Monday, October 10, 2016

Taking Hold of Life

Taking Hold of Life
1 Timothy 6:6-19[1]
I think it’s safe to say that we as a people tend to be active. We’d rather do something than just sit around and wait. In fact, in comparison with other “modern” countries, we tend to work more hours than anyone, with perhaps one or two notable exceptions. I’d say there are a variety of reasons for this. For some of us, we just prefer to be busy and productive to doing nothing. For others, our sense of self-esteem is found in our work, so striving to work hard helps us feel better about ourselves. Still others work as much as we can simply to earn as much money as possible. We all have our reasons, but we tend to go out and take hold of what we want in life.
Unfortunately, the things to which we devote ourselves in this quest to take hold of life usually fail to give us any lasting satisfaction.[2] We tend to look for life in all the wrong places. Even the most fulfilling career is, at the end of the day, still a job. It is a means to make a livelihood. And there are times when we would rather do just about any other job. A home is at times simply a house, a family can at times make us feel crazy, and there’s only so much fun we can squeeze out of any activity. Our ultimate security rests on money. We live in a society that operates on the basis of money. It’s a part of life. But when we trust our money to enable us to take hold of the life we want, we’re very likely setting ourselves up for disappointment.
One of the focal points of our lesson from First Timothy for today is that there is only way to take hold of the life that is truly life: by placing our hope in God. This may sound strange in light of our discussion last week about how salvation is a gift of God’s grace and there’s nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. This week, the Scripture lesson tells us to “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called” (1 Tim. 6:12). That sounds very different from what we heard last week. It sounds like we’re expected to play an active role in our salvation.
You may be wondering how it can be both ways: our salvation is something that comes to us as a gift of God’s love, quite apart from anything we could possibly do. And yet at the same time we are called to take hold of the new life that God offers us in an active way. Those two statements might seem to contradict one another. If salvation is a gift, how can we play an active role in it? And if we’re called to “take hold” of our salvation by what we do, how can it be a gift? This dilemma is one that some are tempted to resolve by choosing one side or the other: either grace or our actions are the basis for salvation, but not both. Yet, the Scriptures consistently present both perspectives.
I think at least part of the answer to this question is that, while salvation is a gift of God’s grace, we are still “called,” and that implies a response.[3] We don’t just sit back and kick our feet up thinking we’ve got it made. The new life that God offers us doesn’t just work automatically, without any purposeful action on our part. Rather, our Scripture lesson reminds us that it is something that we are called to “take hold.” As St. Paul tells us elsewhere, the life we have received as a gift of God’s love is something we are to “work out” (Phil 2:12) and “press on to make it [our] own” (Phil. 3:12). In this balance between God’s grace and our response, of course God’s grace has priority.[4] There would be no salvation for us to take hold unless God had made a way. But our response is still an important part of the equation.
Be that as it may, our lesson provides us with a rather strange way of “taking hold” of this life that God offers us. The way we’re to do that is through “godliness combined with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). I’m not sure either one of those factors that our text says lead to true life are familiar to us. Here, “godliness” is not a “holier than thou” attitude, but the sum total of what it means to live the Christian life. And “contentment” is not the equivalent to being complacent. Rather it is a perspective on life that is based on the conviction that all that we are and all that we have comes from God and rests firmly in God’s hands.[5] Our lesson applies it primarily to our attitude toward money. But I think the point of the passage is to find contentment by letting go not just our wealth, but all the strategies we have for holding on to what we think will give us life. When we do that, then we are beginning to “take hold” the life God offers us so freely.
In essence, the message of our lesson is that we take hold of our lives by letting them go, by entrusting them into God’s hands. Rather than pursuing our own means for securing our lives, we’re to put our hope in “God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). That’s the way to find “godliness combined with contentment.” That’s the way to take hold of “the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19). It may seem contradictory to say that we “take hold” of true life by letting go of everything that we think gives us life. But the only certain basis for a satisfying life is found in God. Only when we let go the things we think give us life and set our hope on God’s unfailing love do we truly take hold of the “eternal life” to which we are called.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/25/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, where he advocates “Care of the Soul,” or what I would call “embracing your life as it is,” as an important way of learning to fully appreciate life. He describes this process (p. xix) as “an appreciation of the paradoxical mysteries that blend light and darkness into the grandeur of what human life and culture can be.” In his book, he discusses, work, families, love, and possession, among other topics. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety.”
