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“The Main Point”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 58:1-12

 

Isaiah 58:1-12

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.
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.
“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.
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.

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?

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?
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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
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,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
 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.
The 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.
Your 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.


 

This passage from Isaiah is one of my very favorites.  It is a favorite for so many reasons.  But first let’s set the stage.  Much like the scripture we read last Sunday, God is complaining to the people.  God is confronting the people with their sinfulness.

“And what is this sinfulness?” you might ask.  It is the sin of following the letter of God’s law, crossing one’s t’s and dotting the i’s, without actually caring about the main point of all the law in the first place.  The sin is in doing outward things with the appearance of holiness, but not living out God’s commands and will.  It is the sin of “covering our butts” by doing and saying all the proper things, while still trying to get away with as much as we can.

Do you relate?

Have we cared more about the appearance of holiness, about our reputation and status in society, about our image in the eyes of others…than about obeying God, following after Christ, or doing justice, loving kindness, and actually walking humbly with God?

 

This is what the people of God were doing.  They were actually doing what God had commanded them – fasting, making sacrifices, and giving offerings.  But the whole point of all these rituals what SO THAT they would listen to God, opening themselves to God’s voice and guidance.  The whole point was SO THAT their very lives would mirror the heart of God, doing God’s will here on earth.  The whole point was that – in abiding in the light of God – they too would shine with God’s love and mercy, grace and forgiveness, justice and freedom.

And these very rituals that God had commanded them actually meant NOTHING to God, apart from ACTS of goodness and righteousness, justice and love.  Nothing.  In and of themselves, these rituals are absolutely meaningless.

Especially when the very folks doing these rituals are then turning around and DOING the very opposite of what God calls them to do.  Instead of loosening the yoke around other’s necks, they have indeed tightened them.  Instead of setting the captives free, they have enslaved more and more people in cycles of debt from which they can never get free.  Instead of paying living wages, they have lowered the wages of the poor.  Instead of treating the vulnerable with dignity and respect, they have struck them when they are down.  Instead of clothing the naked, they have turned the other way.  Instead of feeding the hungry, they have locked their doors and sent them away empty.  Instead of speaking the truth in love, they have been busy – pointing the finger and blaming one another.

 

We don’t know anything about these things, do we.

 

When we meet together in God’s name it is a holy thing.

When we pray together – listening for God’s voice and casting our cares on God – it is a vital thing.

But if we then leave this place and behave as the world behaves…

If we ignore the needs of the poor…

If we exploit those most vulnerable, because we can and they’ve no recourse…

If we turn our backs on our own kin…  (You know the ones…)

 

God is not with us.

 

If we ignore injustice…because it doesn’t affect our lives…

If we speak evil, and blame each other…

If we quarrel and fight…

 

God is not with us.

God is not in us.

 

Do you get the drift?

 

No matter how righteous we appear,

Following all the rules

Showing up every Sunday

Giving up our evenings or weekends to attend meetings

NONE of it matters…

NONE of it matters, unless we also love as Christ loved

And do as Christ did.

 

It isn’t about perfection.  It isn’t about being right or getting everything right.  All of the fathers and mothers of faith were flawed, many of them deeply.

But it IS about the seeking.

It is about listening.

It is about communing with God.

Being with God.

It is about

It is about letting God’s Word of Truth sink into our bones.

It is about soaking in the light of God.

Until we shine with the light of God

Simply because we’ve been with God, face to face.

Remember how Moses used to shine after he spent time in the tent, meeting with God in the mist?  They said his face was radiant.  Each time.

 

Everything we do here in this building and in the name of the church,

It is all about being the presence of God.

 

And if we are in the presence of God, we will be transformed. 

 

Transformation in God’s presence isn’t a possibility.  It is a guarantee.

No one enters into the presence of GOD and comes out the same.

 

And so I ask you.

Are you meeting with God?

I ask you:  are you communing with God, face to face?

Are you opening your heart,

Laying down your defenses

Setting aside your battles, fervent beliefs, and even your convictions

And allowing Christ inside?

 

It is a scary thing to come into the presence of God.

Because when we truly open ourselves, discomfort is assured, change is inevitable, the rearranging of our lives is likely, and we will never be the same.

 

Let us read again the final portion of this scripture passage from Isaiah:

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.
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,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
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.
The 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.
Your 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.

When we follow after God, doing justice and loving mercy, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  God satisfies our needs in the parched places of our lives.  God makes us strong, from the inside out.  God heals the places among us and within us that lie in ruins…such that YOU in fact become foundational in the lives of generations to God.  YOU become a repairer of the broken places.

