Theologian Frederick Buechner, full of his usual wit and wisdom, describes prophets in this way: “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once. The prophets were drunk on God, and in the presence of their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable. With a total lack of tact, they roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they found them. They were the terror of kings and priests. No prophet is on record as having asked for the job. When God put the finger on Isaiah, Isaiah said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ (Isaiah 6:11) A prophet's quarrel with the world is deep down a lover's quarrel. If they didn't love the world, they probably wouldn't bother to tell it that it's going to hell. They'd just let it go. Their quarrel is God's quarrel.”[i] The prophet Isaiah has a quarrel with the world. All is not right. Jerusalem is in ruins, and God’s people are full of phoniness. Their physical wasteland is just a tangible reflection of their spiritual wasteland. There are streets that need to be restored and breaches that need to be repaired.
The book of Isaiah addresses the Jewish people throughout a long span of history. The first part of Isaiah speaks to the people at the height of the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE. The second part of Isaiah addresses the people as they’ve been scattered by the Babylonians, many of them sent into exile. Isaiah speaks a word of hope to them as the Persian Empire is rising to challenge the hated and brutal Babylonian Empire. The third part of Isaiah, which is where our text for today is located, speaks to the Jewish people as they are returning from exile and learning how to be a community of faith again in their land. Cyrus was king of the Persian Empire, and he was benignly supportive of Judaism. He thought by letting the exiles return and rebuild their temple, he would gain their loyalty; he even arranged for the exiles to receive funds from the government to rebuild the temple. The people of Judah had just learned what it meant to be God’s people without a temple and without a relationship to the throne, but now they were going to have the opportunity to rebuild their temple. However, they would again have to reckon with the demands and requested loyalties from another throne.
Isaiah was confronting a people in deep despair, a people who had lost all hope. The people are back in their beloved land, but they are faced with the enormous task of rebuilding. Their world has literally crumbled to the ground. They aren’t sure they can face the reality of what it’s going to take to restore their streets. They think that God has let them down. They cry out to God, complaining that though they fast and pray, God does not see or hear or notice them. Isaiah has no sympathy. He loves them too much to let them remain in their delusions. Though they are attentive to their religious practices, they treat one another unjustly. The third part of Isaiah starts out with a call to justice. The prophet is told by God at the beginning of chapter 58: “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.” (58:1-2a)
God tells Isaiah to sound the trumpet because this is a life and death matter. Their worship has proved to be self-indulgent, void of ethical content. Their prayers and fasting have not led them to act as God’s people. The prophet says, “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.” (58:3b-4) Isaiah makes clear that the fast that God calls for leads to loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless poor into your house. But they have denied their neighbors access to resources. They have only looked out for themselves. Their worship is not true worship because it does not transform their relationships. Authentic worship of Yahweh bears fruit in the lives of worshippers. As Walter Brueggemann says, “The God of Judaism is not a God who likes to be flattered in a more or less passive routine of worship; this God is out working in the neighborhood and wants all adherents to do the same.”[ii]
Our specific text begins with a call to remove the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil. The call to remove the yoke is about heavy economic requirements. Some people were bearing more than their fair share of the society’s burdens; they were paralyzed and weighed down. Some people were benefiting from the exploitation of others. Instead of working together to rebuild their ruins, they were getting ahead by putting some people in a bind, and all the while slandering, gossiping, and accusing one another. It was much easier to blame others than to work together for restoration. There was much to argue about, of course. The exiles had different opinions than those who had not been deported by the Babylonians. There were still tensions among those who had cooperated with the Babylonians and those who had not. Hateful speech and unjust actions were tearing them apart. Even though they have returned to the promised land, they have let their land be a place where the hungry have no food and the afflicted don’t get their needs met. The prophet calls for food for the hungry and attention to the afflicted.
This call for justice is ultimately a statement of conditional assurance. That’s right – God has conditions. God must see the fruit of their devotion in how the treat their neighbors. If they remove the yoke, if they stop pointing the figure, if they stop speaking of evil, if they offer food to the hungry, if they satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then and only then will their light rise in the darkness and their gloom be like the noonday. Then and only then will God satisfy their needs, make them strong, and water them like a spring of water. Then and only then will their ancient ruins be rebuilt and the foundations of many generations be raised up. Then and only then will they be able to repair the breach and restore their streets.
The prophet’s words about God’s conditional promises make clear that the only way to rebuild the beloved city of Jerusalem is as a community. The only way there is hope for this desperate people to pick up the pieces of their land is to do it together. The only way they will have the energy and resources and determination to restore and rebuild is to draw from the strength of the entire neighborhood, and they can’t draw on the strength of the entire neighborhood if they are isolating one another through injustice. The breach that Isaiah speaks about doesn’t just refer to the literal cracks in their destroyed land; it also refers to the wide chasm between the people. There is a wide chasm because of their apathy, their blindness to the pain of their neighbors, and their unjust actions that have led to despair. Their worship has not led them to change the way they see the world; they are still buying in to the status quo of the way things are done by empires, by kings that are not Yahweh. If you are captivated by the things of the world, it’s hard to notice what’s going on around you and to see how people are being afflicted.
Memphis is one of the poorest major cities in America. One of the biggest challenges facing the poor in our country today is affordable health care. Many of our working poor make just enough money to not qualify for government assistance, but they are not offered insurance through their employers and cannot afford to pay for their own insurance plans. You cannot get adequate health care without insurance. As both an ordained Methodist minister and a family practice physician in Memphis, Dr. Scott Morris had his eyes wide open to this injustice. With the help and support of St. John’s United Methodist Church where he serves as an associate pastor, Dr. Morris founded an organization called Church Health that provides quality, affordable healthcare for working, uninsured people and their families. Because of the support of churches and volunteer doctors, nurses, dentists, and others, it’s now the largest faith-based healthcare organization of its type in the country. Dr. Morris and many other faithful people work everyday to repair the breach caused by the lack of affordable health care in our country.
Repairing the breach is hard work that requires us to be in tune with God’s desires. How can we make ourselves into people who notice the breach and respond by working to repair it? The answer lies in the second half of our passage. The answer is to honor the Sabbath so that we can be reminded to whom we belong and what we are to be about. The prophet makes another conditional statement on behalf of God: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursing your own affairs, then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (58:13-14)
The people of God must get back to the basics of God’s command for them; they must practice Sabbath because it will change the way they interact with one another. Sabbath will make them stop striving, stop working, stop consuming long enough to see they aren’t in charge, and it will make them question what they value. Sabbath will remind them that they aren’t in control. Sabbath will require that they stop feeding their anxieties. Sabbath will require that they stop acquiring things and stop exploiting their neighbors to fulfill their own selfish desires. And when they stop striving, working, consuming, acquiring, once a week to honor the Sabbath and worship God, their worship will change them into people who love their neighbors as God loves them.
When they practice Sabbath, they will be able to imagine a world where they don’t exploit their neighbors on the Sabbath or any other day of the week! They will be able to imagine living without serving their own interests or pursuing their own affairs. And then they will be able to live into their true identity as the people of God by repairing the breaches all around them. When they learn to live again as God’s people, they will delight in the Lord. They won’t just be seen and heard by God, but they will experience the great joy of living in their true king. Practicing Sabbath will lead them to create an alternative community that is delightful for all of God’s children.
Jesus called this alternative community the kingdom of God. When we pause to worship and honor God, the Holy Spirit shapes us into people who value what God values. Isaiah’s words ring true for us as well. We too have to practice Sabbath in order to imagine a different way of doing things and to learn how to live out the kingdom together. Walter Brueggemann calls the practice of Sabbath both an act of resistance and alternative. He says,
“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market, with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget. But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”[iii]
Brueggeman reminds us that practicing Sabbath gives us an alternative to the dog-eat-dog world where we think we are the actors in our lives, the creators of our own destinies. Practicing Sabbath reminds us that we are more than consumers and producers. We are God’s children who receive God’s gifts, and we live in a world that makes God’s gifts into commodities that are sold to the highest bidder. There is another way. There is the way of the kingdom. And the way to the kingdom is to repair the breach among us and remind ourselves that all of us are God’s children, deserving of God’s good gifts.
Being prophets will demand letting it be known that we have a quarrel with the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. cautioned us long ago, saying: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” What will it take for us, for GFBC, to recapture our prophetic zeal? What will it take for us to lift up our voices and sound the trumpet like Isaiah did? What will it take for us to be willing to roar out against phoniness and corruption?
If we want to move into the future faithful to God’s calling for us to be prophets in our world, we have to have a clear sense of who we are and to whom we belong. We must first and foremost be about honoring the Sabbath, about worshipping God, so that we can give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to reshape our desires and to make us into a people who can leave ourselves behind in order to repair the breaches in Cary. As GFBC’s first pastor, Charles Tucker, said, we must open our doors as wide as the heart of Christ. But we must also be mindful of what kind of community people find when they do enter our doors. Our hearts must also be as wide as the heart of Christ. We must not allow any divisions we have among us to distract us from our mission. Together as a unified community, we must model justice. We must practice the kingdom of God. We must love the world enough to quarrel with it. We must create an alternative reality to our world, a reality where our streets are restored, where all our fed, and where all delight in the Lord. We must work to satisfy the needs of the afflicted and to not allow our neighbors to be trampled. We must witness to the kingdom of God by repairing the breaches in our community and leading all of God’s children to shalom. We must be so focused on addressing injustice that people who want to keep the status quo will think long and hard before they invite us to supper more than once.