Scripture - Isaiah 58:6-9 and Isaiah 61:1-2a
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Think for a moment: what book has had a lasting impression on you? Tolstoy's War and Peace? Alistair Cook's America? Dante's Divine Comedy? Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham!? For Jesus, it was clearly the Book of Isaiah. Jesus quoted the prophet more than any other Jewish writing and Jesus embodied the Suffering Servant that Isaiah so aptly described more than 500 years before the birth of Jesus.
We remember that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. He was born to Jewish parents; as an infant he was presented to God in the Jerusalem temple; he was raised in the small, backwoods Jewish village of Nazareth; he was taught the Jewish Scriptures and he lived his entire life in the Jewish culture, albeit under Roman occupation.
And, as is the case with most of us, it appears that his mother had a profound impact on him. The first chapter of Luke informs us that while Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she sang a song of praise we know as the "Magnificat." She declared God's compassion for the hungry and the lowly, themes that would figure prominently in the ministry of Jesus.
Further, it is evident that Jesus was well-versed in a wide range of Jewish Scriptures. According to the four gospels, Jesus quoted all five books of the Law, several of the prophets and numerous psalms. However, Jesus had a special affinity for the Book of Isaiah. Why?
I suspect it was because when he read Isaiah, God's Spirit stirred him. Deep in his bones, he could sense that Isaiah was a true mouthpiece of God; Isaiah's message resonated with the whispers of God that Jesus heard.
What was Isaiah's message? He repeatedly warned the Israelites that God would not put up with their greed, exploitation of the poor and lack of compassion. God expected them to treat the vulnerable with justice and mercy.
Today's passages from Isaiah 58 and 61 ring with justice and mercy. Speaking through the prophet, God says, "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?"
Picture the yoke. It fastened animals together to pull a plow or a cart and it became a symbol of servitude. To break the yoke was to liberate those who were under restraint; to free those who were being oppressed.
In the reading from Isaiah 61, the prophet strikes a similar note. He says, "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners."
If you know your New Testament, you know that according to the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus gave his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth - a sermon that served as the mission statement for his ministry - Jesus embraced these two passages from Isaiah.
Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." Shortly prior to this, he had been baptized in the Jordan River where God's Spirit descended upon him. He said God anointed him for this reason: "to bring good news to the poor...release to the captives...recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:18)
Upon hearing those words, the hometown folk were, at first, proud and impressed. But when Jesus preached a sermon on these verses he used two illustrations that caused their blood pressure to rise, their faces to redden and their fists to clench. He took two stories from the Jewish Scriptures, one concerning the prophet Elijah and one the prophet Elisha. In each story, the prophets were called by God to help out someone in need: a widow who lived in Sidon and a leper who lived in Syria.
To us, it sounds like a worthy and compassionate thing to do. But that was not the point Jesus was making and the hometown crowd knew it. His point was that despite the needs that existed among the Hebrew people, God sent these prophets to outsiders. God's love was given to heathens. Jesus even pointed out that there were plenty of needy widows and lepers in Israel, but God's compassion was extended to the foreigners.
The congregation bristled. They became so infuriated that they ran Jesus out of town and nearly tossed him off a cliff. How he escaped may have been his first miracle. Sometimes God's word is comforting, but sometimes it is disturbing.
Several years ago, Bill Rogers was called to be the pastor of Old First Presbyterian Church in Huntington, New York. He was in his fifties, wore a constant smile and had a shock of silver hair. At first glance, Bill was the perfect fit for Old First Church, a conservative, traditional, WASPy congregation. But Bill was, in fact, a leftover sixties liberal. He had lived among the poor in South America and had a deep love for the church in the developing world.
When a minister is called to a Presbyterian church, he/she often preaches a trial sermon in Sunday worship. Then, the pastor is escorted out of the sanctuary to a back room while the congregation votes whether to extend a call to the pastor.
