Lent 2-March 20, 2019—Marked

Shelly Jackson is not only an author, she’s a walking piece of literature. She has a tattoo on her right wrist that reads, “S-k-i-n” yes, Skin. It is actually the title of Jackson’s latest project, which she calls “A Mortal Work of Art.”

The plan is that her 2095-word story would be published exclusively in tattoos, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers. Once a volunteer is accepted into the project, they are known only by the word they bear on their skin.

“It’s not that everything I do has to be tricked out with gimmicks and games,” Jackson said. “I’m just interested in exploring the range of what a text can do.”

At last count, Shelley Jackson was still looking for people to bear her final three hundred words. Just think, we could contact her after church, offer our human hides, and be part of a counter-cultural narrative!

How many are ready to line up to be inked with a one-word tattoo? That’s just what I thought. And, truth be told—much to my children’s dismay—I’m not all that eager get a tattoo either.

Isaiah also wants people to be marked with one word and be part of a counter-cultural narrative. He writes in our text, “This one will write upon his hand ‘Belonging to the Lord.’ ”

One of the ancient Near East’s most dominant narratives in the sixth century BC was the Babylonian creation epic called the Enuma Elish.

The Enuma Elish narrates Marduk’s defeat over Tiamat. He cut her in two and built the universe out of her remains. Read during the annual Akitu festival, the feast reached its pinnacle with the acclamation—in the Akkadian language—“Marduka ma surru,” which, when translated, means, “Marduk is King”!

Connected to the pomp and pageantry of Babylonian religion was the empire’s program of changing people’s names. Just ask Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah.

Or maybe you know them by their VeggieTale names, Shach, Rach, and Benny. Some affectionately call them, “Your Shack, My Shack, and a Bungalow.”

But in Daniel 1:7 the chief of the eunuchs changes their names to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The goal? Mark the Judeans with a new name that will entice them into worshiping Marduk.

But Judean exiles in Babylon didn’t line up. They weren’t interested in being marked by their Maker. Because, you see, there was another text in town. “There’s no place like home” was being replaced with “There’s no place like Babylon.” Oh no!

The dominant story of our day is peddled by the young and the beautiful who guarantee we can be young and beautiful, just like them, if we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t even like.

Their story is hammered into our heads at an alarming rate. On a typical day in America, from the time we open the morning paper (or, more likely, log on to Yahoo News) until we finally doze off in front of another rerun of I Love Lucy, we will encounter more than two thousand advertising images.

And these images portray over and over again the dominant American narrative—“You can buy lasting happiness!”

In league with the pomp and pageantry of American consumerism is the enemy’s program of changing our names. His goal? Mark us with a new name that will entice us into seeking ultimate fulfillment in things.

Deemed beloved through water and the Word, Satan renames us cheap, dirty, and worthless. Deemed washed and cleansed in the name of Jesus, he whispers to us, “Guilty as charged.”

Designated as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” the liar brazenly boasts, “It's all fiction, it’s all fantasy, it’s all a figment of your imagination.”

Put together, the dominant narrative and the dominant devil create in us a slowness to be part of a counter-text by means of the word besides.

We reason, “To stand out in the crowd would be most uncomfortable. And furthermore,” we continue, trying to convince ourselves, “I can sell my soul to the American dream and claim its promises of prosperity while, at the same time, professing the name of Jesus.”

We’ve all tried the dominant narrative. We are like the Rolling Stones, who no matter how hard they try, can’t get no satisfaction. We are all worn out from believing the dominant American story. O God! We need an alternative narrative!

Enter Isaiah 40–55, where the prophet takes dead aim at the empire. Babylon is a drop in the bucket (40:12). Babylonian leaders are nothing (40:23). Babylonian gods are an empty wind (41:29). Marduk is a fantasy, a fake, a fraud, and a huge phony.

And the alternative narrative in Isaiah 40–55 is just getting revved up! “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God” (40:1). “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, God is doing a new thing” (43:18–19). God is stirring Cyrus to get Israel out of Babylon and He is raising up the Suffering Servant to get Babylon out of Israel. The whole program is summarized in 52:7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God is King.’ ”

And, taking another shot against Babylon and every other seductive and satanic story, the Lord maintains that His story lasts forever (40:8).

The Lord promises that His story does what it says. Isaiah 55:11, “So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty.”

We are the subject of God’s story, so much so that we line up, each one, and “write upon our hand” not “belonging to Babylon,” but “belonging to Yahweh.”

Our God has always told His story on people’s bodies; call it Skin! In Genesis 4:15, the Lord marks Cain. In Genesis 17, the Lord gives Abraham and his offspring the covenant mark of circumcision. Deuteronomy 6:8 describes people tying God’s words on their hands and binding them on their foreheads.

In his vision, the prophet Ezekiel sees the Lord command a man to use a writing kit to put His mark on the foreheads of the faithful.

And it all points to the most awesome story ever told on human skin.

Isaiah describes this body, saying, “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man, and His form marred beyond human likeness. . . . Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. . . . We all, like sheep, have gone astray. And the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 52:14; 53:3, 6).

And then these words from the Suffering Servant: “I gave My back to those who strike, and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I did not hide My face from mocking and spitting” (Isaiah 50:60). One spear, three nails, and a crown of thorns left their marks on Jesus. Did they ever!

But first the Ten, and then climactically Thomas, saw Jesus alive; and what shall we call that story? Call it Skin. Our Savior showed His skin. He is forever marked with scars announcing for you, right here, right now, His loyal love and His free forgiveness and His everlasting grace!

And so people began lining up to be marked.

Paul puts it this way in Galatians 6:17: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Eyes marked with tenderness and kindness; a smile marked with delight and friendship; a mind marked with toughness and truth; hands marked with helpfulness and humility; and a mouth marked with Jesus and joy.

To be a part of this counter-cultural narrative, all we need to take on is one word: leyahweh—in English, “belonging to the Lord.”

But just how does that happen? Recall the water, remember the Word, and forever cherish this liturgical rite when you were baptized. “Receive the sign of the holy cross, both upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.”

Just because we live in Babylon does not mean we will live like the Babylonians. My life and your life tell another story. We are consumed with another narrative. And what is that called? Jesus . . . with skin. Amen.

Lent 1-March 13, 2019—He Only Has Eyes for You

The song “I Only Have Eyes for You” was composed in 1934 by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. It has been recorded by numerous musicians, including Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, and Art Garfunkel. Rolling Stone ranks the Flamingo’s version of the song #157 in their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

“I Only Have Eyes for You.” The Lord has His own version of this golden oldie: “you are valuable in My eyes.” The you in our text is singular, not plural. It’s you not you all. Singular you denotes a focus that is individual and intimate, particular and personal.

The same specific concern for you comes in Isaiah 43:1 where God says, “I have called you by name, you are Mine.”

His care is cosmic and universal, to be sure, but to emphasize the value God places on you, He employs twenty-five second person word forms in Isaiah 43:1–7. Over and over again it is you, you, you . . . you! “You are valuable in My eyes.”

Those who first received these words were far away from home. These Israelites were in Babylon, and Babylon said, “You are nothing in my eyes.” Babylon was distant, aloof, cold, and calculating.

It called Judean exiles state slaves and prisoners, cogs in their vast and ever-growing political machine.

SO THE QUESTION OF THE DAY IS: Where do I find my value?

To get at this, let me take you back to one of my favorite childhood memories. As a child, one of our family rituals every summer was going to Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado. The park had all kinds of rides and enough sticky cotton candy to amaze my little life. But what fascinated me most were all the fun house mirrors. Some mirrors would make me look tall and skinny. Others would make me look short and fat. And still others would make me look ugly and creepy. None of them reflected who I really was.

And neither do the mirrors that surround us. Just turn on the TV, surf the net, go to a mall, pick up a magazine. There we see perfect people with perfect families and perfect marriages delighting in perfect jobs. And when these images seductively summon us, what do we see?

We see that we don’t measure up. You name it—we don’t have it. Addicted to how the world sees us, we begin feeling tall and skinny, short and fat, ugly and creepy. If we look into these mirrors long enough, we begin to languish, lose heart, and feel worthless.

And when we feel worthless, we not only discount ourselves, we begin discounting everybody else. You name them—we discount them: spouse, child, colleague, parent, boss.

When we feel like nothing, we treat other people like nothing. We sell each other off for cut-rate prices, slashing and burning reputations. Obsessed with what we don’t have, we get stuck in the game of gossip, the silent stares, and the jungle of judgment.

Let me be as clear as possible. How you stack up in the eyes of others does not reflect your true value.

