All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
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?
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
If I were to walk up to you and wish you a Happy Ash Wednesday, how would you react? If I were to say ‘I hope you have a great Lent,’ I imagine I’d get some strange looks, maybe a dubious smile, or perhaps even judged as being irreverent. Truth be told, Lent actually seems to be the opposite of happy and festive. We don’t ring bells in excitement. We don’t have a festive meal to mark the occasion. We deny ourselves certain creature comforts that have become staples of our happiness. We look with a strange combination of pity and amusement upon our fellow Episcopalians when they slip up and say “Allelu…!”[i] And we step outside the door of Ash Wednesday with a sigh, trying to psych ourselves up for the journey towards Easter which at this point seems to be nowhere in sight. Yet, we as Christians know that this is something we must do. Which way do we go? Just how far is it really? Do I have enough provisions to sustain me until I arrive? How did I get myself in this mess?
I admit, I have often stepped out on my Lenten journey with a sense of dread, fixated on just how it is I’ve gotten it all wrong, how badly I’ve messed up, and putting together in my mind the words I will need to pray in order for God to forgive me and take me back…..if I’m lucky. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but I think it turns a blind eye to a very important truth about our relationship with God. We often think that we must do the right thing in order to please God. We must say the right words to ‘woo’ God into thinking that were wonderful, smart, and loveable. If we act in the right way, God will react graciously.