A few weeks after Bill had been called to the church, a colleague took him out for a cup of coffee, and during their conversation asked, "What was the vote?"
Bill replied, "Two hundred and something for, and six against."
The friend said, "Ooh, six against. How did that make you feel?"
Bill said, "Well, it was good to know that at least six people understood the sermon."1
The gospel is not always soothing. It can be very unsettling. When life is harsh and we need comfort, God can fill our soul with peace. But sometimes, God pricks our consciences and haunts us with questions: Are you extending compassion to others? Do you care about people who suffer injustice? Really? What are you doing about it?
A couple of decades ago in Central and South America, some Roman Catholic priests spoke out against governments that were oppressing the poor. Archbishop Dom Helder Camara spoke out against the repression by the military dictatorship in Brazil. The Vatican warned the priests that they should stick to saving souls and not protest the policies of governments. It led the Archbishop to state his famous complaint: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
Like Isaiah centuries earlier, Jesus spoke provocative words that made people squirm. He warned against greed and told the rich they were responsible for the wellbeing of the poor. One theologian imagines what Jesus would do if he appeared in 21st Century North America. She writes, "If you are looking for a savior who will exchange pleasantries with your sweet and gentle grandmother without mentioning health care, immigration or the economy, Jesus is not your man."2
Both Isaiah and Jesus insist that God is not content with the world as it is. Injustice is unacceptable. And they do not counsel us to simply sit back and leave it up to God. They call on us to catch a glimpse of the world as God wants it to become - a world whose foundation rests upon the twin pillars of justice and mercy - and then to strive for it. Their method of motivating us is to evoke within us feelings of discontent with the way things are, so that we will become passionate about creating a world more in harmony with God's vision.
God wants compassion and justice to link arm-in-arm, but that is not always a simple matter. Once you reach the point that you recognize the injustice of a situation, it can be extremely challenging to be compassionate while fighting for justice. It is natural to become angry at people who are oppressive. You oppose those who do not recognize the injustice of their actions.
When striving for justice, there is a great temptation to paint the perpetrator as Darth Vader - the devil incarnate. When striving for what is right, it is easy to become self-righteous without recognizing it.
As I see it, Jesus challenges us to act with compassionate justice. We fight for justice because we have compassion for the victim. A deep desire for mercy for a victim generates courage to fight for what is right despite the opposition. Yet, God calls us to something even more challenging - to fight for justice while maintaining compassion for the perpetrator of injustice. God wants us to defeat injustice, not by vanquishing the oppressor, but by transforming the oppressor.
I admit that in this world, it may not always be possible. I doubt that there was any way to transform Hitler. The Third Reich had to be defeated militarily. But it is crucial to keep in mind that defeating an adversary militarily, or even at the ballot box, will rarely lead to peaceful coexistence. People must also be transformed. They must comprehend the injustice of their actions and they must learn to see the other as a fellow human being. God wants us to see the other - even the perpetrator of injustice - as a child of God. In my early years in the church, I was taught, as many of you were, hate the sin, but love the sinner.
This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. was adamant about changing not only unjust laws, but changing people. He did not want restaurant and hotel owners to simply be forced to open their doors to people of color; he wanted them to be transformed so that they would recognize people of color as fellow human beings and invite them in.
In his "I Have a Dream" speech on the national mall, Dr. King said, "We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force." The goal is to transform people's souls so that they do not need to be forced to do what is right. After they are transformed, they will want to do what is right.
Jesus wants us to oppose hatred without becoming hateful; to oppose callousness without becoming callous; to oppose mean-spiritedness without becoming mean. Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, €˜You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-44) A hefty challenge.
I end with one of my favorite quotes about striving for a just cause by one who sought to transform an unjust society through nonviolent means. Mahatma Ghandi said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
You win, because you are on God's side. You are on the side of what is right and just. And even though it may not reach resolution during our lifetime, justice will ultimately prevail.
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