ESV Isaiah 55:6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
At some point “high” is no longer just high. Launch yourself in a spacecraft and within minutes you’ll no longer be high above the earth. You’ll be outside the earth; you’ll be far from it. Your perspective changes from dwelling on earth, from being confined to it, to being beyond the earth. Out of the atmosphere. Out of this world. If you keep going in this spacecraft, the earth itself becomes smaller. Leaving it behind, you might pass by other planets: there goes Mars or Jupiter. Eventually you’ve passed Neptune, and you’re out of the solar system. The earth is no longer the world to which you are confined. From where you are, you can’t even see the earth.
“Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” (Ps 113:5–6). This perspective from the spaceship is only a glimpse of the Lord’s perspective of his creation. God doesn’t look down merely on the earth, but on the whole universe. The universe itself is as the tiny speck of the earth to our God.
“But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” cries Solomon after building the temple for the Lord (2 Chr 6:18). To us the earth seems vast. It’s our world and our place. But the Lord has a different perspective. He looks down on his creation and on this earth. In this God seems very different.
Yet the prophet says, “Call upon [the Lord] while he is near” (Is 55:6). Is he really near us? Isn’t this the one the heavens can’t contain? Isn’t this the one who has to look so far to see the heavens, much less the earth? Yes, but
The Lord Is Near You
to Pardon and to Act with Compassion.
Now, it may seem like he is far away at times. Especially at those times when we are experiencing some sort of suffering or anxiety. Such as St. Paul when he was imprisoned at the time he wrote our Epistle reading. At those times when we toss and turn in bed with worry, when the pain of illness or injury won’t go away. When we are hospitalized and the doctors can’t seem to find out what is the problem or how to cure us. At those times when someone offends us, or hurts us, or rejects us. At those times when we call upon him day and night and nothing seems to change. We wonder if he is mad at us. Has he rejected us? Have we done something to lose favor with him? It would have been so easy and even logical from human reasoning for the church at Philippi to think that God was punishing Paul for something by putting him in prison.
We may think the Lord is distant because his thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways (vv 8–9). Because what he wants to do to us in our lives isn’t what we want. Because what we call bad, injustice, unfair just may be God’s way of disciplining us, bringing us back to repentance and restoring our faith.
Our ways involve saying false things about God. We may say and believe that God just wants us to be happy. He wants us to have a lot of nice things, a nice home, a swimming pool and a sport car. We think he wants us to be strong and healthy and live to be 100. But that is simply false—a theology of glory.
So often, our ways may involve self-justification. We think that we are pleasing to God. That God wouldn’t have chosen us to be his children unless there were something good about us, or we did something good somewhere in the past. A song in the musical “The Sound of Music” at a moment when two people where feeling good about their lives and the way things were going, they sing: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could, so somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” It’s a pretty song, but absolutely false theology. God does not bless us or do good things for us because he is pleased with us or because we did something good. In fact the only people he has even chosen to be his children, or shown favor toward have all been sinners who didn’t deserve anything but his punishment. You think you’re so good that you deserve some kindness from God? Well, consider this. The only perfect person to ever live in the world, was executed on a cross, punished by God, and cast into hell. Maybe God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.
God’s ways are not only beyond our ability to comprehend but also beyond our ability to attain. We all fall short of his perfect righteousness. His righteousness demands that we love one another. But most often we love ourselves first. We do what is in our own best interests before helping someone else. We do what we want and only if it is convenient and doesn’t cost us anything we love and befriend our brother. And even when we do give love and friendship to another, our love falls short. No matter how much we love and serve one another, we could have loved more. We could have done more for that person. We could have forgiven his sins against us, but we chose to become angry and harbor resentment. We could have overlooked the things he said or did, but we didn’t overlook them, instead we held a grudge against him. Instead we felt that we were in the right. And perhaps we even withheld some good of didn’t help him when he needed our service. We have all been despicable, unloving, unforgiving, resentful, proud and self-righteous. If judged by our own standards of judgment, by our ways of doing things, there is no reason or quality in any of us that God should love us or help us…ever.
But, thanks be to God that his ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. The Lord’s infinitely higher thoughts and ways are thoughts of compassion and pardon (v 7). We do not have the ability to understand him. We do not have the ability to live according to his demands or to love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not have the ability to forgive the one who sins against us. The righteousness of God is an impossibility for us to attain. The impossibility of his ways led God to accomplish them on our behalf.
He forgives our inability to understand him. And he sent his Son so that we might know him in person. He forgives our inability to live according to his demands, which is to love one another. So he sent his Son to love and serve others and fulfill his law for us. So God himself did what you cannot do: he fulfilled the law perfectly on your behalf. He loved his neighbor even more than himself, on your behalf. He loved God with all his heart, mind, and soul, on your behalf. So all that the law requires you to do has been done. All righteousness has been fulfilled on your behalf.
He accomplishes this in a way that we could never have thought: by becoming one of us, and living under the law so that he could fulfill the law’s demands in your place. The God who is as far above us as the heavens are higher than the earth became one of us. He became a human being, our brother, with real human flesh and blood. This transcendent God who is far above and outside all time and space, has come into the world by becoming your brother.
Then this God humbled himself to death on a cross. The one who never sinned exchanged his perfection for your sin. There the innocent one became sin for you, took your place as a sinner and received your punishment from God. There he went to hell in your place and paid for all your sins. So your sins are forgiven. All your lack of love, bitterness toward others, resentment, pride and self-righteousness have been paid for and forgiven. And because of what Jesus did for you, God can choose you to be his son or daughter. God came and took you and made you his own possession in Baptism. And in baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon you and abides in you.
Therefore the Lord is near to be present with you. Though he transcends the entire universe and is both the beginning and the end of all time, he comes down to you each and every time you hear his Word and receive the Sacrament at the altar. He comes to you in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, so that he can be found (v 6). He allows himself to be found in word and sacrament. His Word is present to call you to repentance (v 7a). His word is present to pour out his compassion on you. He is present in order to have compassion on you and forgive you completely. (v7b).
In this way—his way—while God is infinitely above you, higher than you, “high” ceases to be high. Being above this world as heaven is above the earth, he is now nevertheless right here with you. Amen.