[3] James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Intepreters Bible XI:829: “Eternal life is a gift of God's calling—a regular term for God's initiative in establishing the process of salvation (2 Tim 1:9; cf. Rom 4:17; 9:11, 24; 1 Cor 1:9; 1 Thess 5:24)—but they must ‘take hold of,’ ‘grasp’ it.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:646: “The good fight in which the Christian finds himself must be accepted and fought. He must really lay hold on the eternal life to which he is called (1 Tim. 6:12). What is meant by the terms ‘fight’ and ‘lay hold’? He is to be what he is, namely, a disciple, a witness, a Christian. He is to remain, and continually to become again, what he is.”
[4] Cf. W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 368: “Salvation in the PE [Pastoral Epistles] is by God’s grace and mercy alone (cf. 1 Tim 1:12–17). There is an emphasis in the PE on the practical outworking of Christianity such as the doing of good deeds (cf. 1 Tim 2:10; 6:18), but these actions are the result of one’s faith and not attempts to earn God’s favor.”
[5] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:828: “autarkeia [contentment] was a favorite virtue of the Stoics and Cynics, the two main classical alternatives to Christianity. It denoted ‘self-sufficiency,’ ‘contentment’ and characterized an attitude that cherished simplicity and a life lived in acceptance of the hand dealt out by nature or fortune. Here perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the Pastorals we can see a pattern of Christianity in which specific Christian teaching and virtues like love are integrated with already acknowledged virtues cherished by others.” Cf. also Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 341: “Paul’s contentment is rooted in a faith that denies his own ability to perform his tasks and asserts the need for total reliance on the all-powerful God.”

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

God our Savior

God Our Savior
1 Timothy 2:1-7[1]
It might shock you, but I would say that we get many of our ideas about God from pagan religions, rather than from the Bible. I think we are actually much more comfortable with the gods of Greek and Roman mythology than we are with the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. We understand the pagan gods. They act like us. They get angry and take their anger out on others. They have wants and needs and desires and they will do whatever it takes to get what they want. And so if you do what the gods want, then you’re happy and blessed, but if you don’t they will very likely smite you. It’s not a particularly attractive picture, but it’s one we can grasp.
I think we have a hard time grasping the idea of a God who loves us simply because we exist. Some of us may have a hard time identifying with the notion of love that is unconditional and never-ending, no matter what.[2] It seems that in our experience with life, there are always strings attached when it comes to love. Or expectations we have to live up to. Or disappointments when someone lets us down. The idea that someone might love us for no particular reason, and that there’s nothing we could do to change that love, is one that simply doesn’t compute with many of us. And so we have difficulty accepting the message that God loves us all unconditionally and irrevocably, because it doesn’t fit our experience with life.
That is precisely the message of our Scripture lesson for today from First Timothy. Simply put, “God our Savior … desires everyone to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:3-4). And to that end, “Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The language is clearly all-inclusive, embracing “everyone.” That may come as a surprise to you, because it’s not the typical way in which we understand God’s “plan of salvation.” We tend to think of salvation not as a gift of God’s grace, but as a transaction. Those of us who do the right things, like believing in Jesus, going to church, a living the right kind of life, receive salvation as a reward for our efforts.
