Sermon February 5, 2023

The First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12

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 judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
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?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not 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?
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 he will say, Here I am.
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.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

The Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Sermon

Prophets were by nature a nuisance, a thorn in everybody’s thigh. They were not tellers of future events, as often believed, but more so the voice of God that spoke into a specific situation. They went back and forth between harsh criticism, threats of God’s vengeance, but also hope that God’s peace will rule eventually. Today’s reading from Isaiah is no exception but follows this pattern.

God asked Isaiah to lift his voice, to shout out without holding back. God’s beef with the people was that they behaved as if they were righteous. Apparently, God had his doubts that they were so.

The people, on the other hand, claimed that they were fasting and humbling themselves, but they felt that God didn’t even notice. In their minds, they did everything that was required without getting recognition.

God then responded that they were only serving their own interests and basically went through the motions on designated days that required fasting. However, going through the motions is not the same as true righteousness. He basically accused them of fake righteousness. And then God broadened the understanding of fasting and listed all the things that probably, we too, not necessarily connect with fasting: loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share bread with the hungry, bring the homeless to our houses and so on.

When we think about fasting, especially now that we approach the Lenten season, we often think of it in terms of cutting something out for these seven weeks. And whatever it is, we know that we can all survive these few weeks as we can count down the days to the end.

However, the fasting God talked about was more so about fasting as an ongoing exercise, a way of life. Obviously, it wouldn’t make sense to say that for seven weeks we are going to loose the bonds of injustice or for seven weeks we’ll share bread with the hungry. True fasting as described in Isaiah is permanent and actual work every day. Going through the motions on certain days that require fasting isn’t enough.

The words of the prophets are never easy to hear since they highlight things we’d rather ignore. The fasting Isaiah talked about required an honest look at the ills of his time, and so it requires an honest look at the ills of our time: the gap between rich and poor, poverty of those who work minimum wage jobs, mass shootings and guns in the hands of children, the killing of black people by the police, excessive consumerism, climate change. We have substantial problems, and they are the specific situation Isaiah speaks into today.

True fasting in these contexts would be a reckoning with these realities and accepting that things need to change on a fundamental level. Of course, this causes discomfort. It is certainly easier to go through rituals we know and then move on. Whenever a tragedy happens, we send thoughts and prayers. I believe that thoughts and prayers are heartfelt and serious and important, but at the same time, if they are not backed by further, deeper thinking and changes, they will fizzle out. Until next time. Fasting in Isaiah’s sense asks to us pause in thought and prayer, and also in self-examination.

Isaiah and all lessons for today are trying to encourage the people of their day – and us – to recover a true spirit of serving God. As God looks on the oppressed with ultimate compassion and who liberates the captives, so we are summoned to emulate that spirit in the way we relate to the people around us. The idea is trusting God and to orient ourselves to God’s purposes in this world.

This always means to be engaged in mind, body, and spirit. It is more than going through the motions and learned rituals, but integrating worshiping, fasting, service to God and others on Sundays, and also from Monday through Saturday.

But Isaiah was not only a taskmaster who put his finger on every social, political or religious ill in every generation. He also had a very clear vision of God’s will, and the blessings and the abundant life God has in mind for us.

If we remove the yoke from among us, the pointing of finger and the speaking of evil – as he put it – then our light shall rise in the darkness and God will guide us continually and satisfy our needs.

This pattern of “if” you do this “then” God will do that is a little problematic, as if dealing with God was a simple matter of input and output; I put in a prayer and get out the result I want. However, Isaiah is not about some misguided works-righteousness, but more so about a healthy and honest relationship with God, one that is marked by doing God’s will.

But our relationship with God is also marked by God’s care for us. We can trust that he will guide us, provide for us as we do his work. In doing so we can have hope that with compassion and gratitude and humility we will be able to change seemingly unchangeable problems. And it holds out the hope that we can do God’s will and restore the brokenness around us – perhaps only in small ways, but meaningful ways, nevertheless.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.