The Word Accomplishing That Which God Purposes

Isaiah 55:10-13     Lectionary 15     Pentecost 6     July 16, 2017


During these summer Sunday mornings, I’ve been gathering with folks to explore the morning’s gospel reading.  I’ve asked them to listen, first, while I read the passage.  Then we all follow along with the text, while the passage is read again.  I ask: “What catches your attention?  What seems important?”  We talk about that.

Then I try to get to this question before we conclude: “What do you think God is saying to you in that verse that caught your attention?”  That’s a harder question!  A person might not even be able to answer it right away.  But the word is a seed that is planted, that the Spirit nourishes, so that it “bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”[1]  What is the Spirit causing to grow?

That’s why we engage with a passage of the Bible!  When you pause over a few verses, when you listen, you become aware of why God the Holy Spirit has lifted this phrase into your consciousness.  You come to know what the Spirit is wanting you to pay attention to, at this point along your baptismal journey.

You see, God uses the word to do something!  The word is not just something that we study, or read, or learn about in a Bible study.  God accomplishes what God want to do, in the word!

Remember how the prophet, Isaiah, puts it?  We read this a few minutes ago:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

            and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

            making it bring forth and sprout,

            giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

            it shall not return to me empty,

            but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

            and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Not long ago, one of you asked: “What does it mean to be Lutheran?”  Some of you know I’ve been giving thought to that question.  Here’s one thing it means: we understand the word of God to be active; that it’s doing something!  Luther put great emphasis on this.  The word is dynamic.  It is moving.  It is creating faith!  It is accomplishing God’s purpose, as the prophet Isaiah put it.

How does God speak the word?  This is one reason why it’s essential to gather in community with other followers of Jesus – to help each other discern when God is speaking to us.  In this community of faith formation, we mentor each other, so that we come to hear God’s word in creation, for instance: in the early-morning singing of the birds, perhaps, reminding you that this day is a new gift from God!  We mentor each other to recognize when we’re hearing God’s word spoken by others, or when God is speaking in the events of our lives – in our sorrows as well as our joys.  And, in this community of faith formation, we become aware of how God’s word comes to us in what is called Word and Sacrament.

Here is some language that comes from our congregation’s constitution, believe it or not![2]  The constitution of every congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America contains this very good summary of Luther’s teaching that the word comes to us in three forms:

This congregation confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.

  • Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
  • The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgement and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  • The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God.  Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ.  Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

The stereotype is of the preacher waving a floppy Bible and crying out, “This is the word of God!”  But notice the most important understanding of the word, according to our Lutheran understanding.

First, the word of God is Jesus!  It is what Jesus said and did!

Second the word of God is what is preached.  It is the law that convicts us of our sin and drives us to need God’s grace, and it is the gospel of the salvation that God has accomplished for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

And then, third, the Bible is word of God.  And in the Bible there is word of God for us – as God’s Spirit speaks to us through particular verses and phrases!

Look at that last sentence again: “God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.”  You see, God’s word does this.  This past Friday night’s motel ministry – of taking food to those without permanent homes, living in motels?  God’s word was accomplishing that through you who were doing that!  To quote the prophet Isaiah: it is the word accomplishing that which God purposes.

God speaks word through Jesus, through preaching, and through the words in the Bible.  And God speaks word through the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, according to Luther.  Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are tangible, physical ways that God speaks grace, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life that has begun with Jesus’ resurrection.  The sacraments are visible words![3]  Holy Baptism is water joined with the word.[4]  Holy Communion is the body and blood, the bread and wine joined with the word.[5]

Reading Luther and thinking about this has changed the way I do something.  In recent weeks, as I have handed you the bread, Jesus’ body, around the altar rail, I’ve been emphasizing the words, “given for you.”  (“This is the body of Christ, given for you.”)  According to Luther, these are the words of gospel in the sacrament.  Listen to what he writes about “the words that are recorded: ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’  These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and [listen to this!] whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

“[W]hoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sins.’”   God’s word does something, you see.  God’s word accomplishes our forgiveness!  God’s word accomplishes that which God purposes – grace, forgiveness, eternal life, salvation!

It is the word that creates our desire for life in this community that gathers around the altar and the font, hungry for the sacraments.[6]

It is the word that creates faith itself!  Faith is trust in God, which brings us confidence in our salvation, which shows up in the “good works” we do in the name of Christ: those acts of servanthood to those who are in physical or spiritual or emotional need.  This animating faith is not something we achieve.  It’s what we receive – through God’s word which is accomplishing that which God purposes!  In this “innermost trust,” Luther writes, we act as “genuine and living children of God.”[7]

What joy there is in all of this!  What joy there is, when God, through the word, overcomes our hostility,[8] when the word accomplishes that which God purposes.

In the name of that God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] To quote from this morning’s gospel passage, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

[2]From the Constitution of Congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Article C2.02

[3] To use Robert Jensen’s phrase, in his book of the same name.

[4] Luther, Small Catechism, The Sacrament of Holy Baptism, first question and answer.

[5] Small Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar, second and third questions and answers.

[6] Martin Luther, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods” in The Annotated Luther, Volume 1  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), page 238.

[7] Martin Luther, “Treatise on Good Works” in The Annotated Luther, Volume 1  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), page 278.

[8] From this morning’s second reading, Romans 8:1-11.  See, especially, verse 7.

About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine retired in July 2019 after 40 years of ordained ministry. He loved serving as a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!