This view of salvation has been around for a long time. From the earliest days of the church, the accepted view was that “outside the church there is no salvation.” This makes the statement from our Scripture lesson problematic, to say the least. When you take that point of view, it’s hard to believe that God “desires everyone to be saved.” And so we have come up with a number of “adjustments” to make this bold declaration more palatable to us. Some will say “God desires everyone to be saved,” but “everyone” equals all kinds of people, not all people. Others say “God desires everyone to be saved,” but “everyone” equals all those whom God has chosen for salvation, not all people.[3] The conclusion seems unavoidable that what they are really saying is that “God does not desire everyone to be saved”![4]
I think there are a variety of reasons why we take this verse of Scripture and twist it around to mean the opposite of what it says. For one thing, we want life to be fair. If you’re like me, and you’ve been in church all your life, it can seem unfair that God offers salvation to everyone without conditions. I’ve had a long-standing member of a Presbyterian church ask the question, “If God is going to save everyone, then why do we go to church?” Of course, this betrays the assumption that we can somehow earn God’s love by attending church. In reality, that kind of thinking has it all backwards. We don’t go to church in order to earn God’s love. We go to church because we’ve encountered the incredible love God gives all of us, and in response we want to live our lives by loving God in every way we can.
I think another reason for this kind of thinking is that we think that people ought to get what they deserve. It can seem like “cheating” for someone who has lived however they pleased to get to experience God’s salvation just the same as those who have tried to practice kindness and compassion and justice. I also had a church member tell me “There are some people I want to go to hell!” Again, this misses the point of the gospel. The gift of salvation isn’t something we can somehow do enough good to “deserve.” The message of Scripture is that none of us can ever “deserve” God’s love. That’s why it’s a gift—for everyone. That’s a good thing for all of us—regardless of what we think we “deserve.”
I can accept and endorse the fact that there are different interpretations of the Christian faith.  There always have been, and there always will be.  But I never have and never will embrace a view of God that excludes the vast majority of humanity from the gift of salvation through Christ. I choose to take the Scripture at face value when it says “God desires everyone to be saved”!  And I believe it is valid both biblically and theologically to hope for and believe in God’s eventual redemption of all people.[5] The foundation for this faith is nothing less than God’s character: it’s who God is—God our Savior.[6]
I realize this sermon may leave some of you scratching your heads. It may not sound like any sermon you’ve ever heard before.[7] Unfortunately, the idea that we have to please God by earning God’s love and by doing enough good to deserve salvation has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, sheer repetition has reinforced this idea so much that many of us assume it to be true. But I would say that it is not consistent with the message of Scripture. The Bible teaches us that God loves us simply because that’s who God is. And there’s nothing we can ever do to deserve that love. The flip side of it is that there is nothing we can ever do to lose God’s love. The good news of the Gospel is that God loves us all, and because of that love he “desires for everyone to be saved.” That is the purpose and the goal toward which God has been working throughout the centuries because it’s who God is: God our Savior.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/18/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 136, where he (as a Reformed theologian) points out that the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of dual predestination “has caused much uncertainty and has robbed many Christians of the joy of the Christian faith.”
[3] An interesting variation of this view is the one that says that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God knows in advance will actually believe if they have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Cf. Douglas R. Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. by S. Gundry, et. al, 198. They actually say it this way: “anyone who dies without hearing the good news is a person who would not have believed had he heard.”
[4] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1, where he says “since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation … those whom God passes over, he condemns.”  Calvin was influenced by Augustine of Hippo, who argued that God’s desire for “all people to be saved” only applies to those whom God has predestined to salvation, and excludes all others, even infants who die without being baptized. See Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.44; On the Predestination of the Saints, 18.36; Enchiridion, 27, 103; cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I:321; Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV:443.  On infants, see Augustine, On the Soul and its Origin, 4.11.16; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition I:297-98.
