Isaiah 56:1 (11th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 15)
“Declared Right; Doing Right”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
August 20, 2017
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the first verse of the Old Testament lesson recorded in Isaiah 56:
1Thus says Yahweh, “Keep justice and do righteousness because My salvation is coming soon and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
How do you make someone into a [righteous person]? This was a question Reb Saunders needed to answer. Reb Saunders was the spiritual leader of the Russian Hasidic Jewish community in Chaim Potok’s bestseller, The Chosen. He was a man of wisdom and compassion who had endured unimaginable suffering for his people during World War I. When the war ended, the rabbi had moved his family and the Hasidic community to America. Here he had a son, whom he named Daniel. As Reb Saunders’s firstborn son, everyone in the community expected Daniel to succeed his father as leader of the community. He was “the chosen one.”
One day, when Daniel was just four years old, he picked up a book and read it. Then he repeated it from memory, word for word, back to his father. On that day, Reb Saunders realized that God had given Daniel a brilliant mind, “a mind like a jewel.” Daniel started devouring books like
they were food and water. But as proud as Reb Saunders was, he soon realized something else about Daniel as well. He realized that even though Daniel had been blessed with a great mind, God had not given him a heart. And a heart was the most important thing for a [righteous person]. Daniel had a
magnificent mind, but he did not have the heart of a [righteous person]. What would the father do? How could he raise Daniel to be a [righteous person]? . . .
How do you make someone a [righteous person]? For the Christian, a [righteous person] is someone who is “right” with God, that is, someone who is in a right relationship with Him. A [righteous person] is also someone who fulfills God’s plan for human life—someone who lives in the relationship that God intended not only with the Creator Himself but also with His creation. How do you make someone a [righteous person]?
The Triune God is the God whose “work is perfect, for all his ways are just. He is a reliable God who is never unjust, he is fair and upright” (Deut. 32:4 NET). God is His own perfect ethical norm. Whatever He pleases to do or not to do is of itself right and just. It is this perfect, right, and just God who commands us to be perfect, right, and just by living in conformity with all His commandments. He said to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy’” (Lev. 19:2). God said to Israel, “You shall be holy to me, for I Yahweh am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26). Jesus the incarnate Son of God Himself reiterated this in the Sermon on the Mount, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48 ESV).
To be “righteous” means that you must meet God’s “design specifications” for being His human creature and fulfilling the purpose for which God created you. In today’s Old Testament reading, those design specifications are worded like this, “Keep justice and do righteousness.” This had been missing in Israel. In Isaiah 57:17 God says to Israel, “Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry, I struck him; I hid my face and was angry, but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.” A chapter later, “Declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God” (Isa. 58:1-2 ESV).
Don’t we also act, at times, as if we were doing right when we really are not? Our actions might seem good and kind, but our inner motivation is tainted and selfish. “I’ll help so-and-so and maybe I’ll get something in return.” “Look, Lord, I went to the church today!” you boast afterward, but you didn’t pay attention to the Lord’s Word as it was read and proclaimed. Your mind and heart were elsewhere.
God requires that you do right, that you follow His commandments perfectly. Do you avoid every sin? Do you trust in something or someone else other than God? Is His Word evident in your daily speech and conduct? Do you disrespect those in authority over you? Do you treat your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit or do you hurt or harm it by gluttony, chemical addiction, or other abuse? Are you a cheater, stingy, selfish? A gossip? Manipulative or controlling? God commands and requires righteousness. Why aren’t you complying?
You and I have an obligation to do what is right according to God’s commandments. Yet it is impossible for us to do so on our own. My “righteousness” and your “righteousness” will never come close to being the perfect righteousness that is required of us. How does Isaiah put it? “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6 ESV). Our rightness compared to God’s rightness is like a soiled diaper, gross and disgusting. So we read in Romans 3, “’None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ . . . Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:10-20 ESV).
God requires us to keep justice and to do righteousness. We, instead, sin. We fail. We are unjust. We are not righteous. We do not do what is right according to God’s right commands.
“Thus says Yahweh, ‘Keep justice and do righteousness because My salvation is coming soon and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’” Because righteousness was missing in Israel and in us as well, Yahweh promised to come in righteousness and bring all people salvation from sin. He Himself would supply everyone with the perfect righteousness that He requires from us.
This righteousness is revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 1:17, “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom. 1:17 ESV). Jesus Christ, true God, became true Man, in order that He might live a perfect, right life as our Substitute. Christ satisfied the Law; He fulfilled the Law perfectly. Jesus avoided every sin. He never trusted in anyone or anything other than the heavenly Father. The Word of God was evident in Jesus’ everyday speech and conduct. He respected all those in authority. He treated His body as a temple of the Holy Spirit whom God poured upon Him in His Baptism in the Jordan. Jesus did not cheat. He was not stingy with His mercy and love. He was not selfish or a gossip. Jesus never manipulated or controlled. Everything that the Law of God requires of you and me, Jesus fulfilled.
But because all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), Jesus also took upon Himself the penalty and punishment for crimes that He never committed. It was Israel that sinned against God’s commandments. It is humanity who is sinful. It is you. It is me. We are sinners who have not kept justice and done righteousness. That’s why Jesus did for us what we cannot. He kept justice and did righteousness on our behalf. But the penalty of sin was still ours. The wages of sin—death—belonged to you and me. Jesus, by grace alone, took that punishment as His own. 2 Corinthians 2:21, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus became the curse of sin before God so that you might be blessed with forgiveness. Jesus suffered hell on the cross for you so that you might know heaven. Jesus died your death so that you might have eternal life. Christ exchanged your sins for His righteousness.
Because of Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection, you and I and all people who live by faith in Him are declared right! Because of Christ’s perfect life lived in your place, God credits you with having lived a perfect and right life before Him. God sees you in Christ as having done the right things He has commanded—fearing, loving, and trusting in Him above all things and loving your neighbor. Jesus’ “doing righteousness” is counted as your “doing righteousness.” Through the Gospel Word, God takes away your sins through the cleansing blood of Christ. He gives you faith that receives the forgiveness of sins won for you by Jesus on the cross. By means of the same Gospel, He applies the righteousness of Jesus to you as if it were yours all along!
Martin Luther wrote, “Therefore, when the Law comes and accuses you of not having kept it, tell it go to Christ. Say: There is the Man who has kept it; to Him I cling; He fulfilled it for me and gave His fulfillment to me.” It is that fulfillment given to you—the righteousness of Jesus—that enables and empowers you to “do right.” You can, with the help of God the Holy Spirit, begin to keep the commandments. Paul speaks with confidence God’s Word in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6 ESV). Your obedience will never be perfect in this life, but you can be sure that your sins are covered in the blood of Jesus. You are forgiven. And when the Father looks at you, covered in the blood of Jesus, wearing the robe of Christ’s righteousness, He declares you right, not guilty.
The gift of Christ’s righteousness empowers your new life of righteousness. By grace through faith in Jesus, you are now established in a life of doing what is right because God has declared you to be right through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
 Timothy Saleska, “The Two Kinds of Righteousness!: What’s a Preacher to Do?,” Concordia Journal 33, no. 2 (April 2007): 136-137.