Your value comes from the Lord, and He says, “You are valuable in My eyes.” It is the same you—singular, not plural. Specific, reserved, and exact. It is you! And you are incredibly valuable. The Hebrew word here, translated “valuable,” denotes significance, stature, and substance. You are prized, priceless, preferred, and precious.

Let me explain. Value is based on ownership. A car owned by Elvis Presley is worth a lot more than my Toyota Corolla that the two Kappel Boys have dented, damaged, and Dinged!

My car’s worth is connected to the fame of its owner (or lack thereof); which means not a whole lot! I think It’s about $750.00, according to Kelly Blue Book.

So value is based on ownership?

The Lord says in Isaiah 43:6–7, “Bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the end of the earth. All upon whom My name is called, and whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and whom I made.” God has created and claimed, fashioned and formed us. We are His sons and His daughters.

And value is based on how much someone is willing to pay?

God says in Isaiah 43:4, “And I will give people in exchange for you, and nations in exchange for your life.” When Israel passed through the Red Sea, the Lord paid for it with the life of Egyptians. Now Israel is about to leave their captivity through the Persian King Cyrus and God will pay for it with the life of Babylonians. Our God is willing to lay down people’s lives for us.

But why trust the Lord to place value on us? Just who is this God anyway? Isaiah 40:26 says that He calls every star by name. The Milky Way is 104,000 light-years across and contains over 100 billion stars. To count them one by one would take a person over 3,000 years. According to the latest probings of the Hubble Space Telescope, there are hundreds of billions more galaxies in the universe! And this God calls each of them by name!

This is the God who says in Isaiah 43:1, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name,” and in verse 4, “You are valuable in My eyes.”

But there is more. His Word is everlasting—Isaiah 40:8; His righteousness is everlasting—51:8; His love is everlasting—54:8; His covenant is everlasting—55:3. No wonder Isaiah 40:28 states, “He is the everlasting God.” This is the One who says, “I only have eyes for you.”

Who? You. Still you, just you, always you, forever and ever . . . you! Are what? Valuable, cherished, of infinite worth. Where? Not in the eyes of Babylon. There we are nameless numbers and state-owned statistics. Where are we valuable? Not in our eyes. When our eyes are wide open, we see our duplicity, dishonesty, idolatry, and ongoing sin.

So where are we valuable? God says, “In My eyes!” To quote Luther, “Although in supreme trials you seem nothing in your own eyes and are condemned as one cast off by the world, in My eyes you are glorious. Therefore you may be vile in your own eyes, in the eyes of the world, and even in those of your brothers (as happened to us on the part of our Enthusiast brothers). Fear not. In My eyes I regard you as a precious jewel.”[1]

But there is more. In the baptismal flood, God claimed you as His own; and on a hill called Calvary, He paid for you with His Son, Jesus. This means God has more than just eyes for you.

He has hands and feet for you, nailed to a cross. He has a head for you, crowned with thorns. He has a side for you, thrust through by a spear.

But there is more. God has a heart for you. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9). God has ears for you. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). And God has body and blood for you. Jesus says, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins” (cf. Mark 14:23).

Isaiah testifies to this one indisputable fact. Our God loves these lyrics: “The moon may be high, but I can’t see a thing in the sky. I only have eyes for you.” [2]


[1] Martin Luther, Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40–66, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, et al., Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 17:88.

[2] Songwriters: Dubin, Al/Warren, Harry; Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Ash Wednesday-March 6, 2019—God Has a Word for That

If you could become any animal in the world, which one would you choose? Maybe, like Isaiah, you would soar on wings like an eagle.

Or, like Amos, perhaps the lion is your animal of choice because you love the strength and beauty of the king of the jungle. Or maybe, like Elisha, you boast in the bear because, when it comes to obstacles, you maim and you maul.

Or if your name is Caleb—which in Hebrew means “dog”—you just might choose to be a sweet and adorable little dog.

So Question: How many of you would like to become a worm? May I see a show of hands? That’s just what I thought. None of you are worm wannabes!

And I don’t blame you. Worms have no arms, no legs, and no eyes! They’re small and insignificant and, if you ask me, worms don’t have the best of personalities!

Worm = CURSED BY GOD (e.g., Isaiah 66:24; Jonah 4:7)

No one ever stops their car and says, “Hey everyone, take a look at that worm!” When have you read an editorial that passionately argued, “We must cease the ongoing genocidal atrocity taking place in our lakes and rivers! Worms deserve better! These cute creatures should not be skewered on hooks, just so they can be fed to the fish!”

