December 8, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Our God comes; He does not keep silence; before Him is a devouring fire, around Him a mighty tempest. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that He may judge His people: ‘Gather to Me My faithful ones, who made a covenant with Me by sacrifice!’”
A summons should not be ignored. The courts expect you to appear when they send out their subpoenas. To disregard their order will lead to very negative results. The weight of the legal system is behind the writs and certificates that are issued. One does not want to be found in contempt of court. To do so will make a person subject to fines and imprisonment.
But what happens when the summons is not issued from an earthly entity? Then there is much more than the stick of the legal system to deal with. That is the case with the Psalm for the Second Week in Advent. The author transcribes heavenly words: “The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” The entire world—from the east where the sun rises to the west where the sun sets—is given the order to appear before the Lord in all His glory: “before Him is a devouring fire, around Him a mighty tempest.” They are commanded to be in the Lord’s presence: “He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that He may judge His people.”
The Lord has a message for His people: “Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.” It is not a pleasant message, but it must be heard. Judgment is spoken against the Lord’s people. This judgment isn’t because of lack of worship or outward acts of piety: “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before Me.” Plenty of sacrifices were being offered to the Lord. Innumerable psalms were being prayed in the Temple grounds and tons of incense being burned in its sanctuary. Birds, goats, and bulls were placed on altars. The people were performing enough outward actions to please any sort of deity.
But the Lord still has an indictment against His people. What the people were doing in their outward acts of piety did not match up with their belief. The sacrifices and worship were being given by the people absent-mindedly. Their actions were not motivated out of full devotion to the Lord and dependence upon Him for everything good. Instead, there was empty ritual, performance of religious duties simply because they were told to. Or worse, they thought they were providing the Lord with something He lacked.
So the Lord offers His judgment about these sacrifices: “I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is Mine.” The Lord reminds the people that everything they offer to Him is already His. And more than that, He doesn’t actually need it: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are Mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” The Lord is not dependent upon the sacrifices of the people, but they are dependent upon what He gives to them. The people do eat the flesh of bulls, birds, and goats. They need what He provides, both bodily and spiritually.
So the Lord directs His people to remember that He is the source of their life in body and soul. He wants to see the recognition of that dependence reflected in what they do. And with that recognition comes a great promise: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” Salvation comes to those who see themselves as not being able to support themselves, especially in spiritual matters. The Lord calls His people back to believing the Covenant that He made with them and showing gratitude for receiving what He provides.
That same calling back to believe is what the Prophet Malachi proclaimed to the people: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and just decrees that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” These are where the Lord had given His promises about salvation and forgiveness. It is also where the Lord established His way of life for His people. That is why He sends a messenger to turn His people’s hearts: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
This message has come to you. It is meant to turn your hearts and minds. The Lord desires that you receive the goodness that He has for you. But that means that you must recognize that you can’t provide it for yourselves. Your outward acts of piety—reciting of psalms, singing of hymns, kneeling for prayer, and the like—do not achieve salvation. God doesn’t need these things. You’re not doing Him a favor by offering them. And you can’t use your actions as currency to buy and barter with the Lord. No, everything that you need is what He gives.
So as you hear of what the Lord has done when He came to earth and what He promises to bring with Him when He comes again, you can see how the Lord has treated you. And that drives the response of thanksgiving. That is what your outward acts of piety can offer. Your lives can reflect gratitude for what has been given to you. And as you call upon the Lord in the day of trouble, you continue to confess your dependence upon Him for what is good, trusting that He will indeed deliver.
Then when “the Lord speaks and summons the earth” on the great and awesome Day of Judgment, you will be able “to stand before the Son of Man.” You will not stand because of what you have offered to Him. Instead, you will be delivered by what He has offered for you—not a bull from your house or a goat from your folds, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. That is what He sent and you have received in faith, trust, reliance, and dependence. So when He summons the earth, you will not cower and hide. Instead, you will “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” just as He promised and as you needed.
Until that day, offer to God your sacrifices of thanksgiving for what He has done. Perform your vows to Him, living according to His covenant. Call upon Him in times of trouble, especially when you need sins forgiven. He will deliver you, and you shall glorify Him now and forever.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.