Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“How Long?”

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-16[1]

Most people who have lived in Texas any length of time have heard one of our favorite sayings: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change!” Except when it doesn’t. Last Summer, most of us were asking how long it would keep raining! I don’t know about you, but my backyard turned into a swamp last Summer! It rained so much I think some of us must have been looking for Noah and his Ark!

At the time when our scripture text was uttered, the people of Israel were asking “how long?” 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. And they wondered how long it would last. 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! And they wondered how long it would last.

In our day, it seems like people everywhere seem to be “desperately seeking God.” And yet the more people cry out to God the more distant he seems to be. In the meanwhile people run from one spiritual “guru” to another hoping to find the solution. Like the people of Isaiah’s day, many wonder how long this spiritual predicament will last. But the painful truth that the prophet Isaiah declared is that we must look inside ourselves if we would experience God in a new and fresh way.

Despite the fact that the Jewish people were apparently extremely diligent about worshiping God, the prophet Isaiah told them that the “times of refreshing” would come only after they truly repented and bore “fruit worthy of repentance.” Like the other prophets of his day, Isaiah paints a sad picture of the spiritual condition of Israel. The people of Israel talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.[2] They busied themselves with the routines of their worship, and wondered why they no longer experienced God’s blessing.

The answer Isaiah gave was rather stinging indictment:

• Even in their worship they “served their own interest” (Isaiah 58:3);

• Their lives betrayed the sham of their profession of devotion to God (Isaiah 58:2);[3]

• They completely missed the purpose for their worship—to transform life (Isaiah 58:6-7).[4]

The people of Israel made a show of practicing their faith but failed to do what was right. The fact that they would leave their worship to go out and 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.

Isaiah 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 renewal of God’s blessings. 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). Isaiah was so sure of this promise that he concluded it with, “the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

It’s a wonderful promise, but that’s not what we want to hear when we ask “how long?” We would rather not have to face the painful truth that the problem may lie within us. We would rather not have to put forth the effort to make the changes that need to be made. Unfortunately, that’s not one of the options. 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.[5]

One of the hard lessons of Isaiah is that when the worship of God does not produce lives of love and justice and mercy, it is not the worship of God.[6] Methodist Bishop William Willimon put it this way: “The word ‘liturgy’ means literally ‘the work of the people.’ Worship is the work of the people of God. ... The test for Sunday is what we do on Monday. ... 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.”[7] May God continue to challenge us until our worship in this place spills out from these walls and takes over our lives.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/3/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Isaiah 29:13: “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.”

[3] Isaiah 58:2: they acted “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”

[4] Isaiah 58:6-7: “Is this not 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, …?”; cf. James 1:26-27.

[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I:2, 371: “As we come to faith, we begin to love. If we did not begin to love, we would not have come to faith”; cf. also Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order, 117: “Love can only do more, it can never do less, than justice requires.”

[6] Cf. John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 277; cf. also Paul 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’.”

[7] William Willimon, “When In Our Music God is Glorified,” a sermon preached 2/7/1999 at Duke Chapel; accessed at sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=19.

No comments: