Ash Wednesday \ Pastor Terry Defoe \ Isaiah 41:14 \ God Has a Word for That
Our sermon text on this Ash Wednesday is found in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, chapter 41. I’m reading verse 14, where Isaiah says:
14 Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. (N.I.V.)
Tonight’s Ash Wednesday meditation is taken from a series of midweek Lenten worship services that we are part of this year with other congregations of our Wascana Circuit. This year, as we have done for the last several years, our pastors will be travelling from church to church on a Lenten pulpit exchange. The title of the series is “Singing with the Exiles.” The author is Dr. Reed Lessing, who served in past years on the faculty of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Dr. Lessing is now senior pastor at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
During these weeks of Lent, beginning tonight, “Singing with the Exiles” presents prophecies of the Messiah found in the book of Isaiah and shows us how these prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus. In this series, Jesus is portrayed as the true and only Savior, the One foretold by God’s prophets, and the only One who can restore us to a relationship of life with God through His suffering and death. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word tonight and throughout these weeks of Lent.
Dr. Lessing says:
If you could become any animal in the world, which one would you choose? Maybe, like Isaiah, you would soar on wings like an eagle. Or, like Amos, perhaps the lion is your animal of choice because you love the strength and beauty of the king of beasts. Or maybe, like Elisha, you would like to be a bear because, when it comes to obstacles, you maim and you maul. Or if your name is Caleb — which in Hebrew means “dog” — you just might choose to be a sweet and adorable little canine.
So here’s a question for you on this Ash Wednesday 2015. How many of you would like to become a worm? May I see a show of hands? That’s just what I thought. None of you are worm wannabes! I don’t blame you. Worms have no arms, no legs, and no eyes! They’re small and insignificant and, if you ask me, worms don’t have the best of personalities! The word for Worm in the Bible means = CURSED BY GOD (e.g., Isaiah 66:24; Jonah 4:7)
No one ever stops their car and says, “Hey everyone, take a look at that worm!” When have you read an editorial that passionately argued, “We must cease the ongoing genocidal atrocity taking place in our lakes and rivers! Worms deserve better! These cute creatures should not be skewered on hooks, just so they can be fed to the fish!”
Can you imagine the worm being any team’s mascot? Will we ever hear of the Los Angeles Leaches or the Michigan Maggots or the Washington University Worms? I don’t think so. Our text in Isaiah 41:14 calls God’s people a worm:
“Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob.”
Why does God call the exilic community in Babylon a worm? Didn’t He get the memo that calling someone a worm isn’t the way to boost self-esteem or encourage people to get up and get going? Buried under the boot of Babylon, in Isaiah chapters 40 through 55 the exiles are also called weak and weary, bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, deaf and blind, childless, widowed, divorced, and a stubborn rebel from birth. God has a word for that: worm.
The parallel thought in our text equates “O worm Jacob” with “those who are dead.” Isaiah’s poetic parallelism invites us to compare dead people with worms. Dead people are buried—so are worms. Dead people are stepped on—so are worms. Dead people are surrounded by dirt—so are worms. Dead people are ignored and soon forgotten—and so are the worms.
The forlorn exiles of Israel had experienced terror on every side. The patriarchal and Davidic promises appeared to be null and void. The captives are caught in a culture where their most treasured narratives and liturgies are being mocked, trivialized, or dismissed as being simply irrelevant. Everything had been swallowed up by the beast called Babylon. This hopelessness is epitomized in Psalm 22:1, where the Psalmist, King David, says,
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
And then in verse 6, David says,
“I am a worm and not a man.”
Now, what should I think of myself when I am captive to sin and so far away from the Father? When I don’t
“act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with my God” to use the words of God’s prophet Micah, chapter 6, verse 8? When I’m not aflame with holiness and feel no compassion for the lost? What am I to think of myself when I take no delight in the Word, recoil from prayer, harbor lustful thoughts, and pant for the praises of people? What am I when I am deceptive, mean-spirited, petty, and vindictive? God has a word for that: I am a worm.
“Pastor, didn’t you get the memo that calling people a worm isn’t the way to boost self-esteem or encourage us to get up and get going?” No, I didn’t. Because thinking highly of ourselves has nothing to do with God’s Word. Rather He longs for us to cry out with Isaiah,
“I am a man of unclean lips”;
and with Job,
“Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”;
and with Paul,
“O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death!”
This is what Lent is all about. It is acknowledging who we truly are in God’s sight — sinful and unclean in thought, word, and deed. Lent is the season of the church year when we confess these sins, when we grieve over them, and repent before Almighty God. You see, only people who are dead and buried and surrounded by dirt cry out for life and resurrection! Hear the Word of the Lord. From Isaiah chapter 41, verse 14, where God’s prophet says:
“Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O dead ones of Israel, for I myself will help you, declares the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”
No, the Lord is not some football coach trying to rally his team to “win one for the Gipper.” Nor is He some talk-show host who wants us to feel warm and fuzzy all over. Our God is not some sentimental granddaddy who helps those who help themselves. No.
He is “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”
The word “redeemer” appears here in Isaiah chapters 40 through 55 for the first time and will come eighteen more times in this section. A redeemer is your next-of-kin-relative who buys back your inheritance, frees you from slavery, and pays off your debt. Whatever has gone bad, your redeemer will make good (Job 19:25; 42:10).
Coupled with Redeemer is the phrase “the Holy One of Israel.” It appears in the book of Isaiah twenty-five times and only seven more times in the Old Testament. He is, as the seraphim cry out, “holy, holy, holy!” It means the Lord is completely set apart and different from everyone and everything else.
Isaiah couples your Redeemer — the completely immanent One — with the Holy One of Israel — the completely transcendent One. In this way, he announces that the Lord alone is able to marshal every power in the universe for a single, loving, furious, relentless goal—to bring us love and life, forgiveness and salvation! How does He do it? In the fullness of time, God became our next-of-kin-relative, literally. And then He took another step. He became dirty, despised, and dismissed. But then He took another, almost incomprehensible step. It was one for the ages.
Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Or, in His native Aramaic language,
“Eli, Eli, lama sabathani.” And then verse 6,
“I am a worm and not a man.”
Consider the mental image of Jesus, nailed to the tree, His body bent and twisted. Consider is Jesus, a bloody, horrific mess. Consider Jesus – mocked, ridiculed, abandoned. God has a word for that and the word is “worm.” But here’s the Good News to balance all of that Law. Jesus did it all for you and me. And so God’s transforming word to us is exactly this. Isaiah 41:15,
“See, I am making you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.”
And verse 16:
“You shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the LORD; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory” (Isaiah 41:16).
Worms become mountain movers! The lowly and despised are loved and lifted up. Our Lenten sackcloth and ashes are not the last word. On Easter they will be exchanged for baptismal robes washed white in the blood of Jesus.
“The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the gospel is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5).
God has a word for that and the word is “Grace!” Thanks be to God! Amen.
Let’s Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Bless us throughout our Lenten journey to the cross this year. Reveal insights to us from your prophet Isaiah. Grant us a fuller understanding of our Savior, who he is and what he has done for us. In His most holy and precious name we pray. Amen!