Connections 02.09.2020: Light in the Darkness

Isaiah 58:1-12

Most contemporary biblical scholars believe that Isaiah 56–66 contain the words of a prophet who preached in the tradition of the eighth-century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem to the Jewish people after their return from exile in Babylon. If that’s the case, then the words in this week’s lesson text probably come from the fifth century bc.

That’s a long time ago.

Even so, these words challenge today’s church to ask some important questions about our practices.

First, they challenge us to ask if our practices lack integrity. Speaking through the prophet, God says,

Yet day after day they seek me

    and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,

    they delight to draw near to God.

—Isaiah 58:2

These words contain some divine sarcasm. God says that the people “seek me and delight to know my ways,” but they do so “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”

So their seeking God and delighting in God’s ways aren’t sincere. Are they just going through the motions? Have they reduced God’s ways to what they are comfortable with? Have they stopped being open to being challenged? Have they decided that they already know what God wants of them, so they don’t need to listen anymore?

We will do well to ask these same questions of our practices. Do we approach God with integrity? Do we really want to know what God has to say to us? Do we really want to live as God wants us to live?

Second, the prophet’s words challenge us to ask if our practices are transactional. Do we worship God with the expectation that God will give us something in exchange? Do we worship God only for what we think we can get out of it? Do we worship God with only selfish motives?

The people ask God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (v. 3a). They want to know, in other words, why they are seeing no direct and obvious benefits from worshipping God.

God tells the people that their fasting is self-serving and other-hurting. Their fast days are opportunities to oppress and harm others (vv. 3b-4a). They move seamlessly from acts of worship to acts of cruelty and oppression. Such “worship” doesn’t align with God’s purposes.

The fast God requires of God’s people, God says, is that they do justice by helping the oppressed, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked (vv. 6-7). Since fasting is one way of worshipping God, we can say that to truly worship God is to practice justice.

To truly fast, God says, is not to give something up for our own sake. It is rather to give ourselves up for oppressed people’s sake.

When the people do that, God tells them, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (v. 8a) and “then your light shall rise in the darkness” (v. 10b). In Matthew 5:16 (from Matthew 5:13-20, the lectionary’s Gospel reading for this Sunday), Jesus tells us, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

When we worship with integrity and with a heart that focuses on giving rather than on getting, then we will live in ways that offer life and liberty to the oppressed, which is how we bring light to the darkness.

There’s lot of darkness in the world these days. It really needs our light. And if we truly live as God’s people, we’ll shine brightly.

Discussion

  • According to the lesson text, what is the people’s “rebellion”? What are “their sins” (v. 1)?
  • How do we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that we are doing what God wants when we in fact aren’t? Why do we do this?
  • What positive role can fasting, in the sense of giving something up for a limited period, play in a Christian’s life?
  • What are some concrete ways we can practice justice as the lesson text calls us to do?
  • What positive results for the church and for society can come from our practicing justice?

Reference Shelf

Chapter 58 begins with the LORD’s command (vv. 1-2) to announce to his people their rebellion. The recipients of this announcement are to be God’s people, the house of Jacob. The language is reminiscent of chap. 1. Although the northern kingdom has long since been destroyed and Judah has also been exiled, God is thinking of the remaining and returning people as the children of Israel, as the LORD’s people.

They are religious and want to do right. Yet they must be deemed rebellious and sinful. Things haven’t changed much since chap. 1. But this discrepancy between religious intention and perceived rebellion cries out for definition and explanation.

The people in Judah respond with a complaint (v. 3ab). They ask why their religious observances and fasts, particularly, have not gotten a favorable response from God. They think of fasting and prostrating themselves in prayer as things that will elicit the kinds of responses from God that they want.

God’s command in v. 2 recognizes that these rebellious people are in fact a religious people. The answers to their questions begin with critiques of their fasts. The motivation for fasting is that they serve their own interests (v. 3) or find pleasure in fasting. Another reason, [you] oppress all your workers, uses an obscure Hebrew word related to a word meaning “be hurt, or be in pain.” The ancient versions and NRSV have understood it to refer to oppression of workers.

A second answer (v. 4) points out that their fasting has led to contention and fighting. Such fasting is clearly not what God wants. Fasting became a common practice in the hard days of EXILE (cf. Lev. 23:26-32; Jer 36:9), but the prophets have frequently objected that God’s requirements are not fasting from food, but kindness and justice (Mic 6:6-8; Jas 1:27).

Then the LORD speaks to the issue, defining the kind of fast or religious expression that God would choose (vv. 5-7). The LORD first asks whether self-denigration or groveling is what he wants, implying that it is not.

Verse 6 describes an exercise that promotes freedom that is a worthwhile activity, from God’s point of view, or service that responds to the needs of the hungry, the homeless, the naked. That is true service that honors God. To hide yourself from your own kin (v. 7) must mean failure to perform the common decencies toward members of one’s own family, such as caring for the elderly or ignoring an orphaned cousin, and so forth. One doing service to God doesn’t fail to do those things.

That kind of worship and service brings beneficent response from God. When God’s people act like that, all kinds of good things can happen (vv. 8-9). Light, healing and vindication will be the characteristics of their time. God’s glory will be their protection. Then comes the real answer to the question in v. 2: Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer (v. 9).

Verses 9b-12 expand on the type of worship actions that will being God’s blessings. They define the kind of community actions that will make the restorations that are being undertaken in Jerusalem a success.

John D. W. Watts, “Isaiah,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 607-08.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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