Comfort in the Face of Conflict

Text: Isaiah 66:10-14
Date: Pentecost VII + Proper 9C + 7/3/16

In today’s Gospel Jesus sends out seventy-two of His disciples to go on ahead of Him proclaiming the peace of the kingdom of God and healing the sick. They were warned that they would be variously welcomed by some and in other places rejected. However, He gave them this word of assurance which are His own words of comfort for every pastor and preacher to this day, saying, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). That’s comforting because it reminds us that the power to bring people to repentance and saving faith does not depend on  anything in ourselves but solely on the power of God’s Word that we proclaim. The strange thing it seems to us is that people have the sin-inspired ability to reject God, to say “no” to His Word. In their case the very invitation of God’s grace has the opposite effect hardening their hearts. To such, all we are ordered to say is, “know this, that the kingdom of God has come near” (Lk 10:11), shake the dust off our feet as a testimony against them and move on. Move on.

Regardless of any rejection or opposition they may have encountered, however, still we hear those disciples returning joyfully because “even the demons are subject to us in your name!” But then Jesus says these strange words. “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, we are not to be caught up in the small victories of the moment, of mere happiness when things happen to be going well, when we happen to experience some success in our witness or our evangelism efforts. For not only our trials, fears and failures will pass away one day, but so will even all these momentary joys. Rather, we are to have always before us the goal of heaven, of eternal life promised to us solely because “our names are written in heaven.” They are written there in accord with God’s own baptismal promise to you.

In this light the last chapter of the prophet Isaiah was chosen to remind us that it is in our keeping the vision of our true goal and home that we can be comforted now even in our current experiences of times of joy mixed with times of mourning, comforted now even though “we’re not there yet.”

“Rejoice with Jerusalem,” says the Lord to us today, meaning His dwelling place, that is, the Church. As members of the Church, the assembly of Christians called to faith, the prophet describes us as “all you who love her” on the one hand, and yet “all you who mourn over her” on the other hand. These are all those times both of love and success and of mourning and loss. It is like that, for instance, every time we gather in synodical convention (which will be held in Milwaukee beginning next Saturday). As the seventy-two experienced both welcome and rejection, so our days are marked with love toward God and toward one another and yet also mourning when that love fails us or we fail God.

These verses speak to us first as if we are little children, quasimodogeniti or new born babes, born of God by faith in Christ. It is as if the Church is our mother who nourishes and consoles us. We are to be as St. Peter writes of us, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). “This milk,” says Martin Luther, “is nothing but the Gospel, which is also the very seed by which we were conceived and born.”

But then Luther continues, “This is also the food that nourishes us when we grow up” (AE 30:48-49). So likewise the prophet immediately speaks of us as grownups, maturing in God’s family, saying, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

This is a welcome word to us today and every day. For we are in need of comfort, that is, relief from our mourning or sadness or confusion over the many enemies of the cross of Christ all around us. The old folk song said, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” The only problem is that the whole world doesn’t know it or doesn’t believe it. So we are threatened by tyrants and terrorists who not only reject God’s Word but even attempt to silence and kill it. What is the apostle Paul’s catalog? “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:8-10). We are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down by suicide bombers, by popular movements among people and even the government that challenge the proper Christian teachings on marriage and proper sexual activities, even growing ever more blatant as eroding our freedom of speech and the freedom of religion.

Yes, there’s a lot to mourn over, to be perplexed about, for which to endure persecution. But remember those other words of the apostle, “not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed.” That’s because we have here the pure spiritual milk, the food that nourishes us, the promises of our saving God who says to those who feel forsaken, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is 49:15). Your salvation is in His hands, not yours.

“You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice.” What shall we see? “Behold, he,” Jesus Christ, on the last day, “is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Rev 1:7). You will see that day because “your names are written in heaven.” So rejoice, rejoice with Jerusalem, rejoice O Mother Church, and be comforted even in your trials and travails for the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word is sure and is our great heritage,

and shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations. (LSB 582)