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is directed towards that divine future in which God will have all his creatures beside him to all eternity. That is to say, our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Many throughout the history of the church have endorsed this view, beginning with Origen of Caesarea.  See J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, I: 151-52; V:116-17, 224; J. Quasten, Patrology II:87-91, quoting Origen, Contra Celsus 8,72: “stronger than all evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man.”  Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 26, who claimed that even the “inventor of evil” would eventually be healed by God’s grace.  See Quasten, Patrology, III:289-90
[6] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus” New Interpreters Bible XI:798, where he says that this is “a statement that is as clear as any assertion of ‘Christian universalism’: God wills the salvation of everyone. The God who wished to save Paul, ‘chief of sinners’ (1:15), could hardly want anything less for everyone else (v. 4); the earlier Paul had spoken with equal boldness (Rom 11:32).” He continues (ibid.), “The fact that God is one (the primary Jewish confession, Shema; Deut 6:4) leads inevitably to the conclusion that God is God of all (as in Rom 3:29-30) and, therefore, is concerned for all. … In a formulation pushing toward universalism (“gave himself a ransom for all”), the limitation of effective mediation to Christ Jesus is not to exclude from salvation those who have not heard of Christ, but to affirm that effective salvation, wherever it is experienced, will be found to have been mediated through Christ.”
[7] W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 93–94, offers a more palatable solution to the problem: he argues that in light of the context, the point of this passage is that the church at Ephesus is to include all people in their witness and prayers. In my opinion, this simply avoids the question whether we have confidence that God is able and willing to accomplish his will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Dunn’s solution is preferable (cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:799-800): “The problem with any theological system that turns its back on universalism, for no doubt good reasons of logic and self-reassurance, is that the resulting system postulates either a less generous God or a less omnipotent God than 1 Timothy envisions (cf. Rom 11:32). Here as elsewhere theological assertions need always to be qualified by the note of eschatological reserve. God’s ultimate purpose is ultimate and, therefore, still unknown, as well as the divine means of achieving that purpose. All human judgment is subject to eschatological verification. At this point, theology must simply give way to wondering worship (as in Rom 11:33-36).”

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Endless Patience

Endless Patience
1 Timothy 1:12-17[1]
We are not patient people. Not typically. We have become accustomed to instant everything. Microwave ovens, the internet, and cell phones have gotten us in the habit of getting what we want right now. Of course, there are some notable exceptions among us, but I would say that patience is not something most of us come by naturally. We have to learn it. Life has a way of breaking down our impatience, and the more life experience we have, the more patient we’re likely to be. Many of you may be like me: I learned patience mostly from my children. Not that they were patient, but I had to learn patience in order to raise them.
I would say that, at least at first, St. Paul was not a patient man. In his early adulthood, he was climbing the ladder as fast as he possibly could. By his own confession, he had been a zealous Pharisee, devoted to obeying every rule in Judaism in every possible way.  As a result, when confronted with the gospel, Paul’s initial response was violent.  He considered the gospel to be worthy of a death sentence.  What made Jesus’ gospel outrageous to someone like Paul was that it presents a God who loves everyone so much that he goes out searching for those who have lost their way! That was an intolerable upheaval in the image of God for Jewish zealots like Paul.  It was outright blasphemy![2] And so he set about to eradicate it as quickly as possible.
That’s not some kind of exaggerated picture of Paul intended by his opponents to slander him. Most of it comes from Paul’s own confessions about his life. And so in our lesson from First Timothy for today,[3] we hear about how Paul had formerly been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Tim. 1:13). The sobering fact is that he did all of that on God’s behalf, as an expression of his faith.[4] That may seem impossible to believe, and yet I think it was part and parcel of his impatience. When confronted with something he could not reconcile with his own cherished ideas about God, he didn’t hesitate to act in anger and violence. People of faith still do it all the time.
But something happened to Paul that changed him dramatically. He came face-to-face with the risen and exalted Christ, who loved Paul enough to die for him. And as a result Paul received mercy and grace “poured all over” him (1 Tim 1:14, CEB). That was enough to convince him that he was headed in the wrong direction. So he turned his life around completely. But more than that, Paul received a commission: he was “judged faithful” and “appointed” to serve Christ. And so, as he says elsewhere, Paul began to proclaim the good news he had formerly tried to destroy (cf. Gal. 1:23).
