In Isaiah 64, the prophet calls upon the Lord to help His people on the day of their future distress. His plea is that the Lord would “come down” with all the same shaking and quaking He did on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11). The Lord comes down to dwell with His people in Exodus 33:9, and we Christians see this in its fullest in Jesus (John 1:14). In verse 4, the prophet states a prominent theme in the book, namely, that no other god acts on behalf of its people like the Lord (1 Kings 18:25-40; Isaiah 44:6-8; 45:5-6, 18-22; 46:9). A major emphasis for this text is dealing with sorrow for sin. It is the word choice “unclean” which calls to mind the rites and ceremonies meant to deal with being unclean in sin or disease (Leviticus 5:2-3; 13:45-46; 15:19-32). It is important to note how our section does not demand anything from the Lord. Instead, it petitions Him to not be angry. They are petitions out of faith rather than the merit or worth of the nation. After repentance, the plea to the Lord turns into a petition for assistance. The appeal for the Lord to end His anger comes in 54:7-8; 57:16; and 60:10 (refer also to Jeremiah 31:34, Lamentations 5:19-22, and Micah 7:18).
During the opening chapel of 2001 at Concordia University in Irvine, California, the now sainted JAO Preus III preached our text in such a way that I will never be able to hear it the same way again. In fact, it was my very first introduction to the Homiletical concept known as the “Gospel Handle.” I later learned the skill of finding and crafting a Gospel Handle from Bob Rossow, and eventually his father Francis Rossow at Concordia Seminary. Nonetheless, I still remember the thrill of hearing the Gospel Handle turn for the very first time.
He opened the Chapel developing the familiar desire we have as Christians to have God “rend the heavens and come down.” From there, he reminded us how this would not be the best idea. Because like Isaiah’s original audience, we have a sin problem which would make this desired interaction with God problematic, to say the least. Then Preus did it. He sprung the trap. He talked about a word, a critical term that turns the whole meaning of this text from judgement for sin, to grace in Christ. He said it was a Hebrew word which is pronounced “kee” (Hebrew word כִּי). He defined it, but then asked us to hear how the pronunciation of this Hebrew vocable sounds exactly like a familiar English word. The word “key” sounds similar in English but has a very different and beneficial meaning for us and this text. He then began to riff off of the English “key” by addressing how this serendipitous similarity in sound “unlocks” and “turns” the whole meaning of the text around. Because when the “kee/key” is about Christ and His work and not us and our sin, we see the whole text differently. We see the translation of the Hebrew word as the “for you” gospel turn in the text.
Now, I remember a lot of chapel sermons throughout my undergraduate and Seminary days, but I will never forget the first one. Up to that point I had never experienced a Gospel Handle, but over the years it has become one of the most rewarding ways as a preacher to bring the Gospel to light in an otherwise gospel-less text.
The question remains as to “how” you can craft a Gospel Handle for preaching. Well, you take a text which has no Gospel present, and utilize a phrase or word that sticks out, irritates, or reminds you of something else dealing with the Gospel. In our text, Isaiah 64:7 has this short phrase: “For you have hidden your face from us.” This quick expression may call to your mind a well-known song or lyric. You start to hum it perhaps and it does not leave the foreground of your thoughts. Many of us know the famous verse from Stuart Townend’s song, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” which says:
“How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away.
As wounds which mar the Chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory.”
Of course, some may protest and say the Father did not turn away from the Son on the cross. This could be a moment for development in the sermon, to create deeper understanding. You could push back on the lyric but then develop the truth Isaiah speaks of in 59:2, that God the Father has hidden His face on account of sin. Meaning, if Jesus truly did become “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21), this might explain Christ’s own singing/speaking the words/lyrics of Psalm 22:1 on the cross to draw us into an awareness of His fulfilling all scripture for us; even something as difficult as Isaiah 64:7.
From there you notice how the second half of 64:7 has a VERY gospel sounding phrase: “For you.” This helps develop the idea that this phrase has two potential meanings homiletically. First, it is referring to God who is meting out judgement for sin. Second, it is also what God does for us in Christ in the Gospel. He does something for you! The Hebrew word which translates this “for you” phrase is the little “kee/key” term (Hebrew word כִּי) that creates the Gospel Handle in a really big way for your sermon. It is both the Law and the Gospel in the sermon. This important word turns the whole text around. In the law of this passage, it is talking about humanity and sin. However, when Christ took humanity into Himself in the incarnation, He became the key to unlocking scripture for us in whole, new, salvific ways. Verses like this, when kept in the Law, keep the Bible a closed book of condemnation. Without Christ to unlock the scriptures and to open up the Gospel for us, we cannot be saved. Christ really is the kee/key to unlocking the text and the only way we can see God is “for you” in Christ. He has taken all sin and shame “for you” when, in fact, we would hide our face from Christ while He suffered for us on the cross (Isaiah 53:3).
However, God did not hide His face forever, did He? There is hope for the forsaken in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just listen to the rest of the words/lyrics of Psalm 22:24:
“For He has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and He has not hidden His face from Him, but has heard, when He cried to Him.”
The answer God gave was to raise Jesus from the dead (Acts 3:15; 13:30, Romans 10:9, Galatians 1:1; 1 Peter 1:21; Colossians 2:21).
The sermon structure which can work best here is the Proverbial Structure and we will be riffing off the phrase, “The key to understanding this part of scripture...”
“This sermon structure works with the prevalence of proverbs in contemporary discourse (for example, advertising slogans, sound bites, and others) and seeks to use that experience for the purpose of proclaiming the divine wisdom tradition. In this structure, the sermon develops a single proverb for the hearers by using it as a refrain throughout the sermon. Often this proverb arises out of the text itself. For example, Jesus tells His disciples that “whoever saves his life with lose it and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” The sermon consists of offering the hearers various life situations in which this proverb is reflected upon. In each case, the hearer needs wisdom to discern the application of the proverb. The sermon offers contemplative wisdom which discerns how the proverb applies. At one point in the sermon, the proverb is related to the proclamation of the Gospel. By moving from biblical stories to contemporary situations and punctuating each situation with a statement of and reflection upon the proverb, the preacher forms hearers who enter the world remembering the proverb and seeing situations wherein it guides their daily life with godly wisdom.”
Craft of Preaching-Check out 1517’s resources on Isaiah 64:1-9.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 64:1-9.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 64:1-9.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!