5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/5/17)
first reading: Isaiah 58:1-12
second reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-16
gospel reading: Matthew 5:13-20
Sometimes preachers look at the readings for the coming Sunday and pray, “Oh God, what am I going to say?” Other weeks we look at the readings and pray, “You’re speaking to me in a million ways Lord. Help me choose!” This is one of THOSE weeks.
Each of our readings today are wonderful – challenging to be sure, but also filled with amazing imagery, and profound truths. This week I have been especially drawn to the prophet Isaiah.
In our reading from Isaiah today the people have been through a tremendous ordeal. They have been oppressed and conquered. They’ve been in exile, are “home” now – physically restored. But something is still not right.
“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”
They are fasting as the Lord requires, they’re doing all the “right” things, but they’re not seeing any “results” from their fasting. Why? Something is missing.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Through Isaiah, God tells them. God tells them that their relationship with God is made up of more than just their individual actions towards God. Through Isaiah, God tells the people that they can’t have blinders on, only looking to heaven, and be faithful.
And as the prophets often are when speaking for God – Isaiah is blunt – not so kind.
I read part of verse 2 a moment ago, but let me read the whole verse: “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, AS IF they were a nation the practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…” OUCH.
And there’s more. The people ask plainly, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
I think we have all asked these questions at times in OUR lives. I know I have. Times when we pray and plead for God to help us or to give us a sign that we haven’t been abandoned. Times when we feel like we’re doing all the right things but we’re still not getting anywhere.
I’m not saying that God’s answer to us in every time of OUR questioning is the same answer that God gives here, but I believe it’s worth looking at. Because when the people pose these questions, Isaiah DOES give them an answer, and perhaps it’s not the one they wanted to hear.
“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.”
God tells the people that they may be following the rule that tells them to fast, but they’re going about it all wrong. God tells them to look in a mirror and watch themselves – to see that as long as they perform this outward action to God, but mistreat one another, the action isn’t faithful.
Simply bowing one’s head and putting on sackcloth and ashes aren’t enough. Going to church and praying on Sunday then going to work and being unkind on Monday isn’t going to cut it. It’s not that God didn’t see their fast – God DID see how they were treating each other, so the fast meant nothing.
What’s the saying? “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” In powerful words God then tells them what a FAITHFUL fast looks like. It’s a powerful litany.
THIS is the fast:
- “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…
- remove the yoke from among you,
- the pointing of the finger,
- the speaking of evil…
- offer your food to the hungry and
- satisfy the needs of the afflicted…”
It’s not that God didn’t see their fast. God also saw how they were treating each other, and mistreating each other, but also ignoring each other’s needs.
Last week, I preached about how in the Beatitudes Jesus blesses us for who we are and what we do. That who we are is reflected in what we do, and what we do is a reflection of who we are. This is what God through Isaiah is saying to the people here too. Our faith is more that just coming to church and praying, or saying our prayers at night before we go to sleep.
As Lutherans sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because we don’t have to earn our salvation, because Jesus has gone SO over the top in loving and rescuing us, we can be lazy in loving our neighbor. Isaiah – and Jesus, especially in today’s gospel – tell us that our actions towards our neighbors, near and far, DO matter to God.
The fast that God wants from us, the fast that God sees and loves – is the giving of ourselves, in God’s name, in serving one another.
Then there are wonderful promises. The images that Isaiah paints are profound and beautiful.
- “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
- your healing shall spring up quickly…
- you shall call and the LORD will answer…
- Your light shall rise in the darkness and
- your gloom be like the noonday.
- The LORD will… 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.”
I’ve got nothing to add to that.