Sermon Notes for Sunday 02062011 – Isaiah 58 vs1-12
The Challenge: If you do justice – then your blessing will come
The power and risk of an “If => Then” statement.
The power comes in understanding that we do have some role to play – some things naturally follow others, given the right circumstances.
The risk is in misunderstanding the required circumstances, and thus seeing the if-then as causal, rather than corollary.
“If you do justice, then your blessings will come.”
This is clearly and unquestioningly the message of Isaiah 58.
Blessings naturally flow from doing justice.
I believe that this is possibly true regardless of the other external circumstances, though results vary, as the legal disclaimer always says. Some have wanted to limit this maxim to those who were otherwise godly (in Isaiah’s case devout Jews, or in my own contemporary context devout Christians). While I do believe this line of thinking is consistent with Isaiah’s argument, I do not believe it is limiting or exclusive. Much of biblical truth is true-in-fact without the necessitating falsity for every other understanding.
So, in this case, I do believe it is true that devout Jews, and later Christians, who are the primary audiences for this text, will experience blessings as they pursue justice in their lives and communities. I would also say, however, that this is a universal truth applicable to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Agnostics, the Spiritual-but-not-religious, and even atheists.
If you do justice, then blessings will flow. That is the divine law at work, against which there is no force to prevail. Notice the nature and timing of blessing is not specified. For Jesus, to do justice brought social ostracization and physical death. Yet the hope of resurrection brought him encouragement and peace in the midst of these difficulties, and ultimately we affirm that life was victorious. Blessings came to Jesus, and through him to others, because of his insistence on pursuing that which is just. It is worth noting here that he did not pursue justice for himself – an innocent man unjustly condemned. Neither does he, or biblical writers like Paul, advocate seeking justice on one’s own behalf. At issue is seeking and doing just for/toward others, not for oneself. (I think there is an argument for individuals and groups to resist injustice on their own behalf, but that’s a separate conversation.)
Within the Isaiah 58 text we see a community who is understood, both internally and externally, as devout and pious. They pray, pursue purity, obey the liturgical commands. And yet they are at risk of falling again into captivity, occupation and slavery. Why? Because of injustice.
The ‘requisite conditions’ for the Isaiah text to apply fully are a community of faithful devout worshippers who have failed to understand and act on the second half of the great commandment ‘to love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). But, they don’t realize their guilt. They think that they are fully faithful, and thus don’t understand why they are in such a precarious position. Why is the economy in such turmoil? Why are our leaders so at odds? Why are other nations appearing to surpass our greatness? “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
And so the prophet is sent by God to “announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
What will the prophet of our day say to us, who already seek to be devout and faithful? Where is our blindness to injustice? Where is our rebellion and sin?
1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and
did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and
oppress all your workers.
4 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.
5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 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?
8 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 rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
[remove] the pointing of the finger,
[remove] the speaking of evil,
10 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.
11 The Lord will: (a) guide you continually, and
(b) satisfy your needs in parched places, and
(c) make your bones strong; and you shall
(d) be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12
(e) Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
(f) you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
(g) you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
(h) the restorer of streets to live in.