Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Epiphany 5 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Isaiah 58:1-12

1Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
and to the house of Jacob their sins.

2Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
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.

4Look, 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.

5Is 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?

6Is 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?

7Is 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?

8Then 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.

9Then 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,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10if 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.

11The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

How do we react to this passage from Isaiah? It opens with God giving a response to the people of Israel who have been seeking divine intervention, but the response is far from what the people expect, or want. Ouch! God tells Isaiah to shout out aloud what it is that is keeping the people from God. Isaiah is to make sure the people understand how they have rebelled against God by indulging in practices which they don’t want applied to them. Judah is to be told all about its sins. Lay them bare! Don’t hold back! Scream it from the highest buildings, making the sound of trumpets and reminding everyone of what happened at Jericho – and that’s just the start of this passage.

God is not happy. Day after day the people have been seeking God’s work, but God can see the hypocrisy of their cries. He ridicules their professed righteousness and their claim that they are following His words when the reality is far from that. They seek God’s righteous judgements but probably wouldn’t recognise one if it hit them in the face, such is their obsession with anything else.

It’s all too easy to despatch this to the chronicals of history and the misdemeanours of the Israelite people to whom Isaiah is writing, but this should sound alarm bells for us in the 21st century. How often do our church practices go through the motions of being worship of God when all we want to do is be seen, recite a few words without thinking about them, have communion, then leave? How often do our personal practices put us front and centre and ignore those who are worse off than us?

Emphasising the point, God repeats back to the people some of their complaints, then, as with a judge talking to a persistent complainer, says “Listen here. Shut up. Pay attention to where you have gone wrong, instead of complaining.” It may not be fasting. It could be unwarranted criticisms, or an unwillingness to listen to another person’s opinions. The efforts, claimed to be part of their worship of God, are for their own benefit only. Is that God’s way. Paul would say “me geneto” (God forbid, not on my watch or over my dead body). We need to look at our practices and see if they really are focussed on worshipping God. Is what we are doing, as a church, really acceptable to God?

As if that emphasis isn’t enough, God tells us what He really wants us to do, and everything in that list – which, of course, is nothing like exhaustive but a good start – is a challenge to us. How can we “loose the bonds of injustice”; how can we “undo the thongs of the yoke”; how can we “let the oppressed go free”; and how can we “break ANY yoke”? I invite you to reread verse 7 and ask yourself “Do I?”

Only when we do what God is calling on us to do will the path to reconcilliation with Him begin to be visible. THEN shall your light break forth, and your healing spring up. THEN we shall call and the Lord will answer. This isn’t Deuteronomistic writing: it’s not do good and be blessed but do poorly and be punished. This is all about our focus on God’s kingdom, not on our own. If we stop finger-pointing and condemning people with our words, and start looking after every other child of God, then our needs, note needs not wants, will be satisfied, and our ruins – consider how well attended churches were 50 years ago as an example – will be restored.

If we remember that the worship of money is the root of much evil, then should we not be pushing for more action to reduce the human contribution to climate change, and to look at better ways of protecting those most likely to be affected, such as people in coutries which will literally disappear under water if we don’t make every effort to reverse our pollution of the atmosphere?

We can all contribute, even as individuals, in bringing the people of God back to God. I invite you to ask yourself: what am I going to do?; when am I going to do it?; and what help do I need to achieve that aim?

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