“Seek the Lord”
Editor’s note: Concordia Seminary Professor Tim Dost preached the following sermon on Isaiah 55:6-9 in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus on September 18, 2020. You can view the sermon at https://scholar.csl.edu/cs2021/12/.
6Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 7Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 8“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6-9)
First of all, the finding of God is generally not because he is not around or available, but rather because we are not ready to find him in the way he would have us do. When can I go and meet with God, the Psalmist asks? Or more completely:
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
It is seldom God who hides, but we who do not seek. We are obsessed with the wrong things. Our sin, our unrighteous standards and thoughts.
And now we come to Hamlet. Out of context, this sounds like a sandwich on the Steak and Shake menu. “I’d like a hamlet, please.” Or perhaps, Shakespeare is making a play on words as Danish ham is famous and delicious throughout the world. “There are just two of us, so I think I’ll have a Hamlette for Easter and not a full-sized ham.”
But William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tale of obsession over revenge—the revenge of a son for his murdered father. The ghost of the king, Hamlet’s father, appears to Hamlet at the beginning of the play and declares his own foul murder that must be avenged. But Hamlet dithers around with doubts and proofs, myths and legends about science and ghosts and superstition and religion and finally having set the stage for both confession by his uncle of the murder of his father, and himself having heard that same confession of his uncle, the current king and also his newly minted step-father, nevertheless he further hesitates in order that the vengeance would not send the now freshly confessed King to heaven, but rather to hell.
Hamlet responds to his uncle and usurper’s confession:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
KING CLAUDIUS, the uncle responds…
[Rising] My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
As a result of this hesitation and desire for double revenge, Hamlet dooms nearly the entire Danish court to murder by poison, by violence, by suicide, until only his friend Horatio and the decisive yet mysterious Fortinbras remain to clean up the homicidal mess that is the court in Denmark.
And this would seem an echo of our scripture text, that we should seek the Lord’s mercy when it should be found and not worry about the rest, leaving the justice part to the Lord our God. His thoughts are not our thoughts, his ways, not our ways. Prayer is not idle prattling, but rather a communion of mind, heart and thought with God.
How often do we judge others, in traffic, for their points of view in classes, for their different attitudes or opinions on matters important to us, or in our marriages? How often does politics, or the way we handle pandemic matters, or our individual opinions on worship, liturgy, music or entertainment get in the way of our fellowship and even our sound doctrine and Christian life.
We are often so petty in our judgments, and yet we expect mercy at every turn. But aren’t we often like Hamlet, required to do a simple thing as an agent of God and provided with ample opportunity to do so, and yet in our zeal committed to improving on what God would do, we delay, we dither, we procrastinate? The Pharisees and Sadducees were in this boat with their rules upon rules, so they felt they could even judge Jesus. And how would we judge Jesus if he entered here now, without certification, to preach, to lead us in communion, or to pray? The zealots of Jesus day also went too far in their murderous activities and look where it eventually got them—dying in their droves at the hands of the Romans. And I’m certain that there are practices and interpretations of what is God-pleasing around here that are solely the thoughts of men, and in no meaningful way linked to the purview of scripture, or Christ as Word, or kerygma or creed or confession, nor anything else central to the faith.
We too, like Hamlet, can’t be satisfied with what has been ordained, with doing the deeds set before us, but must improve upon them, as though we can do better, judge better, show mercy better, gain more fair to us or others outcomes.
Yet what God expects here is fairly straightforward. God, in Hebrews 4, elaborates on and shows us the urgency of the text, when God sets aside another day calling it “Today” for the new Sabbath of the forgiveness of sins and the life of the world to come.
“Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, 7 God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So there remains for us an urgent commission. Today, now is the appointed time, and for what? The sharp two-edged sword, the scriptures, that bring us to repentance, forgiveness and new life in Christ.
And every day is a today, so every day in the forgiveness and love of Christ is a Sabbath day, a day of liberation from death and distress in our lives and a day of rising in hope with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A day of forgiveness and not despair.
For it is just as serious and bad in our obsession to add to God’s righteous Gospel and his holy law the rules of men in the name of the Lord—as a violation of the Second Commandment—taking the name of the Lord in vain, as it is to leave parts off of the message for our convenience and because of our opinions and our desire to agree with others, to control others, and through our machinations to aggrandize and seek power inappropriate to the role of a servant.
Christ Jesus has come to forgive and abundantly pardon. He stoops to serve and to save, but we often are not content with the pure milk and solid food of the Gospel and the maturity that comes by faith. Rather we so often seek the junk foods of the spiritual life when God would have us live simply, quietly, in the green pastures of His word and protection. We complicate matters. We, like Hamlet, don’t immediately take advantage of the voice of God with his message of mercy and forgiveness, but we add uncertainty, dithering, conditions to that message, preservatives if you will, to keep it “fresh” while often actually adulterating it.
So, let’s not be Hamlet, too zealous to settle for the limits of, in his case at least, righteous revenge. Rather, as the Lord calls us to his Word, we are encouraged to hear, read, mark and inwardly digest the great love Christ has for us. To live in this obsession, with a Lord and Savior who died and lives for us. We get the high privilege of reveling in his caring and the ministries he has set before us, neither adding to his word, nor taking from it. Amen.