You Turn Things Upside Down!

Text: Isaiah 29:1-19
Date: Pentecost XIII (Proper 16) + 8/26/12

Do you suffer from “stupefaction”? It doesn’t mean you are stupid, really. It’s a word I discovered describing the problem of God’s people in Isaiah 29 and the Pharisees and scribes in today’s Gospel. “Stupefaction.” It’s the state of being stupefied, in a stupor or senseless state. Spiritual senselessness, of course, describes everyone according to our inherited, fallen sinful nature. We all are, by nature, sinful, spiritually blind, dead, enemies of God and senseless. We confess this truth in the Divine Service saying, “that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition.” Because of sin everything we know or think we know about ourselves, about God, about His good creation and even about His Word has been turned upside down from the way God originally intended things to be. God tells us in today’s text, “You turn things upside down!”

Not only is this true of all human beings from their birth, but it is also the same condition back into which even a Christian can fall. That happens whenever we begin once again to rely on our works, trying to make “deals” or “brownie points”[1] with God, or whenever the ceremonies of our worship become devoid of living faith and sincere striving after holiness. The greatest problem of such things, however, is losing sight of Jesus Christ who alone is the answer and Savior from sin, death and spiritual senselessness.

Jesus quoted Isaiah 29 when He charged the Pharisees and scribes, saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God,” He continues, “and hold to the tradition of men.” He said this in response to their offense and indignation at Jesus’ disciples when they noticed they weren’t following the usual, ritual washing of their hands before eating.

Stupefaction is hypocrisy. There can be conscious hypocrisy that is, purposely changing our behavior or conduct either out of the fear or for the favor of men. Or there can be unconscious hypocrisy, which is just the raw, outward work-righteousness of our old fallen nature. It seems the Pharisees and scribes were guilty of both. Though they should have known better this shows how easy it is, how subtle the infection of sin to make us fall back once again into the senseless stupor called stupefaction.

They and we have the warnings of Scripture of how easily and often we turn things upside down. God warned His people through the prophet Micah, saying,

Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
and make crooked all that is straight,
who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with iniquity.
Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for a price;
its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the Lord and say,
“Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
No disaster shall come upon us.” (Micah 3:9-11)

In our text from Isaiah the divine diagnosis is plain. Even though God has plainly warned us in His clear word, because of spiritual senselessness even when we read God’s Word it remains “sealed,” as if we cannot read at all.

Of such a note of judgment we would expect the Lord to say, “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,” I will therefore punish you in some way or another. That’s what we, in our spiritual senselessness would expect God to say. But what do we hear? We are surprised when the Lord says, “because of my people’s hypocrisy,” “therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder.” Our slavery to sin is so deep and our view of things spiritual but “in a mirror dimly” and our partial knowledge (1 Cor 13:12) can only be broken and enlightened by a wonderful deliverance that actually has the power to change us. That deliverance looks foolish to the world but is marvelous in the eyes of the faithful. For that deliverance is found in the Cross of Christ.

Here were the Pharisees and scribes complaining to Jesus about His disciples over the trivial matter of ritual washing all the while completely blind and stupefied over who Jesus is and what He came to accomplish. For Jesus is, as Isaiah predicted, “the Wonderful Counselor,” the Mighty Savior who came to earth, “born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:4-5) regardless of whether that Law be of the Holy Ten Commands or of any lesser, ceremonial law. Christ came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. He fulfilled the greatest commandment, to love God, and therefore every other commandment that flows from that including the ritual washing of hands! And then, though He perfectly fulfilled all of God’s Law, He then offered Himself, His flesh and bones and blood as the only sacrifice that has the power to set us free—free from sin and death, opening our once blind eyes and once deaf ears. As Isaiah prophesied, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.”

We still need to draw near to the Lord with our mouths and honor Him with our lips as the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Through (Christ) then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb 13:15). But our worship, devotion and life of praise needs to stem from a heart motivated by the Word and Spirit of God, that is from faith in Christ which is the true fear of God.

How wonderful it is that our hymn of the day today should be “Lord, help us ever to retain The Catechism’s doctrine plain” (LSB 865). For it is as we are not only grounded but let us say “exercised” in God’s Word—the firm foundation of the holy Ten Commands, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer—that the Holy Spirit continues to create and strengthen faith in the heart, constantly supplying us with His gifts, first of which is love, but then also is joy and peace, believe it or not, “patience, kindness and goodness,” “faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), and enabling us to live lives of prayer and good works.

Above all it is God Himself, the Holy Spirit who keeps our eyes focused on Jesus. Jesus is the Lord whom we worship as our deliverer and Savior, our life and our joy.

[1] A hypothetical social currency, which can be acquired by doing good deeds or earning favor in the eyes of another. Most likely from post WWII “brown point” stamps given to boost business. It seems to have little to do with the junior Girl Scout organization. The Oxford English Dictionary conjectures that this expression could also have derived from U.S. military slang for sycophants, “brownnosers.” It has been suggested that the term was given impetus through its coincidence with related scatological slang. (