THE HIGH AND THE HUMBLE - A sermon for the Feast of the Lord's scension
May 25, 2022 Pastor: Rev. Lloyd Gross
Ascension THE HIGH AND THE HUMBLE Isaiah 57:15
Does this passage seem like a paradox to you? On the one hand God tells us that He is high over all the world, totally transcendent. On the other hand He asserts His presence with the humble and contrite. Is that a contradiction? If it is, we have a similar one with Jesus. His disciples saw Him ascend, leave the earth, disappear above the clouds. Yet we know He is present in our Holy Communion. How can He be transcendent and at the same time be within you? The answer is not that God can do anything. Even though God is omnipotent, that does not matter for what we're talking about. We want to know how to interact with God. We cannot do that by speculating about His nature.
The greatest distance between God and man is not one of space. It is true that Jesus was physically present with His disciples one minute and physically absent the next, but we have no idea where heaven is, so we have no idea how He traveled once He entered the cloud. He might have traveled through time as well as space. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that a throne was prepared for Him. That sounds like Judgment Day. But the main point is neither time nor space. The greatest distance between God and man is holiness. The quality of holiness is one we acquire by having our sins forgiven, which only comes through interaction with God. If we have nothing to do with Him, we are nothing, and all of our works are vanity. Before the Fall Adam and his wife were holy, but that has been lost because of sin. We are still God's stewards, we are still the crowning point of all creation, but as sinners we can only do evil. Only God can sanctify us, which He does by putting grace into the world.
Holiness -- what an uneasy thought! A holy building is one where you have to keep quiet. Holy people are famous for their self-denial. We stop swearing when we think the pastor can hear us. Evil might make us disapprove, but at least it's fairly familiar to us. Holiness is strange. Yet holy people are almost always free from anxiety. We come to this holy place to find forgiveness. Holy people are fond of forgiving. The holiest Man who ever lived is Jesus, who was God's bridge over the holiness gap. He became the bridge by becoming incarnate.
Isaiah is telling us this evening that the very holiness, the quality that puts God far above all human ambition and achievement, also brings Him very near the humble and penitent, so near that He actually touches them. Afflictions and frustrations teach us their bitter lessons. But we are not ready to graduate from their school until we let go of our self-reliance, confess our sins, and put away our foolish pride. We want to be ready for what God likes to do best - deliver us. The best way to interact with God is for him to deliver you. If afflictions and frustrations put you in need of deliverance, be sure that the Holy Spirit is very close to you.
It doesn't take much to figure out that being delivered isn't just something you can decide to do. Unless events put you in harm's way, you won't need rescuing. So what can we do? First, let me warn you that religious feelings are no help at all. Jesus never said Blessed are they who feel religious. So where can you start? Should we try various forms of self-denial? Should we begin with volunteering, contributing money, spending more time in prayer, fasting, taking Bible classes, giving to the needy? There is peril in this method. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The prophets of Israel solemnly warn us , Rend your hearts, not your garments. Sacrifice can lead to holy feelings, and the worst imitation of holiness is holy feelings. That is the trap. If you can avoid it, at least sacrifice is a step away from self-sufficiency, from independence, from the blindness that keeps us from seeing our sins. It can help us see how firmly sin holds the creature called Me. Once we see that, we can turn to the cross. The way to love God is the way of the cross.
When you are crushed and humble, God is very near. Isaiah even says that God revives the humble. Jesus became one of us to heal the sickness of our souls. To the blind man He said, "Receive your sight." To the palsied He said, "Your sins are forgiven." To a crucified thief He said, "Today you will be with me in paradise." Even as He spoke those words, He made the sacrifice. He suffered all the pains human sin had heaped up in this world. His sacrifice cleanses every soul, blesses every contrite heart, makes full atonement with His body, redeems all sinners forever, including you. Talk about self-denial - that was the ultimate self-denial! And talk about holiness - there was nothing artificial about His holiness. On the third day He proved that Satan could not take His holiness from Him. He was stronger than sin and death. He did not keep this holiness to Himself. He used it to deliver us. So in Holy Communion we receive His broken Body and precious Blood. There, under His offered grace, we can become holy. The heart that is broken and contrite, that is not blocked up with the heavy stone of its own importance, can become holy by feeding on grace. The Holy Spirit gladly rolls that stone away.
In the verse right before our text, the prophet uses construction language. He talks about building a road. This particular bit of civil engineering does not involve any concrete, but rather a highway in the soul. Jesus bids us to get rid of the obstacles that get in His way as He comes to abide with us. He needs to raise up the weaknesses with a kind of spiritual landfill. And the high ground has to be leveled, the self-sufficiency and arrogance have to be put down. God's mercy is doing all this. Jesus will not share His throne with you on earth, because He would rather share it with you in heaven.
As once more we remember Christ's Ascension, let us praise the High and the Humble, who is nevertheless very near to the crushed and despairing. May the Sacraments of this holy place continue to build you up by grace, to reinforce you as the people of the Savior, and therefore also the saints of the Most High. With you He deigns to share His cross here, and His crown hereafter. AMEN.