Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
The green vestments and altar frontal indicate that we have moved into what the Church calls “ordinary time.” But in spite of the change of color, we haven’t left the season of Epiphany completely behind. This is the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany and in just two weeks, we will conclude the season of Epiphany with the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, in which the disciples see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ when they are with him on the mountain. So the theme of Epiphany – the revelation of the Divine Nature in the person of Jesus – is still present in our appointed readings for today.
Why, then, do we have this sober passage on fasting from the book of Isaiah? What does this passage on social justice have to do with Epiphany?
If we take a closer look at this passage and its context, we may begin to understand the connection between social justice and the revelation of the Glory of God.
Over time, the majority of biblical scholars have come to recognize in the book of Isaiah three distinct parts, which some have conveniently labeled “First Isaiah” (referring to chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (consisting of chapters 40-55) and “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66). “First Isaiah” is sometimes referred to as the “real” Isaiah because it is grounded in the age in which the prophet actually lived. “Second” and “Third Isaiah” describe later periods and, scholars tell us, have been added to the original text. “Second Isaiah” is written during the time of Israel’s captivity and describes the vision of the New Israel which God was to establish after the return of the people from their exile in Babylon. “Third Isaiah” – from which today’s reading is taken – reveals that this glorious vision did not materialize as anticipated, and expresses the disappointment of God’s people. God had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon, but Israel had not been restored to its former glory, as had been expected. They were back home, but their home was in shambles. To adopt the campaign slogan of a certain U.S. President, how could they make Israel great again?
One of the things they did to restore the glory of Israel was to fast as part of their approach to God in prayer and worship. But their empty stomachs and gloomy faces had not restored the glory of Israel, and they were puzzled and disappointed by the failure. We see them grumbling before God, saying “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v.3a) Even in the question there is a note of selfishness, a focus on what they have been doing to earn God’s favor and to merit God’s help. So far, their efforts have been fruitless.
God answers their questions with thunderous clarity!
“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. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” (v.3b-4)
They might be sincere in their worship, but God sees through their empty piety and names the sin that underlies it. They are caught up in what they want, and have neglected to ask what God wants.
And what does God want? What pleases God, what God commands, is that we do justice!
Now before you dismiss me as just a ‘liberal preacher from Massachusetts who’s supposed to say things like that,’ listen to what this text has to teach us. There is nothing wrong with fasting itself, unless we use it to avoid the down and dirty work of caring for the least and the last and the lost. Worship is an expression of love for God, but it does not remove the need for tangible acts of service that reflect God’s love, mercy and compassion – as well as steady, unrelenting work for the cause of justice. Love of God must always lead to love for our fellow human beings, and that love must always involve a deep concern for their well-being and an untiring advocacy for justice on their behalf. The kind of “fasting” God wants involves continually reaching out to the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed in humble service.
“Is not this the fast that I choose,” God says, “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?” (v.6-7)
Yes, these are “your own kin”: the homeless and the poor, the refugee and the prisoner, the hungry and the neglected, the least and the lost. In them you will encounter God, and how you treat them matters!
And now we see the connection between a committed pursuit of social justice and the revelation of the Glory of God in our world:
“If you remove the yoke from among you,” says God, “the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (v.9b-10).
Then will come your Epiphany!
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” (v.8-9a)
This passage teaches us that we will see the light and the glory of God coming to us and abiding among us when we take care of our brothers and sisters who are in need of justice. As someone once said, “God’s light shines no more brightly than when we serve humanity.”
We can think of ourselves as righteous and pure. We can congratulate ourselves that we are people of prayer and good will. We can point to our spiritual practices, our personal piety, and our moral behavior. But God’s glory will not come among us until we seek out the lost and the lonely, until we provide for the hungry and the poor, until we care for the sick and the dying, until we work to lift up the lowly and restore them to the dignity that God intends for them. We cannot say that we know and love God if we are indifferent to the needs of the poor among us.
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth.” But salt has no effect if it never leaves the salt shaker. It must be sprinkled over the food in order to influence its taste. Likewise we must be in the world – making a difference, striving for justice, caring for those who are too easily left behind – if we hope to be the “salt of the earth” or the “light of the world.”
There is a story I love that took place a number of years ago at the Seattle Special Olympics. Here is what was reported:
Nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash. At the gun, they started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one boy, who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line.
Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes. People who were there are still telling the story. Why? Because deep down we know this one thing. What matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What truly matters in this life is helping others win, even if it means slowing down and changing our course.
It is not enough to pray. We must act. It is not enough to press forward with our own goals and agendas; we must consider our brothers and sisters, especially those who have fallen behind. Only then will we see God’s glory revealed in our world; only then will we recognize the face of God in these, God’s children.
Our text is not telling Israel or us how to work ourselves into God’s good graces. It is not saying, “Do this and God will act on your behalf!” Rather, it is showing us how to experience the gracious presence of God in our lives. God is already there, but we won’t realize it until we combine true worship with genuine mercy and justice. Then, in the faces of the poor, we will hear God say, “Here I am.”
We receive our Epiphanies when we loose the chains of injustice that bind so many, when we lift the yoke of those who are bowed down, and when we meet the needs of the most needy. “Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then (that is, when you observe the kind of fast God prescribes here) you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”
The events of this past week have revealed once again the deep and painful divisions that we are living with in this country. If we expect to become a great nation, if we expect to reflect the glory of God, if we hope to experience God’s presence and God’s favor, we cannot afford to ignore the needs of the elderly, of children, of refugees and strangers, of people struggling with addiction and homelessness, of the voiceless and the powerless, of prisoners, of students weighed down with educational debt, of the lost and the needy, of the foreigners who dwell in our land. To act on their behalf is a priority, not just an afterthought.
“Be merciful as God is merciful,” Jesus reminds us. “Hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Seek justice, and pursue peace.
This is the way to find God. This is the way to discover God’s presence all around you and in you. This is the way to experience God’s glory first-hand.
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