Some might be tempted to say that this is a special case. They might think that God made an exception for Paul because he was Paul. But that’s not what our lesson for today suggests. In fact, it suggests that the reason why Paul experienced such extraordinary grace and mercy was to show that this is the way God deals with us all. As the Scripture lesson puts it, Paul’s experience was to demonstrate that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Since Paul could consider himself the “foremost,” or a “worst-case” sinner, our lesson says that he received mercy so that “Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16). In the words of another translation, Paul experienced God’s “endless patience” (1 Tim. 1:16, CEB) that he shows toward us all.[5]
I think some of this might come as a shock to us. After all, it is “Saint Paul” we’re talking about, preacher and teacher of the gospel, founder and pastor of churches, and writer of about a third of the New Testament! Most of us would consider ourselves much worse sinners than Paul! But I would say our lesson insists that the reason why Paul experienced such amazing grace and mercy was to show there is no one who is beyond the love of God. He had blasphemed Christ and viciously attacked and even murdered Christians. If he could be forgiven for that, then there was no one who could not be forgiven. Since Jesus came into the world to save sinners, that includes us all. And Paul was the prime example of God’s “endless patience” that is available to everyone, everywhere.
Our Scripture lesson for today comes from the end of Paul’s life. The message that God’s grace and mercy and love are for all people was an important part of the gospel Paul preached from the very beginning. In fact, the idea of God’s “endless patience” can be found in Scripture long before Paul’s life, even before Jesus died on the cross. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God displays grace and mercy to his wayward people again and again.[6] And yet, not only was this a fundamental part of Paul’s scripture, but also this was something Paul I think knew by personal experience. Over the course of his lifetime, I’m sure St. Paul had many occasions to observe God’s “endless patience” at work in his life.
I think the point of our lesson for today is that God’s “endless patience” is not just something that was true for a select few or for special cases like Paul. It’s true for us all. God shows us all extraordinary grace and mercy.[7] Christ Jesus came to save us all from our sins. There is no one who is beyond the love of God. This is the way God deals with us all—the same way he dealt with the people of Israel and the same way he dealt with Paul. It is the same way that God has always related to the human family. And I would venture to say that there are a number of us here today who have had many occasions to observe that God has worked in this same way in our lives. Just as God always has, so he always will show us “endless patience.”

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/11/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-29, where he points out that Jesus “demonstrated God’s eschatological law of grace towards those without the law and the transgressors of the law, through his forgiveness of sins. By so doing he abolished the legal distinction between religious and secular, righteous and unrighteous, devout and sinful. He revealed God in a different way from that in which he was understood in the law and the tradition and was perceived by the guardians of the law.” Cf. also ibid., 142, where he speaks of this as a “revolution in the concept of God”: “God comes not to carry out just revenge upon the evil, but to justify by grace sinners, whether they are Zealots or tax collectors, Pharisees or sinners, Jews or Samaritans, and therefore, also, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.”
[3] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus” New Interpreters Bible XI:779-80, where he discusses the question of the “Pauline” nature of the Pastoral Letters, which have been questioned as authentic letters of St. Paul for over 200 years. He suggests viewing the issue from the perspective of “what we might call the concept of ‘living tradition.’ That is, within Israel's history we can readily discern several different streams of tradition, each originating with an authoritative earlier figure, but elaborated and extended within the immediate circle of that figure's disciples and retained under the name of the originator of the tradition. The Pentateuch is generally recognized to have reached its final form in this way, and the present book of Isaiah to be the work of two or three generations. Just as David was remembered as the originator of a still-growing collection of psalms, so also to Solomon was attributed a sequence of wisdom writings (most notably Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). A close comparison of the Gospels, even of the Synoptic Gospels alone, indicates that there was a basically similar elaboration and extension of the Jesus tradition within the Gospel format. John 21:24 attests to the activity of a circle around the Fourth Evangelist, who had at least some hand in the final form of John's Gospel. The Pastorals can be readily seen in similar terms.” He therefore concludes, “The Pastorals would have been deemed authentically Pauline; therefore, their attribution to Paul would have caused no problem. Already, in this early judgment, the canonical definition of what was and what was not ‘Pauline’ was being determined.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:199, where he says that Paul is “an opponent and persecutor of the community simply because (cf. Rom. 9:4f.) he stands for Israel, for its election and calling, for its mission to the world, for the course and development of its history as the history of salvation, and therefore for the faithfulness which is to be shown to God in the form of the faithfulness of Israel, its obedience to the Law which He has given it and its trust in the promises which He has made to it, in short, for faith in the Word of God which has been spoken and is to be received in and with its existence. He persecutes Christians because he sees that this economy of reconciliation and revelation is questioned, transcended, relativised and outmoded by them, i.e., by their proclamation of the person, work, lordship and authority of the Jesus of Nazareth rejected by Israel and delivered up by it to be crucified, by their declaration of His Messiahship, election, calling and commission, of His history as salvation history, of the demand to obey Him, to trust in the promise given in Him, to believe the Word spoken in His existence.”
[5] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB IX:794, where he reflects on the “trustworthy saying” that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” by adding, “Paul had been the worst of these ‘sinners,’ so that the mercy he received could serve as a model of the full sweep of God's patience toward those who were to believe subsequently.” Cf. also W. D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 57: “It is the Jewish rabbinic argument of the harder to the easier (qal wāḥômer): if God’s mercy can extend to someone as sinful as Paul, surely it can reach anyone.”
[6] Cf. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 58: “The OT frequently pictures God as being patient with the world, slow to anger and abounding in love (Exod 34:6 …; Num 14:18; Pss 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; cf. Rom 2:4; 9:22; 1 Pet 3:20).”
[7] Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:31, where he speaks of God’s grace and mercy toward us in terms of God’s great “Yes” to us all, a “Yes” that God says “without any if or but, without any afterthought or reservation, not temporarily but definitively, with a fidelity that is … total and eternal.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

A New Day

A New Day
Isaiah 58:1-12[1]
Most of us these days are looking for a change. We’re not happy with the way things are, and we want someone or something to come along and make things right. Or at least make them the way we’d like them to be. And we have all kinds of ideas about what that change should look like. If we just had the right job, or the right house, or the right person in our lives, then things would be the way we want them to be. But the hard and sometimes painful truth is that usually things are the way they are not in spite of what we’re doing, but because of what we’re doing. We’d much rather not have to face the fact that we have to be the change we’re looking for.
The people of Israel who were addressed by our lesson from Isaiah for today very likely had some of the same sentiments. They had been sent into exile in Babylon and everything about their former way of life had been destroyed.  Their dreams had been shattered, families had been torn apart, and even the Temple lay in ruins.  Then they saw the light of God’s deliverance and they were able to return to their homeland, only to find that it was still in ruins.  They had left one kind of exile for another! It was too painful for them to admit that they were the cause of what they were unhappy with. They’d much rather blame the Babylonians, or the Samaritans, or the foreigners among them. They were happy to scapegoat anyone rather than face the fact that the change they hoped for was delayed not in spite of what they were doing, but because of what they were doing.
That was the message of our lesson for today. Like the other prophets of his time, Isaiah paints a bleak picture of the spiritual condition of Israel.  They acted “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (Isa. 58:2). The people of Israel talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.  They busied themselves with the routines of their worship, and wondered why they didn’t see the changes they hoped for in their society.[2] And yet, the truth of the matter was that while the Jewish people were apparently extremely diligent about worshipping God, it did not make a difference in their lives.
Isaiah spelled this out in rather stinging indictment. Even in their worship they “served their own interest” rather than serving God (Isaiah 58:3). The way they lived their lives betrayed the fact that their profession of devotion to God was a hollow one (Isaiah 58:2). In fact, Isaiah could say that they had completely missed the purpose for their worship—to transform life (Isaiah 58:6-7).[3] Over and over again, the Bible insists that those who truly know God will truly love others by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute and disenfranchised. If the people of God do not do so, the Bible challenges whether their devotion to him is truly authentic.
