Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Isaiah 58 (selected verses)
Commitment Sunday, November 14, 2021
Prayer: O Lord our God, we know that when we worship you in spirit and truth, and love our neighbors in tangible, helpful ways, then we will be free to enjoy your grace, and free to live peaceful and secure lives, like a well-watered garden. Open your Word again today, that we may hear your good intentions for us and for all people. Amen.
In 587 BCE, Jerusalem was completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. In 538 BCE, King Cyrus of Persia, today’s Iran, had defeated the Babylonians and he issued an edict that the Hebrew leaders, who had been carried off in exile a generation before, could return home. Cyrus allowed those exiles and their families to walk back across the Fertile Crescent and return to Jerusalem.
There, they would be allowed to rebuild the holy temple and rebuild the walls of the old city. Not all of them chose to return, and those who did found the rebuilding process daunting and dangerous. They struggled to rebuild a safe and sacred community. They experienced infighting over the priorities of their community. And, as if often the case – there were the “haves” and there were the “have nots”, and the “have nots” were not doing well, while the “haves” were gaining ground on the backs of the poor.
The primary purpose of this third section of Isaiah, called Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66, was to call for communal repentance, to call for a renewed commitment to justice and righteousness, to call the whole community of faith to account in their worship and works so that, as Jerusalem was rebuilt, it might be rebuilt in a manner pleasing to God and just toward neighbor.
In the previous chapters, prior to Isaiah 58, we catch of glimpse of what is happening in the community. In chapter 56, promises are made that God would welcome the society’s outcasts. In chapters 56-57, God condemns the corruption of leaders, of those who would misuse their power. In chapter 57, God makes promises to those who are humble and contrite before God. Then, in chapter 58, we receive the meaning of true fasting, of true worship.
What does true worship of God involve? According to Isaiah, worship was not to be shallow religious observance that leaves the daily life of the surrounding community unaffected. Isaiah makes the connection between worship acceptable to God and the common good of all. As a bit of background, fasting and mourning had become common after the fall of Jerusalem. During the exile, it had been a time to fast, to mourn, to grieve, to lament. The prophet says yes, this has been our practice, but now it is time to lift up our heads. Now it is time to notice the needs of the people around us. Now it is time to lean into the hope that is ours in the rebuilding of the temple and of the city walls.
The prophet claims that sackcloth, ashes, and fasting are not the fast God that chooses for this time. The prophet claimed that God would not be pleased if the people continued pursuing their own interests on the Sabbath day.
It seems as though some had rejected outward forms of ministry, like showing up for corporate worship and offering tangible help for the poor, and had retreated during the exile into an inward piety, growing accustomed to closeted prayers at home. So Isaiah 58 begins with a stern appeal for justice and for generosity, and continues by describing the happiness that awaits those who heed God’s words and observe God’s holy day. At the heart of the prophecy is that God desires that the oppressed be set free, that bread be shared with the hungry, that homes be shared with the homeless, and that the observation of the Sabbath should not become an empty ritual, but a delight to God.
Hear the Word of God from Isaiah 58 (four readers).
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. ‘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. If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We can easily take so much for granted. Several years ago, on our last night of reflections on a Mission Trip to Honduras, we went around the circle, everyone sharing something we take for granted here in Decatur. Youth and adults laughed together as we talked about how nice it would be to get back home and be able to turn on a faucet and brush your teeth with clean water, without having to use a water bottle, without fear of getting a stomach virus. We remembered the luxury of air conditioning on a hot and humid day. We were grateful for access to an antibiotic or simple medical care when we or our children get sick. One of the youth mentioned how he had never thought that glass windows were such a luxury. Another said she’ll try not to take for granted the smooth roads we have for driving around town.
One of the advisors mentioned how fortunate we are to have access to information, whether through books at a local library or through internet access. Part of what we can access is news about world economics. Dr. Phillip Harter of Stanford University wrote this about world economics a few years ago.
