Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12) Commentary
On some liturgical calendars, we are in Ordinary Time right now. But the Revised Common Lectionary helps us keep the glory shining for a bit longer by calling this the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The Lectionary throws us a curveball, however, with this hard-hitting text about fasting. What on earth does this social justice passage have to do with Epiphany?
In two weeks, we will reach the climax of the Epiphany season on Transfiguration Sunday. We will remember that transcendent day when the disciples literally saw the glory of God in the face of Christ up on that mountain. Our text for today suggests that we will see the glory of God in the lives of God’s people when they take care of their faceless brothers and sisters. As one scholar said, ‘God’s light shines no more brightly than when we serve humanity.”
Understanding the context of Isaiah 58 will help us preach it relevantly. Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention the traditional higher critical division of Isaiah into three parts—the “real” Isaiah in chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah in chapters 40-55, and Third Isaiah in chapters 56-66. But one scholar’s explanation of the history behind that division made this chapter glow with contemporary brightness. “Third Isaiah was written by the followers of Second Isaiah to articulate the disappointment after the return of the Exiles when the glorious vision of Second Isaiah didn’t materialize.” Israel had been redeemed from Babylonian bondage, but it had not been fully restored to its former glory. They were back home, but home was in shambles. To adapt the campaign slogan of a certain American President, how could they make Israel great again?
One of the things they did to restore the glory of Israel was to fast as part of their approach to God in prayer and worship. The post-exilic prophecy of Zechariah gives us a picture of the exponential growth of fasting. But all those growling stomachs and gloomy faces had not restored the glory, and they were puzzled and disappointed by that failure. They actually grumbled to God about God’s apparent deafness and blindness to their commendable piety (verse 3b). “What’s it going to take to bring the glory back to our country? What do you want from us, O God?”
God answers them here with a roar (“shout aloud, do not hold back”) and with a trumpet blast (“raise your voice like a trumpet”). But what God says is not exactly encouraging. In fact, God calls the prophet to declare “to my people their rebellion and in the house of Jacob their sins.”
That opening verse confronts the contemporary preacher with the challenge of this text. Do we dare to preach this message to our own congregations, especially if they, like Israel, are pious, prayerful to the point of fasting, and hurting because the promises of God haven’t been fulfilled in their seemingly faithful lives? I think about my last church, which I loved (and love) dearly, and wonder if I could shout aloud and blow the trumpet of judgment in their sweet faces. It will take great courage to preach on this text. But compassion for hurting people demands that we preach it, because the glory will not return until we do the will of God as outlined in this text.
In his compassion, God wants his people to shine with glory (see God’s promises in verses 8-12, which we’ll consider in a moment). But compassion must not make us blind to the real faults of people. God sees through the piety of his people to the deep sin in their lives. “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways…. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.” But even as they soulfully sing, “O, For a Closer Walk with God,” they are guilty of great sin against their fellow humans.
They seem sincere in their worship. Why, they have even added fasting to their public and private worship. And they cannot understand God’s lack of response. “Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” Even in the way they ask, there is a note of selfishness, a focus on what they have done. God identifies the sin at the root of their fasting, when he says in verse 3b, “Yet on your day of fasting, you do as you please….” It’s all about you and getting what you want, rather than about me and doing what pleases me.
What pleases God, what God commands is justice, social justice (cf. verse 2, where the word “commands” is the Hebrew word for justice). Here, again, you will need courage, because in the minds of many Christians, social justice is part of a liberal political agenda, rather than an essential part of God’s will for his redeemed people.
There is nothing wrong with fasting in itself, unless it enables us to avoid the down and dirty work of caring for the least and the last and the lost. Worship is no substitute for street level love. Indeed, love for God must lead to love for our fellow humans. That’s what God means when he condemns the occasional humbling of oneself in sackcloth and ashes. The kind of “fasting” God wants is a continual reaching out to the oppressed in humble service.
We’re not talking here about a mixture of biblical and Marxist theology. We are talking about a mixture of personal righteousness and liturgical holiness leading God’s people into concrete acts of social justice. God could not be clearer. If you truly come before me in worship seeking the will of God for your life, you will “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” If that is too abstract, God makes it concrete: “share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, and [do] not turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
That isn’t the entire will of God, of course. Social justice is no substitute for making disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19). Rather, it is part of making disciples and it is part of what disciples do. Further, social justice is no substitute for worshiping God in spirit and in truth, but those who worship God will take care of those made in God’s image and worship will inspire them to do so. But worship becomes problematic when we hide in our worship (as Israel did with its fasting) and think that’s all God cares about. God doesn’t allow us the luxury of luxuriating in our glorious worship. Those who truly love God must love the least of God’s image bearers in life changing ways.
And because God is gracious to the core, he promises glory to those who love him and his creatures in the way outlined in our text. It is possible to read the “then’s” of verses 8 and 9 as a kind of works righteousness (“if you do this, then I will do that”). We can earn God’s blessing if we do the right things. But the consistent message of Scripture is “salvation is by grace, not works.” So, our text is not telling Israel and us how to work ourselves into God’s good graces, but how to experience the gracious presence of God in our lives. God is already there, but we won’t realize it, until we combine true worship with genuine mercy and justice. Then, in the faces of the poor, we will hear God say, “Here am I.” (Recall Jesus’ words saying exactly that in Matthew 25:35,36)
Where is the glory of God in our hurting world, as we plow through day after day of Ordinary Time? We get our Epiphanies when we loose the chains of injustice that bind so many, lift the yoke of oppression off those who are bowed down, and meet the needs of the most needy. “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then (not when you fast in the traditional way, but when you observe the kind of fast God prescribes here) you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help and he will say, ‘Here am I’.”
How can we make a country, a people, a church, a family, or an individual great again? Not by simply praying, even with much fasting, and surely not with this or that political agenda, but by humbly obeying God’s commands to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The God of all grace who revealed his glory in the contorted face of Christ promises to “rebuild, raise up, repair, and restore (Isaiah 58:12)” when we do his will on earth. Epiphany happens in the dark places when ordinary people enact justice and mercy like God.
Like all Americans I have been deeply moved by the tragedy of multiple mass shootings that have spattered blood all over the face of our country. I have prayed that God would stop this bloody epidemic of violence. I appreciated it when officials would say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their loved ones.” So, I was initially stunned by the bitter words of survivors and activists who said, “We don’t want your thoughts and your prayers.” Who wouldn’t want thoughts and prayers in such times? Well, maybe God. Those bitter folks always concluded their remarks by saying, “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers. We want action. We need someone to do something to stop this senseless slaughter.” Isn’t that what God is saying to Israel and to us in our text. Don’t just pray, even with fasting. Don’t hide behind your piety. Do something to bring justice and peace to our land, in the name of God. I’m not advocating for any particular political agenda or social action. That’s not my place. But God is calling with a voice like a trumpet for a faith that expresses itself in love, love that acts to bring justice.
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