Isaiah 58:1-9a, I Corinthians 2:1-10
February 6, 2011
In the Gospel of Luke, one of the first events Luke tells us about in the ministry of Jesus, right after his temptation in the wilderness, was the story of him coming to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth.
It was the Sabbath day. And they asked him to be “lay reader.” (And of course you notice he picked a passage without any hard names!) As I said last week, he read from the scroll of Isaiah, chapter 61. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” The heading in my Bible for that page says “The future glory of Zion.”
Well, that’s not exactly the passage we read today. This one comes only three chapters before that in chapter 58. And I’m sure, for those people, it was easy to associate the two! They both have this phrase we’re thinking about today, “The acceptable year of the Lord.”
But there’s a difference in these two passages. This one in chapter 58 is not about “the future glory of Zion.” This one has a more ominous tone. It begins with God telling the prophet to “Cry aloud! Spare not! Lift your voice like a trumpet! Declare to my people their transgression!” God has some tough things to say to the people! (It wasn’t always easy to be a prophet!) Look at the next sentence. “They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”
The implication is that they were not doing righteousness, and they were not keeping “the ordinance of God,” even though they apparently were doing all the proper “religious things!” God gets specific about that in the next few verses. “Behold in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold you fast only to quarrel and fight…” “Is this the kind of fast that I choose?” “Will you call this a day ‘acceptable to the Lord’?” And there’s the punch line. There’s that same phrase “acceptable to the Lord.” And it’s an indictment!! “Yes!” Isaiah would say three chapters later, “Yes, there will be restoration. But not until you figure this out!”
Friends, this is scary stuff! (And last week was, too!) And this is the perpetual problem for all of God’s people! And it has been from the beginning of time! And it is the biggest problem outsiders have with God’s people. It is the “queen mother” of all complaints about people of faith. “They’re ‘religious’ but they don’t live like it!” When a person in the Church does something wrong, the first thing someone is likely to say is “and you call yourself a Christian!” That’s the biggest complaint! And the more religious we claim to be, the more likely we are to get that! And lo and behold, God has the same complaints!”
One of the things we can say about Jesus, is that in him we can see the mind of God. And in him, God showed that he wasn’t as interested in the trappings of religion as some of those people were. He wasn’t interested in right sacrifices, or right beliefs, or right doctrine. He was interested in righteousness, and in those who “hunger and thirst after it.”
Now, I don’t want to say that all those things that we do and believe as Christians, and the celebrations we mark, are bad! Don’t get me wrong here! What I’m calling the “trappings” of our faith, are wonderful! They certainly add to the richness of our faith and traditions! I’m sad the day the Christmas decorations come down! But what I am saying is that those things can’t be all that we have! James tells us that we can’t just say we believe! We must be doers of the word! Faith must be lived out the most in the way we relate to and treat others, or it is no faith at all! That’s what God cares about! And there is no question of that when we look at the scriptures!!
So, I ask you today, do we do that? Do we treat others the way God would want us to? Do we live the “acceptable life?” God has given us his Grace. And Grace means “favor and love which is undeserved!” Do we give love and forgiveness to others on those terms? Or do we keep them to our expectations and hold our grudges against them?
I remember one Advent where one of the people reading a part in the Advent Wreath liturgy said this. (I can’t remember if it was a statement or a prayer.) He said that we “put such high expectations on others, but keep such low standards for ourselves.” That jumped out at me! Do we do that? Do we set high expectations for others that we ourselves don’t keep? That’s a stumbling block for our relationships with each other, for our worship of God, and for our witness to the world!
Paul called us to be “slow to anger and quick to forgive.” I know I quote that all the time! And the reason for that is it’s far too easy to get it the other way around. Too often we’re quick to anger and slow to forgive! And don’t get me wrong here, doing such godly, righteous, Christ-like things are hard! And they don’t happen all by themselves – as if they’re some kind of “Christian default.” We have to work at them!!
Those are the kinds of things I think about when I read Isaiah 58. And I think we all need to ask of ourselves, are we living the faith? Are we living a life acceptable to the Lord? And if we’re not, what are the consequences? What is our image to the rest of the world? And what is our relationship with God? That’s so important.
My wife wanted me to make a retraction – or at least a response – to something I said last week. Well, what I’d like to do is to clarify what I said. Because I don’t want you to get me wrong. When I said last week that some people believe that God has more of an affinity with the poor and destitute than with us, I hope you heard me disagree with that “opinion.” I hope you heard me say that Jesus did dine with the Pharisees and the religious leaders. The problem, I said, is that they didn’t have an affinity with him! They put up the barriers. They separated themselves from him, not so much the other way around. And that’s what we need to be careful about – we who are the “haves” of this world.
I understand why we might disagree with that when such statements are too simplistic. Because it might sound like someone is saying that only the poor have a rapport with God. I wasn’t saying that, and I certainly wouldn’t agree with anyone who did. In fact, I believe that there are many very devout, wonderful people who have lots of money. And I’ve known a lot of them! (And there are some very “miserly” people with no money! And I’ve known some of them, too!) I think when it really comes down to it, God isn’t concerned that much about money itself.
I used to love the old comic strip “Frank and Ernest.” And I’ll never forget the one where Frank was having a conversation with God. (A “Frank” conversation!) And he says, “God, is it true that, to you, a thousand years is like a second?” And God answers, “Yes, it is.” Then Frank asks, “And is it true that a million dollars is like a penny to you?” And God answers, “Yes, it is.” So Frank asks, “God, can I have a penny?” And God answers, “Just a second!”
I love that! And I think there’s some truth floating around in there somewhere! Because I really believe that wealth is not as much a concern for God. What he cares about is how we treat each other. What he cares about is how we live, and our attitude toward his kingdom. Jesus said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness…” That’s the idea. But the sentence didn’t end there! He concluded that, with that attitude and orientation, “…All these things will be added unto you.”
Look at our call to worship. Look at the line there that says, “Wealth and riches are in God’s house!” Again, having wealth is not the problem. (If it were, we would be in a lot of trouble!) It’s how we live! And I know there was the mentality that tied wealth to God’s favor. People thought that, if God was happy with you, he “blessed” you. And if he was angry with you, you lost blessings. So if you were poor, you needed to figure out what you did wrong. We’ve talked about that before. And people still believe that! They still believe that Job needed to find out “what he had done wrong.” And it’s a dilemma that he didn’t do anything wrong! And in the end, all that he had was restored to him. It wasn’t his wealth that was ever the problem for him! It was righteousness!
God wants us to live the acceptable life. And the final word I want to say on that is that we can’t do that on our own. That’s the other thing about the “trappings of our faith.” Those things we can do! It’s living the righteous life that we need to rely on God for. And that’s what he wants in the first place. Listen again to Paul’s words to the church in Corinth.
“When I came to you, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.” That’s what they wanted. They were into the elevation of human wisdom! He said, “…my speech was not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
That’s it! Living the acceptable life is living it in God’s power. Yes, let those things of the faith – the “trappings” – be wonderful to you! But let them point you to your reliance on God and your reliance on his power!
Eternal God, help us to have the power to live lives pleasing to you. We are weak and we need your strength. Help us to feel the hunger for righteousness within us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen!