gather all who have the faith of Abraham. The Lord declares, “I will still gather more people to my house besides those already gathered” (Isa. 56:8).
What, then, is our response to God’s undeserved grace? Out of gratitude for what the Lord has given us, we worship him and serve him. Because God first loved us, we want to live lives that reflect that love and will glorify his name. How can we do that? Our text tells us: “Hold fast to [God’s] covenant” (v.6). In other words, keep the Commandments. For instance, our lesson talks about the Third Commandment, or as Isaiah puts it” keeping the Sabbath without desecrating it.” God gives us the freedom, the privilege, and the blessing of coming to church to worship him—to be strengthened by God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper, to be assured that God has forgiven all of our sins for Jesus’ sake, that we have eternal life and a perfect home in heaven just waiting for us. Knowing that those blessings are ours, why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of as many opportunities as we can to go to church and Bible study? Knowing that God is eager to pour out his blessings upon us fills our hearts with joy and makes us excited to worship and serve him. Finally, the love of Christ will move us to share the Good News of Jesus with those who do not know him as their Savior. As we reach out to others, the Lord’s house will be a house of prayer for all nations.
Dear friends, a great big wall of sin had once separated us from our holy God. Our sins had excluded us from his presence. But because of his love, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to tear down that wall. Because of his perfect life and innocent death, we can approach God with freedom and confidence, knowing that our heavenly Father hears and answers our prayers for Jesus’ sake. Therefore, may the Good News of Jesus encourage us to eagerly worship and serve the Lord with joy and move us to open our doors and hearts to others so that they, too, will worship the Lord with believing hearts. Praise the Lord, for this is where the world worships. Amen.
“In Christ There Is No East or West” (CW 539)
Text: John Oxenham, 1852-1941, st.1, 4-5; Mark A. Jeske, b.1952, st. 2; Michael Perry, b. 1942, st.3
In Christ there is no east or west,
In him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
With God there is no tribe or race;
In him we all are one.
He loves us as his children through
Our faith in his dear Son.
So, brothers, sisters, praise his name
Who died to set us free
From sin, division, hate, and blame,
From spite and enmity!
Join hands, disciples of the faith,
Whate’er your race may be;
Who serves my Father as his child
Is surely kin to me.