Uniform Lesson for January 22, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 58: 6-10
While we continue to listen to God’s promises in Isaiah, this week we move from the prophecies of second Isaiah, words to God’s people in exile, to those of third Isaiah, words to God’s people following their return. While God was the sole author of the new thing God was about to do in Isaiah 40-55, bringing God’s people back from Babylon, there is both a provocation and an invitation in the words of Isaiah 56-66. Note the possessive pronouns: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (v. 8). Is it possible some human behaviors serve as obstacles to God’s project of bringing light out of darkness, while others speed the path? This week’s lesson both warns and woos us regarding the ways God’s promises become tangible in the world.
Isaiah 58 begins with the command to the prophet to “shout out” and not “hold back!” (v. 1). Though God has brought Israel back from Babylon and facilitated the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of Jerusalem’s walls, the revival of God’s people has suddenly stalled out. On the surface, they seem quite religious, especially with their zeal for fasting. They go through all the motions of a pious people — bowing down like “bulrushes” and lying “in sackcloth and ashes” (v. 5). But, unfortunately, all these actions in worship fail to transform into their actions in the world. Rather than their own ritual hunger making them more eager to minister to the hunger of others, they have used their own fasting as an excuse for oppressing their workers and striking with “an evil fist” (v. 4).
Clearly some contextual work is necessary here — in a culture where fasting is scarce. Do we sometimes use our tithe to the church as an excuse to be less generous elsewhere? Are the hymns we sing often more self-congratulatory than God-centered? Do our patterns for worship serve more to consolidate than to overturn the segregation and divisions and exclusive zoning we experience and support in our lives outside our sanctuaries? Then watch out! The prophet Isaiah is coming at us. The question with which our lesson begins is rhetorical: Is this the kind of tithing, singing and communal worship I choose? ‘No’ is the anticipated response. God’s project of shining light in our darkness is more hindered than helped by piety such as this.
But there is good news here. If pious actions in the sanctuary can be ambiguous, loving actions outside the sanctuary seem clear and consistent in all the biblical record. The fast and, thus, the worship God repeatedly chooses is “to loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free … 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” (vv. 6-8). Sounds like Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 and Jesus’ concluding parable in Matthew 25. We may argue over how the hungry get fed and the homeless housed, but we cannot argue over the goal. There’s nothing wrong with fasting, or tithing, or singing, or worshiping — if they inspire the kind of service God calls true worship. And that’s always hands-on and neighbor focused.
If we didn’t get the point the first time through with the warning in the first part of the chapter and the wooing in the middle, then the prophet comes at it again with a couple of conditionals: “If you remove the yoke … [and] if you offer your food to the hungry … then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (v. 10). If, then. Do we hear this?
The Reformed faith is always worrying over the relationship between God’s grace and God’s requirements. Does one precede the other? Does the first require the second? Here in Isaiah, we have another test case. Remember God and God alone, began the project of bringing God’s people back home. Only God can create something completely new. But once home, there were and are some expectations. If God has made a home for God’s people in the world, how can they then neglect the homeless? Same goes with the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned. If God’s light is going to spread throughout the world, we humans have an opportunity. If we take it with God’s help, then we might even be called “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).
What’s the relationship between God as light, and God’s people as lights?