Can you imagine the worm being any team’s mascot? Will we ever hear of the Los Angeles Leaches or the Michigan Maggots or the Washington University Worms? I don’t think so.

Our text in Isaiah 41:14 calls God’s people a worm: “Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob.” Why does God call the exilic community in Babylon a worm? Didn’t He get the memo that calling someone a worm isn’t the way to boost self-esteem or encourage people to get up and get going?

Well buried under the boot of Babylon, in Isaiah 40–55 the exiles are also called weak and weary, bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, deaf and blind, childless, widowed, divorced, and a stubborn rebel from birth. God has a word for that: worm.

The parallel thought in our text equates “O worm Jacob” with “those who are dead.” Isaiah’s poetic parallelism invites us to compare dead people with worms. Dead people are buried—so are worms. Dead people are stepped on—so are worms. Dead people are surrounded by dirt—so are worms. Dead people are ignored and soon forgotten—and so are the worms.

The exiles had seen terror on every side. The patriarchal and Davidic promises appeared to be null and void. The captives are caught in a culture where their most treasured narratives and liturgies are being mocked, trivialized, or dismissed as being simply irrelevant. Everything had been swallowed up by the beast called Babylon.

This hopelessness is epitomized in Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And then in verse 6 David says, “I am a worm and not a man.”

Now, what should I think of myself when I am captive to sin and so far away from the Father? When I don’t “act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with my God” (Micah 6:8)?

When I’m not aflame with holiness and feel no compassion for the lost? What am I to think of myself when I take no delight in the Word, recoil from prayer, harbor lustful thoughts, and pant for the praises of people?

What am I when I am deceptive, mean-spirited, petty, and vindictive? God has a word for that: worm.

“Pastor, didn’t you get the memo that calling people a worm isn’t the way to boost self-esteem or encourage us to get up and get going?”

No, I didn’t.

Because thinking highly of ourselves has nothing to do with God’s Word. Rather He longs for us to cry out with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips”;

And with Job, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”;

And with Paul, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death!”

This is what Lent is all about. It is acknowledging who we are in God’s sight—sinful and unclean in thought, word, and deed. Lent is when we confess these sins, grieve over them, and repent before Almighty God. You see, only people who are dead and buried and surrounded by dirt cry out for life and resurrection!

Hear the Word of the Lord. Isaiah 41:14, “Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O dead ones of Israel, for I myself will help you, declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

The Lord is not some football coach trying to rally his team to “win one for the Gipper.” Nor is He some talk-show host who wants us to feel warm and fuzzy all over. Our God is not some sentimental granddaddy who helps those who help themselves. No.

He is “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

The word “redeemer” appears here in Isaiah 40–55 for the first time and will come eighteen more times in this section.

A redeemer is your next-of-kin-relative who buys back your inheritance, frees you from slavery, and pays off your debt. Whatever has gone bad, your redeemer will make good (Job 19:25; 42:10).

Coupled with Redeemer is the phrase “the Holy One of Israel.” It appears in the book of Isaiah twenty-five times and only seven more times in the Old Testament. He is, as the seraphim cry out, “holy, holy, holy!” It means the Lord is completely set apart and different from everyone and everything else.

Isaiah couples your Redeemer—the completely immanent One—with the Holy One of Israel—the completely transcendent One.

In this way, he announces that the Lord alone is able to marshal every power in the universe for a single, loving, furious, relentless goal—to bring us love and life, forgiveness and salvation!

How does He do it? In the fullness of time, God became our next-of-kin-relative, literally. And then He took another step. He became dirty, despised, and dismissed. But then He took another, almost incomprehensible step. It was one for the ages.

Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Or, in His native Aramaic language, “Eli, Eli, lama sabathani.” And then verse 6, “I am a worm and not a man.” Here is Jesus, nailed to the tree, His body bent and twisted. Here is Jesus, a bloody horrific mess. Here is Jesus, mocked, ridiculed, and abandoned. God has a word for that: worm.

He did it all for you. And so God’s transforming word to us is exactly this. Isaiah 41:15, “See, I am making you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.”

“You shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the Lord; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory” (Isaiah 41:16).

Worms become mountain movers! The lowly and despised are loved and lifted up. Our Lenten sackcloth and ashes are not the last word. On Easter they will be exchanged for baptismal robes washed white in the blood of Jesus. “The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the gospel is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5). God has a word for that. Grace!