(Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20)
A few weeks ago, my sermon, “Jesus Calling,” explored Jesus’ call to us to follow him. I preached, “Jesus calls us over and over again, as individuals and as churches, to notice him; to notice the kingdom of heaven that is near; to work to make the kingdom of heaven present through community, care, and healing; and to follow where he leads while doing so.” I noted in the sermon, “If we are listening and responding to Jesus’ call faithfully, we will always be working toward light, bringing light, or being light.” Well, in today’s Sermon on the Mount scripture reading, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14). Jesus calls, we follow faithfully, and we become the light of the world.
So, what is it we do to follow Jesus faithfully? What does it look like to be a faithful disciple of Jesus? Today’s Isaiah reading is a gift, because it tells us, very clearly, what it is we are to do to be faithful. If we are ever in doubt as to what Jesus calls us to do, we can go to Isaiah 58:1-12, to be reminded.
First, some background: The prophets were chosen by God to speak to the Israelites and call them back to an authentic practice of their faith. What can happen to anyone, happened to the Israelites: They fell into a false practice of their religion. They practiced the outward signs of their religion, like fasting, and sitting in sackcloth and ashes, and bowing their heads, but they oppressed their workers, quarreled with each other, and raised their fists against one another. The oppression, the quarreling, and the fighting were not faithful actions. It didn’t matter how much they fulfilled the rituals of their faith; God wasn’t fooled by these ritual observances. God knew that they were not being faithful because they were not being just.
So, God told Isaiah to give God’s people a message. Isaiah spoke for God, and proclaimed, “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; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? . . . 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” (6-7, 10).
IF we feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, satisfy the needs of the afflicted, and let the oppressed go free, THEN our light will rise in the darkness and shine. God, through Isaiah, makes it very clear what we are to do if we want to faithfully follow Jesus’ call and be the light of the world. If we do these things, we are faithful and we will be the light of the world; if we don’t, we are not faithful and we are not light. We can fulfill a million ritual observances but, if we don’t do these things, we are not doing what Jesus calls us to do. We are not being faithful. We are not being light.
The last few verses of the Isaiah passage really touch me. They illustrate what happens to us and our world when we follow Jesus’ call and rise and shine: “The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (11-12).
I, particularly, love the phrase, “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Ultimately, we are called to be repairers of breaches, restorers of streets to live in. Repair and restore, because that is what Jesus did for us: He repaired the breach between God and us, and restored us to right relationship with God. As Jesus’ disciples, as his representatives in the world, we are to repair and restore. When we do so, we are the light of the world.
Not only are we called to be the light of the world, we’re called to shine that light so that all may see and be called to it and be healed by it! Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world, and then he tells them to RISE and SHINE! “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (15-16). Yes, be a light! But don’t hide that light! Let it shine forth! Let it illumine! Let it repair! Let it restore!
I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a torn-apart time. During this past election cycle, it has become clear that our country is divided between the right and the left. There is much argument and acrimony, with people yelling out their positions in person and on social media. We can end up living in our social bubbles, preaching to the choir of those who think just like us and being intolerant of those who don’t think like us – if we even know anyone who doesn’t think like us. It is easy to take sides and contribute to the divide. We can even be made to feel as if we’re doing something wrong if we try to reach across the divide in peace and understanding. Do you know what I am talking about? Have you felt the tension? Have you experienced the disruption? Have you been upset by it?
While I firmly uphold the separation of church and state and each person’s right to work toward those things he or she believes in, I believe that, as Christians, we have to do so as faithful disciples. We have to do so in ways that illumine, repair, and restore, all the while not forgetting to do those things that keep our lights shining: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, meeting the needs of the afflicted, and letting the oppressed go free. If we aren’t doing those things, then our lights aren’t shining and we can’t illumine, repair, or restore. Our lights dim, the Spirit is extinguished, and we are left empty shells, going through the religious motions, but spiritually dead inside.
I decided this week that my “job,” as a Christian, is to remain peaceful and loving while the maelstrom rages. I can work toward those things I believe in, I can even confront injustice when I see or hear or experience it, but I can do so grounded in God, following the call of Jesus, and being a light. Part of being a light is honoring others, even those others who believe differently than I do. Ultimately, it is only in relation to one another that we come to understand one another and to even be changed by one another! If we’re just screaming across a divide, then how can we hear and understand, see and be moved, love and be changed? Instead, we must rise to follow Jesus’ call, and shine to illumine, repair, and restore.
One last thing I’d like to say: The foundation of our faith, that which raises us up so that we may shine, is our just service to others. When we see injustice, we are to do something about it. For the hungry, it is to give them food. For the homeless, it is to provide shelter. For the naked, it is to give them clothing. For the afflicted, it is to meet their need. For the oppressed, it is to free them.
I read a beautiful story this week about a situation of oppression in which a person rose and shone! This story illustrates how simple it is to bring justice to an unjust situation. A woman, who wants to remain nameless, told the story. Here it is:
"I just saw the most amazing thing. I am at Taco Bell right now, awaiting my to-go order. It is very backed up and slow, which I don't mind, as I'm in no hurry. A woman in a hijab and her children came in and joined the line to order.
An older guy, in his 60s probably, wearing a ball cap . . . and average-looking clothes, spies her, turns around and says loudly and with disdain to her, 'GO BACK HOME, YOU TOWELHEAD TERRORISTS!' . . .
We all gaped, stupefied. As my mind was reeling and, finally, engaged enough to start to get up and say something, she was already turning to leave hurriedly.
THEN, this huge, hulking, tattooed, looked-like-he-rode-a-motorcycle-here, wearing a Duck Dynasty-style flag headband, got up from his table and made a beeline for the hapless woman. I thought, "Oh, crap," to myself. This is just about to get a lot worse. . . .
Then, he got to her. He put his hand on her shoulder and said, loudly, “Ma'am, I served in the military to protect everyone in this country, including you and your beautiful children. Please allow me to accompany you through the line.” She rejoined the line behind the loudmouth again. Then, The Hero got up in the jerk's face and said, "Are you SURE you want to eat here tonight?" and that guy abruptly left.
Then the entire place broke out clapping.
My faith in humanity was restored a little tonight."
Rise, shine, for your light has come, and now YOU are the light of the world. Go and illumine. Go and repair. Go and restore. Create a world that shines forth the glory of God. If you don’t do it, who will? Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, February 5, 2017, the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany.