Our second reading this morning is most of the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible—our old testament. (pg 600) I’m going to add a few comments of my own to the text, and so this will be a lengthy reading. That’s OK, though, because I’m linking it to a very short sermon—so I guess we’ll come out alright in the end.
The historical setting for this passage is either just before or shortly after the people of Israel are carried off into captivity in Babylon; it isn’t real clear which. All you need to know for now is that the Jewish world—their political, social and religious world is either about to come to an end or has recently ended.
The people, as you can understand, want to know why. Why are these things happening to them? Have they done something wrong? Are they being punished?
As Isaiah describes these people, you see, they want to do the right thing; they want to be faithful. Isaiah doesn’t question the sincerity of that desire, but he does suggest they are missing something. Turns out they are missing the point of what it means to be the people of God.
And while Isaiah does not say that if they would only get it right they could keep the Babylonians at bay, he does say that when they figure this out—when they learn how to live as God wants them to live, they will shine out through the whole world as the people God wants them to be—wherever they end up.
Then, he says, they will become builders and planters.
They will become a watered garden in the desert.
They will be the people who repair the foundations and build a future for their children—and not just their own, but for all children.
All this comes from getting it right; from knowing how to live as the people of God in the world.
Now this is a little bit about our relationships—within our families, among our friends, out in our communities.
But this is mostly about politics and social policies. Isaiah, as you’ll hear in just a moment, is concerned about social systems that benefit the wealthy and powerful while oppressing and beating down the vulnerable and poor.
This is what the prophets of Scripture cared about. This is also the place where the language of the prophets translates into our own time and situation. Isaiah said some things in this chapter that we need to hear today.
So we will read slowly and listen carefully.
That’s my rather long introduction to this long reading. If I ever get to the sermon this morning it will be short indeed.
Here is Isaiah 58:1-12. God is speaking to Isaiah:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
Right away you see a disconnect here. The people are seeking God—day after day they seek God. They want to do the right thing, they delight in drawing near. But something’s wrong; something’s missing.
Here’s what they miss: they believe being faithful to God involves pious, religious practices, in this case fasting and sackcloth and ashes. They believe if they behave in this way God will like them and bless them.
But that doesn’t work. So they say:
Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Now we don’t do a lot of fasting and sackcloth and ashes these days, so let me translate their questions into our language:
“Why do we go to church every week and you do not see us? Why do we read the Bible and give offerings and you don’t notice?”
There are two answers to those two questions.
1: God doesn’t notice these things because God doesn’t care about these things.
And 2: God doesn’t care about these things, it turns out, because the people carry on this way not to please God, but to benefit themselves.
They benefit themselves and in the process do violence to their neighbor.
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
The person fasting—the religious one, you see, gets the day off. The working people keep on working. No rest for them.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
They don’t handle hunger so well, you see; they get very cranky when they get very religious.
All this tells us the motive for their religion came from the wrong place.
Their hearts were in the wrong place.
When religion makes us cranky, you see, we’re missing something.
When our religion hurts somebody—hurts their feelings or hurts them physically or in any way limits their future or makes life uncertain for them—when our religion does that we are missing something.
And God is not watching our pious efforts.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
You’ve probably heard the expression, “I feel like my prayers are bouncing off the ceiling”. That’s the sort of thing happening here. Whenever our religion glorifies us and harms our neighbor we will find that God is not listening.
So, if that’s not the point, what is?
Is not this the fast that I choose (God says):
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Did you catch that? This is social and political policy Isaiah is talking about. Apparently God cares about how states and nations organize and govern themselves. God cares, apparently, about who goes to prison and why and whether their sentences are just and the prisons are humane. God cares about those who lose out in a society bent on benefiting the few at the top.
God cares about this and calls us to care and to make sure we get this right.
Is it not (the fast I choose) to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Apparently God cares when people are hungry and homeless and cold. God cares about how wealth is distributed in a society. It is possible, apparently, for the rich and powerful to be too rich and too powerful.
This was a problem in Israel 2500 years ago. It’s a problem in our world today. Today the 62 richest people in the world own more wealth than the bottom 3 1/2 billion people. Annual salaries for American CEOs increased by 8% last year to an average of $11,000,000 /year while the minimum wage remains stuck in most places at under $8.00/hour. The federal budget being debated right now, according to the New York Times, gives huge tax cuts to the already wealthy while slashing medicaid, child nutrition programs and disability benefits.
This is a problem—it’s a moral problem; a matter of right and wrong. Isaiah saw it a long time ago. We’re seeing it today.
God cares about this, Isaiah says.
We should care, too.
Because when we do care—when enough of us care, and when we get it right, we can turn this thing around.
In the way we live and talk and work and vote, we can make a difference.
We can create social and political and religious systems to end hunger and homelessness and poverty and loneliness. We can do this.
Kindness and generosity, you see, justice and fairness and equity, you see—this is the point of religion. It is also the point of all good social and political policy.
This is what God calls us to—all of us; whatever our station, whatever our resources, whatever our political leaning.
We are called to get this right. And when that happens, God says through Isaiah—
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.
Remember the question the people were asking at the beginning: “God we’re doing all these very religious things and you aren’t watching. Where are you?”
In response God says, if you don’t mind my people’s translation, God says: “Forget all that! Forget that pious, religious stuff. Find a hungry neighbor and invite her to a feast at your house! Do this and I’ll be there at your table.”
That’s the point, you see. That’s what this church stuff is really all about.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Our modern ruins can be rebuilt, too you know. That’s the promise and the good news from Isaiah to us this morning. The mess we are making of the world—and by “we” I mean the big “we”, the whole human race, can be “un-messed”. We can turn this thing around.
We may not, and that of course would be too bad; but the option to do better is open to us.
Through kindness and generosity, through justice and equity, we can get this right.
We can turn the world around.
And when we do:
(our) ancient ruins will be rebuilt
(we) will raise up the foundations of many generations;
(we) will be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
This concludes our Scripture lesson for this morning. God is speaking to us through these words and when God speaks the words are true and we can trust them.
Let’s pray together: May the words that I speak and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Now I promised you a short sermon when I got through the Scripture reading. How about this: