Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 21, year C; texts: Isaiah 58:(6-9a), 9b-14; Luke 13:10-17
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We live in a broken world, a world where people suffer, where the creation itself suffers. Where we suffer. A world where evil seemingly thrives in more places than we can deal with, where we often feel powerless. A world that we ourselves have divided into things sacred and things secular. A world where we wonder where God is, and why God doesn’t do a better job.
We live in a world of our own making. It is not the Eden of old, and that is certainly our fault; much as we would like to blame our forebears, we are thrown out of the garden by our own doing, our own actions, our own inaction. We know this.
Yet when we come here in this place, on the Lord’s day, for a brief time we feel as if we are truly in a different world. A world of beauty and grace. A world where God’s word is “yes,” where healing truly is possible. A world where we know that we are loved by God and that all are loved by God. And we wonder: “why can’t this occur outside of here?”
We have a word of God from Isaiah that suggests God actually intends to make this world as it was meant to be, that what we experience here belongs out there, everywhere. That what we see “out there” is not what is meant to be, that what we experience is not God’s will.
Because the LORD God, through Isaiah’s words, is telling us that part of our problem is that we have divided our world inappropriately. That we call what we do in here on a Sunday worship, and what we do out there in the world something else. That we seek God in this place but rarely expect God out there. For God, according to this word of Isaiah, worship is far greater than we imagined. And the way back to the created beauty of such a place as Eden is through true worship of God for whom there is no sacred or secular but only one existence in which the true God is moving and calling to us, and to all God’s children, who in turn live their lives in healing, restoring worship.
The people of Israel are sorely misled, Isaiah boldly shouts, if they believe that true worship of God is unrelated to their whole lives.
I asked the lector to start the reading from Isaiah a few verses before what was assigned so we could get a fuller context to our reading, but we could easily have gone back to the beginning of this chapter. The LORD tells Isaiah to shout out the rebellion of the people, that they pretend to be a people who seek the ways of God, people who delight in the LORD, but God says they are not so. They fast, they practice the proper religious rituals, but they don’t understand why God has seemingly abandoned them. This is prophetic word from after the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon.
What is clear from the prophet in this chapter is that there is a disconnect between the worship of the people and their sense of God’s blessing on their lives and their world. They complain, in verse 3, “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, and you do not notice?” In other words, we’re worshipping faithfully here, and you don’t seem to care, God. Life still has problems, pain, suffering.
What follows is the rebuke of the LORD toward these people. In the verses preceding our reading this morning, God says that the people look to their own needs and interests on the LORD’s day. Worse, they oppress their workers; they fast, but then go off and quarrel with each other. They even fight and “strike with a wicked fist.”
Why on earth would God consider this worship and faithfulness? Isaiah asks. What we heard this morning is God’s answer as to what true worship really is, what God is seeking from the people. And, we must say, from us as well.
And it’s a lot more than we thought worship was.
“Is not this the fast that I choose,” says the LORD? (It’s hard to be clearer than that.) There are two elements to this “fast,” this true worship. Both are non-negotiable.
The first element of the fast the LORD chooses, the true worship, is centered on our relationship with others. Jesus would say, quoting the Old Testament, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a powerful vision that God’s sense of true worship begins with our care for others, in three specific areas.
First, true worship begins with the breaking of the yoke, the removing of the yoke. Using an agricultural image, the prophet speaks of a tool placed on draft animals that draws on their energy to make work happen. So we are told that when others’ lives and energy are used for our profit, our benefit, when others suffer so that we might enjoy what we have, we are using them as slaves, as pack animals, beasts of burden.
True worship of God begins with removing such injustice from our society, from our institutions, from our world. We cannot pretend to be free, we cannot pretend to be delighting in God, when we participate in structures that bind, oppress, and harm others. When we take advantage of other people.
Second, true worship begins with the ending of evil between us and other peoples, when we stop pointing the finger at each other, at friends, at enemies. There is no way we can consider ourselves truly in line with God, truly worshipping, if in our lives we point blame at others instead of ourselves, speak evil of others, and act as if we are blameless.
It’s hard to find a more direct and appropriate prophetic word about our culture and our lives than these two, both the yoke of oppression and now this “pointing of the finger” Isaiah names. So long as we refuse to consider our participation in the evil of this world, the evil of our lives, even the oppression of others, so long as we speak ill of others, we are not truly able to worship God.
Third, true worship begins when we “offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted”. When we bring the homeless poor into our homes, share the abundance of bread we have with those who cannot find food, and clothe the naked. Little wonder Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats: it is in meeting such needs, even Isaiah says, that we truly worship God, truly see God. Or as Jesus would say, “when you do this to one of these, you do it to me.”
The second element of the fast the LORD chooses, the true worship, is centered on our relationship with God. Jesus would say, quoting the Old Testament, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”
This Sabbath worship Isaiah speaks of is not the same as the rule-loving Pharisees speak of in our story of Jesus today. For them, keeping Sabbath is following the form, the rule, more than the spirit of Sabbath.
Isaiah, rather, speaks the word of the LORD that when we spend seven days a week year round on our own interests, our own needs, our own priorities, we leave little to no room for God. It is remarkable that in this passage keeping a Sabbath rest, taking one day in seven to focus on God, on living in the love and grace of God’s priorities, is as important as caring for the neighbor.
Isaiah’s people are “trampling” on the Sabbath. They’re not just ignoring it. They’re willfully doing their own things, caring for their own needs, even on Sabbath. But Isaiah says that cannot be worship. Until they, until we, take time for Sabbath rest every week, time to focus on God and not ourselves, we cannot truly worship.
This is part of what we are all doing here this morning, to be sure. But it is so much more. There is a sense in these verses of a life that is shaped and fed and described by weekly rest with God. When you call the Sabbath a delight, when you find the holy day honorable, then, then, Isaiah says, you shall truly take delight in the LORD. It’s hard to love the LORD your God if we never take time away from our own interests, and nigh on to impossible to care for God’s concerns if we focus only on our own.
Interesting, isn’t it, that Isaiah’s order is different than we are used to hearing: here neighbor is first, then God. But both are necessary for the promises to be revealed, fulfilled, lived, experienced. Because that’s the real joy of this word of God in Isaiah today: if we do these things, then wonderful things will happen.
Now, let us say this clearly: “If and then” is not a question of conditional love of God; it is a statement by the Triune God that if certain things happen, there will be wonderful consequences.
The unconditional love of God for us and for all people is not at risk here by our self-centeredness and lack of love for our neighbor or for God. Rather, what the LORD God is saying to us in these verses is simple cause and effect: if we live in such love of neighbor and love of God, we will see amazing things.
There will be a unity to our lives where we do not see part of our lives as “ours” and “secular” and part of our lives as “God’s” and “sacred.” All things become holy, all our lives become God’s, and everything, everything becomes worship.
When we break the yoke, stop pointing the finger, stop speaking evil, and start sharing food and caring for the needs of others, the world becomes a beautiful place, the LORD says. Light shines into our lives and into the world. Our bones, and the bones of our neighbors, will become strong, God says. Ancient ruins will be rebuilt, roads repaired, safe streets created.
It couldn’t be simpler: caring for others and dealing with all that entrenched evil is the pathway God says leads to a world as God intended it to be.
Likewise, when we take our Sabbath rest and focus weekly on our love of God, we not only are filled with that love. We actually begin living in such a way that we are children of God, sharing all the delight that means. We take our inheritance alongside Jacob and all the other ancestors of faith, Isaiah says.
Our lives become one with God and with each other.
When God’s people see their entire lives as worship, their entire lives as shaped by love of neighbor and love of God, things in God’s world will dramatically improve. That’s the promise. The world will become one with God’s will and intent. And God’s healing will begin to flow everywhere.
The image that seems to come to my heart the most in these words is this line: “You shall be a watered garden.”
Our whole lives of faith begin with the sense of the loss of Eden, the loss of intimacy with God and with each other. Ever since, humanity has fought with each other, fought with God, separated our lives from each other and from God, and lived as if we were in charge.
And we wonder why things are so horrible.
Now we know: if we find true worship in God’s answer, we will find our lives and this whole world becoming like a watered garden, and we will find God restoring the creation through us, through all, into the world God has intended from the beginning.
And all things will be full of the knowledge of God, all our lives, everything will be worship, and we will see things we only have dreamed until now, for “the mouth of the LORD has spoken this.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen