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.”

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