Sermon for Sunday February 5th, 2017, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
The Lessons: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Text: Isaiah 58:1-9a
Topic: The futility of religion without love for the needy
Charles R. Swindoll tells the following story:
On one of my birthdays my sister gave me a full-face rubber mask…one of those crazy things you slip over your entire head. She told me she’d give me ten dollars if I’d wear it into the pulpit one Sunday (my kids raised it to fifteen dollars), but I just couldn’t do it! One night I wore it to a speaking engagement. Without any explanation, I just stood up and began to speak on being authentic. There I stood pressing on, making one statement after another, as the place came apart at the seams. Why? Anybody knows why! My mask canceled out everything I had to say, especially on that subject. It’s impossible to be very convincing while you wear a mask.
I finally pulled the thing off and the place settled down almost immediately. As soon as it did, everybody got the point. It’s a funny thing, when we wear literal masks, nobody is fooled. But how easy it is to wear invisible ones and fake people out by the hundreds week after week. Did you know that the word hypocrite comes from the ancient Greek plays? An actor would place a large, grinning mask in front of his face and quote his comedy lines as the audience would roar with laughter. He would then slip back stage and grab a frowning, sad, oversized mask and come back quoting tragic lines as the audience would moan and weep. Guess what he was called. A hypocritos, a play actor, who wears a mask.
(p. 41, Charles R. Swindoll: Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes. Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 1998)
THE CALL TO AN AUTHENTIC LOVE FOR GOD AND THOSE IN NEED
Against such double-mindedness today’s Old Testament Lesson is directed. The lesson from Isaiah 58 begins with God’s call to the prophet to cry aloud and to proclaim boldly to his people their sins. Indeed his people seek him daily and delight in knowing God’s ways and in coming to him in worship. But they are asking why God takes no notice of their prayer and fasting (Is. 58:3). The Lord does not take notice of their prayer and fasting because they continue to exploit the poor, to quarrel with their neighbors and to seek their own pleasure, rather than considering the needs of others. Fasting, says the Lord, must not be mere self-affliction without repentance (Is. 58:5).
Instead of this, God describes the kind of fast which he desires from his people: loosing the bands of wickedness, release people from their heavy burdens, letting the oppressed go free, and breaking every yoke of bondage, sharing food with the hungry, giving hospitality to the poor and clothes to those that need them (Is. 58:6-7). Added to this is the command “that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh” (v. 7). This means one must show kindness to one’s fellow human beings instead of avoiding contact with them.
What will happen when God’s people take care of the poor, the weak and the needy in these ways? These blessings will come to them:
§ Their light shall break forth as the morning
§ Their health shall spring forth speedily
§ Their righteousness will advance before them
§ The glory of the Lord shall be their rear guard
§ They will call to the Lord and he will at once answer them.
The effects of this love of neighbor and care for the poor and needy will benefit God’s people, rendering their religion authentic instead of self-seeking and hypocritical, and their relationship with God will be restored and refreshed. Just these terms, light, health, righteousness, the glory of the Lord, ought to be sufficient incentive for God’s people to realize the joy of caring for others is intimately connected to their love of God and the one affects the other.
THE GOOD MAN IN PSALM 112
The Psalter reading today also speaks of light arising in the darkness for the godly, who is “merciful, loving and righteous” (Ps. 112:4), who “is merciful, and lendeth” (Ps. 112:5) and “hath dispersed abroad, and given to the poor” (Ps. 112:9). In fact, in the Old Testament, righteousness is often understood as including generosity to the poor, and the giving of help to the weak, as well as care for the alien, the orphan and the widow.
JESUS COMES TO FULFILL THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
In case we are tempted to think that the Old Testament directives to care for the poor and needy are no longer relevant, the Lord Jesus himself declares that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). By this he no doubt meant that the moral law as given through Moses, to which the Prophets continually recalled the people of Israel, was fulfilled in his own life. Indeed we find that the New Testament continues to teach that God’s people must care for one another and bear one another’s burdens (Romans 15:1-3, 1 Corinthians 9:19, Galatians 6:1, 2 & 10, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 2:1-8, for example).
If you feel yourself cut off from God, that your prayers are not being heard, try doing the things the Lord tells us to do in Isaiah 58 – let the oppressed go free, care for the poor, minister to those in need. Then your life will change, and your relationship with God will greatly improve.