Unfortunately, the people of Israel were responsible for their own problems. The conditions of their lives that they hoped would change were so in spite of what they were doing, but because of what they were doing. They made a show of faith but failed to do what was right in the way they actually went about their lives.  The fact that they would withhold fair wages from their workers made it clear that their outward profession of faith did not relate to any inward spiritual reality. Isaiah didn’t let them off the hook with some theoretical ideas about how their lives should be lived.   He was quite specific:  they were to restore justice to the oppressed, they were to feed the hungry, they were to help those who were afflicted, and they were to provide clothing for the naked.[4]
But the picture Isaiah painted was not entirely bleak. He promised that when they repented of their ways, ways that oppressed the poor and denied justice to the weak, then and only then would they experience the change that they were hoping for.[5]  Then and only then would the light “break forth like the dawn,” and their healing will “spring up quickly” (Isa. 58:8).  Then and only then would the “gloom” that blanketed them turn to light (Isa. 58:10). Then and only then would they see the light of a new day dawning for them and for their people. Isaiah was so sure of this promise that he concluded his message with, “the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 58:12).
One of the challenges with reading the prophets is that we don’t always know how things turned out. Did the people of Israel change their ways and find that new day dawning for them and their people? The prophets only delivered the message, they rarely reported the results. We have to look elsewhere to find the answer to that question. If we look at other historical sources to find out what happened to the Jewish people, I think we’d have to say that the results were definitely mixed. There were some—as is usually the case, a minority—who took the prophets words to heart and became the change they were looking for. But the majority of them rocked along, looking for scapegoats, professing their hollow faith, and asking God why he didn’t do anything about their difficulties.
We’re living in a time when a lot of people in our society are looking for change of some kind. Like the people of Israel, we have plenty of ideas about whom to blame for what we think is wrong. And we keep looking for someone to come along and fix what is broken. I’ve got some news for you: the problems in our society run deeper than any one person can change—I don’t care what color house they occupy. Only God can restore our society. But as the prophet Isaiah put it so bluntly, that will only happen when we recognize that things are the way they are because of what we’re doing. We will see the change we’re looking for only when we stop going our own way and start letting our profession of faith sink into our hearts so deeply that it motivates us to actually live out the justice and mercy of God. Then we as a people will see the dawn of a new day.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/21/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 204: ““The problem is not that the people are unreligious. … No, they are hyper correct in their religious observances and delighted to exhibit their piety, but in their very exercise of religion they miss the essential point, God’s order of compassionate justice.” Cf. also William Willimon, “When In Our Music God is Glorified,” a sermon preached 2/7/1999 at Duke Chapel: “What we believe about God is to be put into practice, embodied. As Isaiah tells us, it’s no good just to prattle on about God with our lips; it’s got to take over our lives.” Cf. also J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66 (Revised Edition), 845.
[3] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 205: “This passage locates God’s central concern in the exercise of justice and the practice of compassion. Without these, all the pious motions of religion are mere ‘as ifs.’” He says further, (ibid., 205-206) that the prophet presents “a rigorously moral understanding that places the one who would be true to God on the side of the same ones whom God reached out to help and empower, those suffering injustice at the hands of the authorities, those imprisoned for acts of conscience, those denied their fair share of the land’s produce, those denied housing and proper clothing, those turned away even by their own relatives.” The appeal is an impassioned one to the heart of the community. It is a plea to reclaim authentic humanity by replacing cold, calculating self-interest with acts of loving-kindness that restore genuine communal solidarity
[4] Cf. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 844: “All forms of bondage are distasteful to God, whether economic, political, or social. God’s people were and are intended to promote freedom.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 84: “If we want to be free ourselves, we must free others; if we want to arrive at peace, we must leave other people in peace. True spirituality cannot be a solitary, selfish experience of the self, for every self exists in the network of social and political relationships. … In Israel’s prophecy, the liberation of the oppressed was part of true fasting and belonged to the laws about the Sabbath.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:499, where he sums up the message of this passage well when he says, “Healing will come, the prophet promises, when the fruit of proper devotion is in evidence.”