Sermon on Isiah 58
Just a quick note to remind you I still have my reader survey up and running. If you haven’t had a chance yet to make your voice heard, please do so. I am listing!
And now, I had several requests to see my sermon from last Sunday so I am going to post it here. If you’re not a sermon type of person go ahead and focus on the survey. I will not be offended at all. This one is addressed specifically to those people who claim to walk in faith, because that’s who the scripture is addressed to. I was preaching to the choir if you will.
The lectionary reading this week was from Isiah 58. If you haven’t read it recently it’s worth a refresher because it’s so good. It comes from the prophet Isiah talking to God’s chosen people and telling them they are not living lives of true worship. I found the message especially fitting right now. So here’s what I had to say about it.
P.S. These are my unpolished notes. I’m sure the commas are in all the wrong places and there are plenty of typos, but this was only ever written to be preached aloud.
It’s no too late to turn this car around
Have I ever mentioned I went to a Southern Baptist School while growing up in Florida? I did. The pastor there looked vaguely like Jimmy Johnson the football coach, with these big rosy cheeks and slicked back sliver hair and he has the most powerful voice. It could be low and smooth and then ratcheted up to boom out his points from the pulpit, and of course every prayer was delivered in the evangelical fashion with a thick southern drawl.
“Jesus, we just wanna thank you Jesus….”
As a kid I loved to listen to him talk. As an adolescent I learned that the message wasn’t always one of love. As I reached adulthood I learned I wasn’t welcome in those circles at all. They had all the trappings of a powerful ministry without any of the love worth worshiping. I haven’t been back in a Southern Baptist church since then. I’ve been blessed to be part of so many other more welcoming denominations with much kinder theology, but I will admit to occasionally missing the style of charismatic preaching I witnessed early on. I’ve often wished for the chance to combine those two worlds and see some of that fire and brimstone passion paired with a radially loving message.
Then two weeks ago, the day after the inauguration, I checked on my lectionary reading for this week. In my Bible at home the first line of the passage from Isaiah reads “Shout out, do not hold back. Lift your voice like a trumpet, proclaim to my people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins.”
Whewee. I could feel that old fire and brimstone a stirring in my veins. Do not hold back…proclaim to my people their rebellion. They seek me daily and delight to know my ways as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
In this passage God is really ripping in to people who claim to follow him. He’s talking through the prophet Isaiah directly to his chosen people saying, They delight in my ways as if they were a nation that actually did what I told them to do.
And then God goes on to imitate the people of Israel and their whining. “Why have we fasted and you don’t see it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it?”
Then God plays both sides of the conversation booming back, “Behold! In the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers…You fast only to quarrel and to fight. Fasting like this will not make your voice heard on high.”
In other words, you pretend like you’re doing these things for, me but you’re just using your religion as a chance to fight with each other and oppress the people below you. God is blasting the people who claim to follow him and saying in no uncertain terms that while they might say the right things and it might even look like they are doing the right things on the surface, God sees through it. God is not interested in their empty words or gestures. God could care less that these people are fasting and praying. He tells them point blank that none of those things will make their voices heard in heaven.
And let’s be clear these fasts the people are taking part in do not sound like fun. God admits the people go without food, that they wear sackcloth, that they lay on ashes. That’s not messing around. That’s not a quick Our Father or bowing your head before a meal. I think most of us who saw someone starving themselves and rolling around in ashes while wearing only sack cloth we would say that person is pretty serious about their faith.
But God is not amused.
He asks them, is that the fast I chose? Is that the day is that is acceptable to the Lord?
Clearly this is a rhetorical question for the people of Israel at this point. Right?
It sort of reminds me of when I was little and my grandpa would take us to Disney World. He’d pile all the grandkids into the back of the station wagon at five am, and drive us across the state for hours. It never failed, by the time we neared the parking lot, we’d all start to get twitchy. Someone looked at someone wrong, someone leaned too far into someone else’s space. Then the kicking would start and before long everyone was pushing everyone else. Right around the time we saw signs for Disney Grandpa would pull the station wagon over and say, “It is not too late to turn this car around! Do you want to go home?”