 

Can you imagine a life where hope springs up and gushes forth?  Can you imagine the aching parts of you feeling whole and alive?  Can you imagine being secure, knowing GOD has your back?

Can WE imagine a church where scarcity isn’t our first thought?  Can WE imagine becoming a spring of God’s provision and love?  Can WE imagine bridging the gap between God and God’s people, in a culture where religion is viewed with skepticism and the word Christian has become synonymous with Judgement and narrow-mindedness?

Friends, our rituals and “the way we’ve always done things” is not important to our Maker.

What IS important is how we treat one another.
THAT is what matters to our Maker.

And when we make the first things first,

when we focus on the main thing,

when we in fact DO what God is asking us to DO

when we DO justice, LOVE kindness, and WALK humbly with our God,…

GOD causes our light to shine forth like the dawn!

GOD satisfies our needs in the most parched places!

GOD shows up and makes us strong.

 

Thanks be to God!!!

“Do You Hear God’s Whisper?”

Reverend Katherine Todd
Matthew 4:12-23
Isaiah 9:1-4

 

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Isaiah 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.


 

 

In our passage today from Isaiah, I recognize this beautiful proclamation that those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, but what I’d never before noticed was the sentence just before:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

 

I have poured over commentaries and Biblical scholarship on this verse, because this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” is unique.  In fact the only other time it occurs in scripture is in Matthew, the other scripture we read today, where the apostle is quoting this very verse from Isaiah.

So what does it mean, “Galilee of the nations.”

 

Some look to the state of that area of Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime.  The Assyrian empire had overrun much of Naphtali & Zebulun, so it is reasoned that Isaiah is foretelling of a time in which this area, overrun & disgraced, will become glorious.

But this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” harkens to other phrases like “city on a hill” and “light of the world.”  Usually we think of Jerusalem specifically or Israel generally as being called to be this light for the nations.  So why here is Galilee being lifted up specifically as “of the nations”?

Is it because Galilee had been so overrun by people of other nations?

It is because Galilee itself will become this light to the nations?

 

Scholars are not in agreement about how to interpret this phrase.

But I find it noteworthy that wherever Jesus goes, there is transformation.

 

This remote area of Israel, not firmly secured, overtaken is worthy of mention because it becomes the land of hope.  It becomes the place from which those who have lived in deep darkness will find a great light.

 

A number of years ago several books came out by Bruce Wilkinson.  In them he walks the reader through more obscure texts of the Bible and opens them in a real and personal way.  You may be familiar with his most famous of these books, “The Prayer of Jabez.”

Well, I found his book, “The Dream Giver,” most encouraging.  In it he describes a character who is given a dream by God and allows us to accompany them on their journey of faith and doubt, support and resistance, hope and fulfillment.  What struck me most was that the character, upon reaching the promised land of his dream, is distressed by the terrible shape in which he finds the place.  While his dream had shown a city shining and bright, he instead finds a city dingy and dirty.

He is discouraged.  This land does not look like the promised land of his dreams.  But the author’s point is that dream, the vision, is of what God is doing THROUGH the character.  In other words, the city looks dingy & dirty now because it has not yet been touched by the gifts and vision of this person.  The place isn’t already brilliant.  Rather, the character will make this place brilliant.

 

And this passage from Isaiah paints much the same picture.  Isaiah is hailing Galilee as a city of the nations, but it isn’t anything great.  In fact it is rather despised.  But because of Christ, that whole land where Jesus spends most of his time ministering will become bright and shining, a land of hope and joy and freedom!

 

Christ has a way of transforming things.

Christ has a way of transforming us.

 

This is so very hopeful, because it means that indeed life and hope and joy and freedom can come into the most devastated. 

What are those places today?

What are those places in this city?

Can you name the neighborhoods in which you hesitate to go?

…to drive through?

…neighborhoods where the need outweighs the means,

…where loss is a daily experience?

 

So what if, a prophet today lifted one of those placed up, as a light to the nations, as a road to hope, as a place of hope and transformation.  Would you be amazed? 

Or if the outback of Australia, ravaged by fires, was lifted up as a verdant land, flowing with milk and honey…, would you be amazed? 

 

What situations has God laid on your heart?

What people has God placed on your heart?

What skill has God given you?

What connections has God provided you?

 

Because Christ lives in us, God is transforming the world still.  Today.  Through you.

That even the most devastated, desperate, fearful places may become rivers of hope and refreshing, places of justice and healing.

 

Can you imagine?

 

Jesus is still healing hearts, even those most devastated.

God is still causing people to dream dreams.

God is still planting vision in the heart of people everywhere.

Jesus is still transforming the world,

even and especially in all the most broken and ravaged places.

 

Do you hear God’s whisper?