February 9, 2020
In our first reading Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, tells us he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets. He has come to fulfill them… to breathe a new life into them. Spoken by the prophet Isaiah, our second reading gives us those very words that Jesus would fulfill… words that we still struggle to have shape our reality today. Listen again for the Word of God speaking to you.
READ Isaiah 58:1-12 (and Matthew 5:13-20)
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” What a timely question. Saints, let’s be upfront. The moral universe deplores a vacuum. If God as revealed in Christ Jesus is not the center of our moral universe… if the ways of God as revealed by Christ Jesus who fulfills the law and the prophets is not the center of our moral universe… something else will be. And here’s the thing. The light that shines from that other moral center… it really can not be hid. It can’t be hid with an obfuscation of words. It can’t be hid by the veneer of religious practices or a “the ends justify the means” morality. The true center of your moral universe will shine in your actions… in your decisions… in the choices you make… how you react to the events happening around you. The one whom you truly glorify will always be revealed. As scripture says, God will not be mocked. You will reap what you sow.
The prophet Micah from last Sunday’s Old Testament reading… the prophet Micah did not give us any wiggle room. The prophet reveals that we already know to be true… that we already know what God requires. It’s not some great mystery. Sure… scripture attests to every generation trying to fool itself… trying to bend the requirements toward how we already think that we are… toward what we think is our own innate goodness… but the prophets keep showing up again and again to hold up that deep dark truthful mirror. The prophets keep warning us time and again that we can’t proclaim innocence through ignorance. You already know what God requires. To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly before God. These principles do not change. They are not optional. They are not bound to a certain time or to a certain culture. These timeless theological and moral principles are not akin to whether or not we eat certain foods or wear clothing that is a mix of different materials. They are not like the many laws in scripture that do not transcend past their context. The prophets aren’t interested in a “choose your own religion” cafeteria approach. What does the Lord require? Not… what does the Lord want? What would the Lord like to see? If you can get around to it maybe it might be nice to choose a bit of kindness here and maybe do a little justice toward your neighbor once in a while.
Isaiah also isn’t a wishy washy prophet. He’s not giving suggestions for us to take or leave. Blow the trumpet! Shout it out loud. Announce to the people their rebellion. Tell them how when they embrace injustice they rebel against God! How they serve their own interests but say they are being faithful to God because they are giving attention to those things that will not transcend their context. Don’t let them deceive themselves in the name of God. Prophet, go and tell them in no uncertain terms that when they would rather stoke division and hatred for their neighbor… when they embrace prejudices and condemn according to race or ethnicity or socio-economic status… they rebel against God! Let the people know in no uncertain terms when they embrace lies for truth in order to gain power and lift themselves up against their neighbor… they rebel against God! And no amount of trappings or titles or false fasts will make a difference. They can stand deep in the blood of sacrifices and produce the most awesome spectacles of worship. But as the prophets say again and again… God does not care. God does not care about what you might find uplifting in worship… God does not care how many symbolic actions you take to demonstrate your beliefs. The prophet Amos says it so well… “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” The prophet Amos… like Micah… like Isaiah… tells us straight out what God requires… “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Seek good and not evil. Seek good and not evil. That is how Amos distills down the prophets’ message. Seek good and not evil. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice. And still… still we can’t seem to comprehend the message. Our actions betray us time and again. Justice? Kindness? Humility? What? You mean I’m not showing these things?
As I read Isaiah 58 this week… I couldn’t stop reading. It was like the prophet was right there in the room with me… speaking the words of God not to a people long ago… but to a people here and now. In the footnotes of the Bible I use at home… the Oxford annotated… chapter 59… the very next chapter in Isaiah… is summarized as a “Call to national repentance”. Just listen… listen to God speak.
See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity. They hatch adders’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web; whoever eats their eggs dies, and the crushed egg hatches out a viper. Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.
Saints… as we sit in this sanctuary… as we come seeking God… let us speak truth plainly… neither the political right nor the political left are going to save us. Do not put your trust in princes. Evangelicals are pharisaic in the worst sense. The media and online culture brays constantly in our ears and dulls our senses. The golden calf is still promising us riches if only we will sell our soul and worship it. Our saltiness will not be restored through any of these sources. Each promise they are the truth and the life… but they are not. They are not. But we fall for them again and again to our own detriment.
If you’re going to preach from the prophets you have to speak like the prophets.
There is one last voice I want to bring into the mix this morning… especially since I’ve primarily let scripture speak for itself today. And his voice is important because while the prophets speak for God… and Jesus teaches and ministers in a way that illustrates the fulfilment of God’s word spoken through the prophets… the apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth gives us the key to understanding what it is to have God at the center of our moral universe. He reminds the church in Corinth… the church which wrought with strife and division… he clearly reminds them… and us… that God is the source of our life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Paul comes preaching Christ crucified so that our faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Christ crucified which seems just as foolish to the world now in the face of everything as it did when Paul spread that message with his own words. Yet, Christ crucified is the center of our moral universe. It is the core principle from which everything else flows. The idea of taking up one’s cross as a means to confront the chaos and the evil that surrounds us. Crucifixion bringing order and God’s good into the world. Paul the prophet follows the path of the prophets. Let the mind of Christ be in you. Let it guide you and inform you. Let it give you the first word and the last word that is spoken from your lips. Let it inform the first thought in the morning and the last thought as you go to sleep. Be one with Christ crucified as together we do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before God… as we let righteousness and justice flow through our parched land like a life giving stream… as we choose the true fast of God so that our light will break forth like the dawn. Amen.