1) If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people in the world
2) If you have food in the fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world’s population.
3) If you have money in the bank, a few dollars in your wallet, and spare change in a dish somewhere, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
4) And, if you have a good home, food to eat, can read, and have a computer, you are among the very elite of the world’s population – not much more than a few percent of the world’s population owns a computer.
Earlier in the year, our session agreed to the invitation for us to become a Matthew 25 congregation. This emphasis is not so much a “to do list” as it is a mindset, or a life direction. The Matthew 25 emphases include – building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, and eradicating systemic poverty. Each of these emphases has to do with love and responsibility toward our neighbor. Each of the emphases has to do with care about others beyond our own families. Each relates to sharing a sense of common humanity with people we pass in church hallways and with people we pass on the sidewalks of Decatur.
Holy Scripture is full of hopeful promises for those who pay attention to these things. Wonderful promises are made for those who seek to do good, who seek to help the poor, who seek to worship in spirit and in truth.
Deuteronomy 15 asserts: There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)
According to Isaiah, if we work to eradicate poverty, then these wonderful promises are for us – our light shall rise in the darkness, our gloom shall turn to noonday. We will be guided continually by the Lord, and our needs in the parched places will be satisfied. Our bones will be strong; we shall be alive and well and fresh like a watered garden. We will become like a well of spring water which never runs dry, but continually provides life for all. When we pray, God will answer. When we cry out to God for help, God will answer and say “Here I am!” And if we keep the Sabbath holy, one of those ancient 10 Commandments, then it will go well with us, and we will be free to enjoy God as we ride high on the winds of life, and feast on the inheritance of our ancestors.
I was reading this text the other morning and noticed the promise: Our shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. About that time, our yellow lab, Chevy, who has not featured for quite some time in a sermon by the way, gave me a sermon illustration. Chevy loves the fall sunlight. At this time of year, when there is a bit of nip in the morning air, Chevy will make his way in the backyard into that one spot of bright sunshine on the green grass. And, as yellow labs will do, he will turn himself around a few times, and then get settled facing our direction, and finally, he will look up at us on the porch, and then he will give us a broad Labrador smile, as if saying: Life is good.
In order for life to be good in Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah bids the people pay attention to what God really wants. Pay attention to the needs of your fellow human beings. Set aside the quarreling amongst yourselves. Allow no oppression of the people who are working in the lowest jobs. Honor the Sabbath by taking seriously what is important to God. If you do so, claims Isaiah, you will know God’s blessing.
Friends, this congregation and every congregation are being transformed as a result of the pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated cultural and technological changes that are impacting us all. We are experiencing cultural shifts and we cannot yet see what the results will be. The good news is that Holy Scripture has and always will provide some measure of guidance in such times of great transition.
The rebuilding of Jerusalem after the exile was a frightening and anxious time. And the prophets words from so long ago ring true today. At the heart of the prophecy is this question: Are we pursuing our own interests or are we pursuing what interests God? Is our religion a private act of prayer and meditation? Or does our prayer and meditation motivate us to help those who cry out for justice?
Are we facing toward God, worshiping God in joy and freedom, and reaching out to neighbor? Or have we become self-absorbed, and turned away from neighbors in need? Are we seeking to make the world a better place for all? Or have we been mostly concerned with ourselves and the needs of our own families?
What direction are you and I and our congregations facing these days? Scottish theologian James Stewart once wrote: God does not judge a person by the distance travelled in the journey of faith, but by the direction facing. God’s mercies in Jesus Christ are new every morning, new every season. In this season of your life and in the life of our congregation, hear this invitation: in all your ways, in all your priorities, in your calendar and in your finances and in your relationships, turn and face the Lord your God.
Turn towards what is most pleasing to God, and you will receive blessings that follow. To God be the glory as you, and I, and this congregation humbly turn ourselves again toward God, seeking to honor God in all we do, and especially in our worship.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church