Isaiah 58:1-14 copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mark 1:29-39 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 5, 2012
Is not this the fast that I choose...
In Isaiah’s prophecy, we peek in on a time in Israel’s history when the people have been busy at worship, honoring God by fasting. Isaiah tells Israel, in so many words, don’t bother. God will not take notice of your liturgical self-flagellation. While it may have appeared to the people that the worship God wanted was characterized by long faces and self-denial, Isaiah laid it out plainly for them. In fact, prophets and preachers have been laying it out for God’s people ever since, often in words mimicking Isaiah’s. The worship God desires 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...”
Our religious practice is not an either/or game, playing ethics off against worship, as if religious people had to choose one or the other. The work of our faith is directly connected to our worship, and our worship to our work. We sometimes call the order of service a “liturgy,” a word derived from Greek, and the literal translation of that word is “work of the people.” The liturgy is the ethically driven, worshiping work we do before God. The test for our Sunday task of worship comes in the tasks we take up on Monday through Saturday. The motivation behind our ethical behavior during the week is directly connected to what we have prayed, heard, and sung on Sunday in our worship. Worship is the work we do for God. Loving, feeding the poor, working against injustice, is the praise we sing to God. As Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
When someone comes out of church saying, “Frankly, that last hymn (or prayer or sermon or scripture passage) didn’t do a thing for me,” who cares, really? Not to be too blunt about it, but we are not singing the hymns for me, or you, or for each other, but for God. This part of the work of our worship is difficult for modern, consumer-minded people to comprehend fully, accustomed as we are to having the marketplace cater to our every whim, to the degree that we are commonly bedazzled by about 200 different kinds of shampoo or corn chips or peanut butter in the supermarket, and a baffling array of everything else that we buy. But in church, as one place in our culture’s overwhelming self-infatuation, the business is not about us, not about how we look when we are praying, or fasting, or singing, or preaching. It’s not about who does it best, or worst, about who looks best or worst, about the one we judge to be the most or least sincere. It is – and this bears repeating because it is such a difficult concept for all of us – it is about God. It is not about us.
Remember that great old Quaker hymn:
My life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations;
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that rock I’m clinging;
while love is Lord o’er heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?
Well, I sit up here Sunday after Sunday and I can tell you, no offense, but for some, keeping from singing appears to be no struggle at all! And I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard stories from adults about grade school teachers telling them as children not to sing because they sang so badly. Who are these cruel teachers, and why have they not been sent to remedial school teacher classes? Frankly, it’s hard to believe very many such teachers exist. Why would anyone think it perfectly reasonable to have to learn to spell or read, but believe that when it comes to singing, that’s just something we should be able to do with no prior experience or instruction, something we should have in hand as soon as we pop out of the womb? If someone really doesn’t want to sing, I can understand that I suppose, but at least it’s good to open the hymnal and read the beautiful poetry of the hymns that someone has written about God, and offer that silent reflection on God as part of our offering of worship. The beauty of singing is not measured by tunefulness or perfect pitch, but strictly on the measure of participation. The more who join in, the more beautiful God finds it to be. With God, it’s all about participation.
One of the drawbacks of being a leader in worship – in the choir, or at the organ, or at the lectern or pulpit, or ushering – is that we sometimes feel as if we cannot worship because we are too busy working. I know that much of my time in worship is spent trying to stay on top of what is coming next, to help things run smoothly, to check the bulletin, to look for the slow response that might cause an awkward silence, ‘til sometimes, by the end of the hour, I feel as if I have not worshiped at all, just spent an hour in a heightened state of nervous anxiety. So I have come to seek a peaceful place in my own spirit during worship, especially when I am not doing anything in particular, during an offertory or a beautiful prelude, joining in the morning prayers. And the truth is, we probably print our Sunday bulletins to help alleviate anxiety for worshipers, the “What’s next?” worry that most of us carry through so much of our lives, and bring right on in here to the sanctuary.
All the more important, then, that we receive frequent reminders that worship isn’t about our tastes or preferences, but is a service offered to God. Why else call it a “service” of worship? Worship is the work, the service we render to the God who has given so much to us. Sometimes we serve God by giving money for God’s work, by working on behalf of the homeless and helpless, by standing up for justice. On Sunday, we serve through giving ourselves to God in worship, by attempting to listen quietly to a word from God in scripture, preaching, prayer, and song. In song, especially, I think. The Bible is clear that God loves the singing of the people.
So what is it that makes for worship that is acceptable to God? According to Isaiah, God downgraded fasting and self-denial as particularly important for worship, especially if it was done more for show than for any other reason. But Isaiah did reflect for us on the idea that a fast more acceptable to God is one that denies self and takes up the cause of justice, the cause of the poor, the hungry, the homeless.
Jesus’ ministry, highlighted in our reading in Mark’s gospel, reflected this more acceptable fast as he conscientiously set self-concern aside and ministered to the sick, the helpless, the hopeless.
Here is a key thought in Isaiah’s prophecy: he calls for a proper worship that shares bread with the hungry, lets the oppressed go free, brings the homeless into your house, that clothes the naked. And this is perhaps the key to this whole thought: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly!” Isaiah knows, as anyone who has ever been involved in mission comes to know, that it is not the healing of poor inner city kids or housing poor families in Kenya, or helping hurricane victims along the Gulf Coast that’s at issue here, it’s our healing. People who involve themselves in these things find that the way to get our lives together is to do something for somebody else. “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn.” The fast we need to choose, but which is so difficult for us, is to stop acting as though the world exists for us and our needs and our tastes and our desires, and answer God’s call to be the light of the world, breaking forth in self-giving love and compassion.
Contemporary wisdom takes the opposite tack. A few months ago I was in a bookstore where I spotted rack after rack of books, CDs, and DVDs about self-help. Isaiah might suggest that we, save our money. He says, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places... you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”
Do you know the Irish singer, Bono? Chances are, if you are my age or older, you may not. He is a popular singer and sometime guitar player who became famous with the rock band U2. He remains a bit of a pop cultural icon, which made his appearance to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago unusual, to say the least. But the reason for bringing up his name today has nothing to do with his pop culture status. It has to do with Isaiah’s call to take up a fast of service to others as the fast, the worship most desired by God.
Here are a few lines from his speech:
“If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so am I... but maybe it’s odder for me than for you. You see, I avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something to do with having a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic in a country where the line between the two was, quite literally, a battle line... I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays... and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God...
...God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill. I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff. Maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.”
Bono quoted today’s passage from Isaiah, and then said,
“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it; I have a family, please look after them; I have this crazy idea... And this wise man said: ‘Stop.’
He said, ‘Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Get involved in what God is doing — because it’s already blessed.’ Well, God, as I said, is with the poor. That, I believe, is what God is doing. And that is what he’s calling us to do.”
Delighting in God, in God’s Sabbath, is more than taking a walk or sitting alone quietly, though these can help. It is, at its heart, living lives scripted by something other than our own self-interest. It is, in the end, giving our lives so that others may live. I am grateful to William Willimon for his Duke University Chapel sermon “When In Our Music God Is Glorified,” providing key insights on the Isaiah text for this sermon.