We did not want to go home. We did not have to tell him that. He was clearly offering us the keys to the Magic Kingdom, and we didn’t want to miss out. We would all sit a little straighter in our seats while he then gave us the talk about the rules for getting through the gate. “No running off, no grabbing things without asking, help the littler kids, hold hands, don’t pester your brother. You’re at Mickey’s house for Godsakes, behave yourselves.”
I kind of hear my Grandpa’s voice in this passage from Isaiah as God says, “Is this the fast I chose?”
Clearly for the people of Israel the answer is no.
So then God lays out the ground rules for them to get it right.
Is not the fast I that I choose to loose the bonds or wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.
Is it not to share your own bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless and poor into your house, to give clothes to the naked, and not to hide yourself from them.
Those are the terms for being God’s people.
God has already taken them out of slavery in Egypt and still they doubt Him.
God has led them through the dessert and still the broke Her commandments.
God has given them a land they can call home, a land they can be proud of, and yet they refuse to love their neighbors the way God has loved them.
God has given them prophets to show them God’s way, and they reject them in favor of mindless religious rituals.
God has led these people right up to the doors of the Kingdom, but God will not push them inside.
God is done accepting their devotion a religious order, to ancient traditions, to personal sacrifice. God has had it up to here with them, and now he’s letting them know that their prayers will no longer be heard unless they first answer the call of the least among them.
Jesus, I just wanna thank you Jesus…
Folks, this is God’s equivalent of “It’s not too late to turn this car around.”
To truly follow God they have to feed the poor, they have to shelter the homeless, they have to welcome the stranger, and free every person from the yoke of oppression.
God says, then and only then will the light break forth like the dawn. Only then will their prayers for healing be answered. Only then can they call on God and have God say “Here I am.”
The passage says “Only if you pour yourself our for the hungry and satisfy the desires of the afflicted will the Lord satisfy your desires. Only then can you restore the breach.”
Think about that.
Only when you satisfy the desires of the afflicted…Only then will you be worthy to bridge the divide between who you are and who God has called you to be.
This is God’s fire and brimstone passion being used to deliver a radical message of love.
Sometimes I wonder if that Southern Baptist minister I grew up listening to ever read this passage. I wonder if our politicians have? I wonder if the average, every-day American has. Mostly though I wonder if most Christians have really heard this passage. Because that’s ultimately who the passage is addressed to. God is talking to the people who claim to follow Him. God is talking to the kids in the back of his station wagon, because we are the ones standing at the gates to the kingdom and asking to be let in.
We are the ones asking God for help, asking for guidance, asking where God is in this world we’re living in. So in return we are the ones who must first answer God’s question, “Is this the fast I chose?”
And in our case the question is not rhetorical. It is not limited to any one day or any religious act. It is the question being whispered to us every minute, in every encounter, on every issue. The questions is not who did you vote for, the question is not what party you are a member of, the question is not what church do you go to, or what prayer did you last pray.
The question is whether or not at every opportunity, with every chance to act, did you side with the poor? Did you feed the hungry? Did you welcome the stranger? Did you invite the homeless into your house? Did you do everything in your power to break the bonds of oppression wherever they may be found?
Brothers and Sister do we choose the fast of our own glory, or do we choose the one God asked of us? Are we living a faith worthy of being heard on high?
I don’t have the answers for everyone. At the end of the day I’m not really a fire and brimstone preacher. I do not presume to know enough to tell other people what’s in their hearts. I can only try to use my own voice to echo the questions God asks in this passage. I can ask them of my representatives, of my neighbors, and of church and I can ask them in the mirror every morning.
But only you can answer them for yourselves, and I encourage us all to do so every single day, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s never too late to turn this car around.