If you do justice – then your blessing will come

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?

Isaiah 58

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.

The Promise: The Servant is not just for insiders anymore

Sermon Notes for 01162011 – Isaiah 49:1-7
What follows are some reflections on how the Servant discovers God’s concern is bigger than him and his agenda. OUCH!
Call to Worship – Psalm 40

1 I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
   and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
   Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
   who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.
   Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.
   Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
   see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your
   faithfulness and your salvation;
   I have not concealed your steadfast love
   and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me;
   let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.


John 1:29-42
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter ).

Isaiah 49
1 Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
   The Lord called me before I was born,
   while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
   he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
   yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
   to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him,
   for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—
6 he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel;
   I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
   to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers,
   “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
   because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

The Promise: The Servant Is Not Just for Insiders Anymore
When an oppressed group seeks justice, the call is often voiced, and even more often heard, as a self-focused plea:
What about justice for us?
When is it our time?
We demand equality now!
Freedom now!

In the world of zero sum economics, this requires someone to loose in order for others to gain. If you are to gain some benefit you do not have now, that must be at some cost to me.

Often this is truly the way things work.
Corporations cut laborers, extend hours, and suppress wages to increase the profits and elevate their stock value – stockholders win (including the executives with large stock options) and employees loose.
If the Republicans are to gain power and influence in Washington, our current system requires that the Democrats loose it.
If I want to be king of the hill, center of attention, the apple of everyone’s eye, then I must displace others.

What if the world didn’t have to work that way?
What if there were a limitless supply of whatever it is we most needed?
Could we, would we find a way to function differently?

What if the God who desires to bless us wishes to do something far grander than we might ask, think or imagine?
What if the blessing that we think is for us is not just for us?
And what if the blessing really only comes to us as we share it with others?

Our servant in Isaiah 49 is an interesting character. He knows that God has called him at the deepest levels of his being. This might suggest some sort of privilege, as is often supposed. He also expresses great frustration, exasperation even, that his work has been in vein. No one seems to care. No one pays any attention to what he is doing. It doesn’t seem to make any difference.

God’s response is to completely look past this childish fit.
Instead, God, acting as though the servant had not just been whining, and that in fact nothing was wrong with the plan, says, “You know what, we’re going to take this thing global! Never mind you enjoying these blessings of mine. That’s too insignificant. It doesn’t amount to anything compared to what I can and will do.”

Now, if you think about this conversation in greater detail, or at least as I do, I imagine the Servant at this point saying, “Are you even listening to me? I’m upset over here and you don’t even seem to care. HELLO!” And waving hands in front of God’s eyes, which have taken on a glassy expression as a grand distant vision comes into clearer focus.

Have you ever tried to talk to someone about some injury or insult and realized they weren’t really paying any attention? You’ve just gone on with your story for five or ten minutes, and when they finally speak its not really a response, but some non sequitur about their plans. Frustrating indeed!

Anyway, t
he servant receives an expanded call. It may be that the call has changed – God has changed the divine mind. Or, perhaps the servant just wasn’t listening before and only heard what he wanted to – the part that benefited him. OR, it could be that God’s revelation is progressive, unfolding over time, so that it only appears to us to change and develop, but God actually had the whole thing mapped out and gives us as much as we need when we need it. Or all three.

If we stop for a moment, and look at the situation from God’s perspective, or that of anyone other than the Servant, we realize how great it is that the blessing is expanding. Of course God desires the blessing to extend to all people. And for those who were the outside groups, in Isaiah’s time the non-Jews, what Good News to hear that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, was for them as sisters and brothers, enemies becoming family!

Israel had always thought of itself as the social outsider, the victim at the hands of these evil nations who worship other gods. This, all the while that they understood themselves to be the religious insiders, “God’s chosen people!” What an irony.

And now, the Word of God comes to flesh to proclaim that everyone gets to be an insider – religious and social. The Word of God comes to say that the victims will minister to their oppressors – that the lion and the lamb will dwell together in peace.

Tomorrow our nation honors the life and ministry of Rev. King. He wrote and said many great things that are worthy of study and reflection by all people in this nation and around the world. His greatest words are not those of the famous dream speech, but rather those of his other sermons, letters and essays. The dream speech is the one I want to call to our attention now, though. Because in it, King makes this great leap to believe that God’s vision is far more than what he might ask. He could, as many did, dream simply of peace and justice for his people. That would have been a good dream indeed. But it was not his dream. Let me remind you of the Word –

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”²
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!³

At times Christians have wished to divorce faith from social issues. Certainly for the Jews of Isaiah’s time, there was no possibility of separation between their faith in their God and their hopes for social, economic, and political stability, freedom, peace and prosperity. Certainly then the hope that the Servant promises is not only for “God’s Chosen People” but for all God’s people. Indeed, “God’s chosen people” is not some award like the Golden Globes or Oscars, no trophy like that of the Super Bowl where the best or the favorite are chosen, as though God loves the Jews more. RATHER, God’s chosen people are such specifically as God’s way of blessing the world.

Certainly, in the ministry of Jesus, people’s social needs are addressed by Him through the means he had at his disposal. Certainly, in the ministry of the early church Paul repeatedly explains how the Gospel tears down dividing walls of preference and favoritism, bigotry and hatred and from the rubble builds bridges of blessing and sanctuaries of safety.

Paul wrote “When one suffers, all suffer and when one rejoices, all rejoice.” We have thought he was speaking only or primarily of the church, and perhaps he thought so to. But in the reality of continuing revelation we can certainly see that, in the light of the Word of God proclaimed in Isaiah 49, this truth is a reality of the whole human family. This is why we ache to see the news from Tuscon, Arizona of a week ago, and why we smile to hear the good news of recovery for complete strangers. This is why we are incensed at t
he ongoing suffering in Haiti a year after the devastating earth quake. This is why we are ambivalent about what is best in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Iraq and Afganistan.

This is why we tithe to outreach, and why we visit people in the hospital. This is why we helped start Family Promise of Collin County and will open ourselves to the transforming power of radical hospitality. Because their suffering is our suffering, and their blessing is our blessing. So long as others suffer, our blessing is incomplete.

Indeed the dream is that all of God’s children, throughout the world, might live in the Kingdom of God on earth for which we pray, the kingdom initiated by Jesus Christ and continued by faith through the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit.