Reaching Out to Those Who Sit in Tombs

“The Swine Driven into the Sea” by James Tissot

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I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me;
     I was ready to be found by those who did not seek Me.
I said, “Here am I, here am I,”
     to a nation that was not called by My name.
I spread out my hands all the day
     to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
     following their own devices;
a people who provoke Me
     to My face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
     and making offerings on bricks;
who sit in tombs,
     and spend the night in secret places;
who eat pig’s flesh,
     and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels;
who say, “Keep to Yourself,
     do not come near me, for I am too holy for You” (Isaiah 65:1-5a).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

In the two chapters prior to our Old Testament reading, Isaiah offers a prayer on behalf of Israel, beginning with a recitation of God’s compassion and kindness— to His people. Solely out of His grace, He had made them His people. He had rescued them from Egypt and fashioned them to be His people throughout their history. But the exile to Babylon had shaken them. Even the faithful wondered if God had forgotten His people and abandoned them. The prayer asks, “Where are Your zeal and Your might?” (Isaiah 63:15) and “O Lord, why do You make us wander from Your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear You not?” (Isaiah 63:17). Confronted with misery and trouble, it often appears God is silent and uninterested in helping. Perhaps you’ve noticed this in your own life.

And so, they plead with God, “Look down from heaven and see” (Isaiah 63:15); “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), “Be not so terribly angry, O Lord… Behold, please look, we are all Your people” (Isaiah 64:9). It concludes with two questions, “Will You restrain Yourself at these things, O Lord? Will You keep silent, and afflict us so terribly” (Isaiah 64:12).  

Of course, the problem is not on God’s part but ours. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for Me” (Isaiah 65:1), He replies. By nature, no human can know anything about God and His grace. His ways are far above anything we might imagine (Isaiah 55). For any human to understand God, He must reveal Himself and allow Himself to be found.

Who are the people to whom God reveals Himself? Isaiah tells us that the people to whom the Lord speaks in this first verse are people who “did not call on My name.” This phrase applies to Gentiles who could not claim to be God’s special people the way the people of Israel were.

Verse 2 applies more pointedly to the people of Israel. They had received the special revelation of God and had entered a special relationship with the Lord. Yet they squandered their special blessings and privileges. At Mount Sinai, God revealed His will for these people. Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of stone and eventually wrote down all that God had revealed to Him. In spite of those special messages from God Himself, God’s chosen people turned away from Him and His Word. Instead of obeying and remaining faithful to God’s Word, the people of Israel pursued “their own imaginations.” God had given His people specific instructions about where they were to worship and how. But they adopted their own worship practices. They offered their sacrifices “in gardens” and burned incense “on bricks” instead of the stone altars in the tabernacle and temple that the Lord had prescribed. Worse yet, they worshiped false gods at these places.

God had clearly told His people that anyone who offers child sacrifices, practices divination, and inquires of the dead “is an abomination to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:10–12). But now His people are sitting among the graves and keeping secret night vigils, consulting the dead, eating unclean foods. In so many ways, the people of Israel have turned away from God and do exactly what He has told them not to do. Filled with hubris, they even think that they are now “too holy” for common people. What an astounding affront to the Holy One of Israel, who alone is holy and who promises to cleanse them and remove their sins through the sacrifice of the Servant (Isaiah 53). But they choose to achieve such a “holy” status by their own sacrifices and vigils that God has expressly forbidden.

No wonder God doesn’t answer their prayers! He is justly displeased with their sins. Clearly, they can offer no excuse, and all deserve His full wrath. But God’s response does not end on such a negative note. The Lord compares His people to a cluster of grapes that shrivels in the hot, dry air, but has grapes that still possess some juice. Just as the grape harvesters would not destroy such a cluster as long as juice remains in it, so the Lord “will not destroy them all.”

Why will the Lord withhold judgment? What good can anyone find in this cluster of rebellious grapes? The Lord had promised to bring deliverance to all the world through these descendants of Abraham. He had promised to send the Savior at some point in the future. If He destroys the nation completely, His promise could not be fulfilled. If the Lord does not save some of them, no one on earth could be rescued from sin and death. So, God withholds judgment upon some, not because some are more worthy than others but because of His gracious promises. They are saved not because of their faithfulness, but because of His faithfulness.

Because this Savior will come, God will rescue some out of their own sinfulness and rebellion. But the plan of God extends beyond the Jewish people. He will create a new Israel, a new people—the Church. The Savior comes from a Jewish family that could trace its ancestry back to King David. He will come from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10). He is the valuable juice in this cluster of grapes. Because of this promised Redeemer, Israel will be transformed and reconstructed. The Lord will gather a group of believers who will inherit all the blessings God promised to His people. That’s the Gospel. On the other hand, the Lord cannot and will not forget His threats. His judgment will fall upon those who forsake the Lord and forget His temple and the worship that takes place there. That’s the Law.

And there has never been a shortage of unbelief of God and His Word, including our own day. I’ll give you a few examples:

 In Genesis we read, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). “No,” say the activists. “There are more than two genders. It’s not a binary but a spectrum. And gender is fluid. You must affirm my gender identity and preferred pronouns.”

Abortion advocates argue that a woman has the right to her own body. They deny the personhood and value of the baby they carry in their womb. God says, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:14) for man was made in His image. The psalmist affirms the personhood of the unborn: “For You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13–14).

There are those who would try to limit your ability to confess your Christian faith in the public arena, all the while insisting that they are the arbiters of truth and justice, and you should just stay quiet. And if you don’t bow down to the god of wokeness, fail to wear their emblems, or wave their flags? They’ll use a vicious combination of gossip, slander, and lies to “cancel” you.

Unfortunately, too many within the Church will also encourage you to remain silent. You shouldn’t make waves. These things are just too political; we shouldn’t talk about them in Church. And we certainly shouldn’t be offending others in the public square. But these aren’t simply political issues. Oh, they’ve been politicized, but they are actually moral issues, issues of life and death, right and wrong, truth and lies. And we have something to say.  God’s Word addresses these issues with certainty. And where God’s Word speaks, so must we.    

If you’re trying to figure out how people could wander so far from the truth, St. Paul explains in the first chapter of Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth… For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another… And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:18-32).

But even if you and I have not fallen for all these lies, that doesn’t mean we’re guiltless. We’ve trusted our own gods in times of need rather than the Lord. We’ve looked to our own abilities for help, sought comfort in habits or relationships that are not good for us. We’ve misused God’s name by failing to call upon it in every trouble, neglecting to pray, praise, and give Him thanks. We’ve despised preaching and God’s Word and not held it sacred, gladly hearing and learning it. We’ve squandered God’s grace and rebel against His gracious will and holy Word. We’ve placed ourselves, our wants, our needs, our desires, ahead of our neighbors and even the will of God Himself.

The wrath of God is revealed against our unrighteousness and ungodliness, too. We’ve “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” too (Romans 1:25). We’ve been “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness,” too (Romans 1:29). We’ve sat in the tombs, made offerings to our own gods, and thought ourselves “holier than thou,” too.

But there is One who reaches out to those who sit in tombs—literally! To those who live among unclean things. To those rebellious people who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. To a people who provoke the Lord to His face continually. To those who have established their own progressive morality and virtue signal. To those who are “holier than thou.”

Jesus comes to the region of the Gerasene, an area in which many Gentiles lived. This is pagan territory, away from the synagogues of the Jews, away from the people of Israel and their land. He brings His healing power to a heathen. The man who meets Jesus is in terrible shape. He is naked and has been living among the tombs. People have tried chaining him up and keeping him under guard, but when seized by the evil spirit, he breaks the chains and escapes. Under the control of an evil spirit, he recognizes Jesus is the Son of the Most High God.

When Jesus asks the man’s name, he replies, “Legion,” using the term referring to the substantial number of demons who has gone into him. The demons beg Jesus not to order them off to hell. Instead, they request permission to enter into the herd of pigs grazing on the hillside. Jesus gives them this permission, which in turn causes the herd to rush down the steep bank into the abyss of the sea and drown.

We can’t overemphasize this man’s total helplessness against the demons. He is powerless to save himself. He is completely controlled by the power of evil. But no one is too far gone for Jesus. If anyone would be, you would think it would be the raving, naked Gentile who lives among the dead in our Gospel. But it’s not so. Jesus finds him. Jesus saves him. The man is delivered and has eternal life.

That’s comforting news: that man isn’t beyond the mercy of Jesus, and neither are you. But the devil is a crafty one, and he’ll twist this miracle to convince you of something else: namely, that Jesus is only necessary for people who are in that bad of shape. So, let’s be clear: think of the naked man among the tombs, possessed by the devil, and know this: that’s where the devil would have you. No matter how much wealth, power, or personal satisfaction any sin seems to promise, the end goal is to leave you eternally ashamed, tormented, and dwelling among the dead. That’s hell.

How foolish are you, then, to indulge carelessly and willingly in sin. Your sins may not leave you dwelling among the tombs, but they may take you to the village of the Gerasenes—in other words, they may gradually lead you to be like the villagers, who say, “We’re doing fine on our own right now, so we’d really like Jesus to be somewhere else.” That’s the plight of so many today: they don’t feel particularly opposed to Christ and His grace, but neither do they see the need for Him. He makes them uncomfortable. But like the villagers, when Jesus comes in power on the Last Day, they will be afraid. They’ll want nothing to do with Him. They’ll want to be somewhere else. And they will get what they want—hell!

That’s why we pray that the Lord would continue to make His Gospel known throughout all nations. It’s why we continually proclaim His saving grace, because it’s His saving Word that transforms the enemies of God into His beloved people and that keeps us as God’s beloved people. That’s why you rejoice to be like the man in our text, sent back to his home; for as one who has been redeemed and made clean by Christ, you know have Good News to tell others.

The news you proclaim is that there need be no fear of God. People live in fear all the time—fear of death, fear of trouble, fear of what might happen, fear of the consequences of what’s already taken place. All that fear is the result of sin, and all that fear leads people to fear God. But by faith, you know better: Christ has not come to bring fear, but to bring relief from fear, to bring grace and life. The Lord does not come to spread terror and send you away. He teaches you His Word so that you know of His grace. He declares that He has died and descended into hell for you so that you don’t have to; and that He is risen again to give you life. He clothes you with Himself and His own righteousness, for “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). He sets you in your right mind, trusting in His unfailing love for you. By His work and by His Word that you are delivered from sin, death, and devil, because you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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