Friday, December 19, 2008

Preaching on Controversial or Political Topics

Kerux is the student journal at Calvin Seminary. Here, Aaron Gonzalez presents his opinion that preachers should take sides on political issues.

I suspect the piece is a reaction to a discussion held at the seminary where two pastors discussed the issue. An article on that discussion is here.

So, as promised some time ago, here is a sermon I preached on the Sunday before Election Day. I was asked to preach on hunger, since it was World Hunger Sunday. I thought for quite a while about how to approach things. Some apparently thought I went too far (though no one who actually thought so ever spoke to me.) Others thanked me for preaching prophetically. One even said they were disappointed that I didn't go further and tell them who I thought they should vote for. What do you think?

The Acceptable Fast
Isaiah 58
I. Introduction

As you have probably figured out, this morning is World Hunger Sunday. Thirty years ago, our denomination declared that we have a responsibility to help alleviate hunger. We were asked to devote ourselves to gratitude, compassion, repentance, and justice as we respond to world hunger with a ministry of word and deed. And to that end, each year, between Canadian and U.S. Thanksgiving, one Sunday was be set aside as World Hunger Sunday to make us conscious of the needs of people around the world.

There is always the danger that such a Sunday simply becomes part of the ritual of the church calendar. I remember that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that there was a big push by churches to actively promote ways of alleviating hunger—there was the Peter Fish program, of course. I also remember attending world hunger dinners and being encouraged to write letters on particular bills before Congress. Now, thirty years later, the issue seems to have faded in our minds, and giving on World Hunger Sunday has become just another ritual we do without thinking much about why.

Our text this morning, Isaiah 58, speaks directly to that attitude. Turn with me to that text. Isaiah 58 speaks about fasting and the Sabbath. I know Pastor Rob preached on fasting two weeks ago. But while we will talk a little about fasting this morning, my goal here is not so much to get you to think about the spiritual discipline of fasting, but rather to see the purpose behind fasting—an active submission—and to apply that into every moment of our lives, especially as it relates to how we deal with the poor and needy in our community and around the world.

I will be reading from the English Standard Version, which is a little different from the version we have in the pews. However, I encourage you to follow along in the pew Bibles or the Bible you have with you. Hear, then, the word of the Lord from Isaiah 58:

58:1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And 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 dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
II. The passage and its context

Our text this morning is in the third and final section of the Book of Isaiah, a section that deals with the Jews who had returned to Israel after the exile. You would think that this would have been an exciting time in Jewish history—the Jews of that period had the opportunity to start over, to rebuild what had been broken down, to get back to worshipping God the way he desires.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. We see this right from the very first chapter of this section of Isaiah—Chapter 56. In verse 1, it says: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’” But then the last two verses of the same chapter say: “they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”

The Jews of this time had become so focused on their own needs, on their own pleasure, that they had forgotten about the poor and the oppressed. They were fulfilling the requirements and rituals of the Old Testament law, but more out of obligation or a sense of cultural identity. For many, religious rituals and observation had become nothing more than a way of providing some comfort for themselves in the belief that in doing so they would force God to bless them.

III. Fasting

A. What it isn’t: a magical, self-focused ritual for obtaining a blessing

In our text, the prophet is responding to that attitude. Focusing first on fasting, he recognizes that many of the Jews thought that their fasting was somehow righteous and were confused by the fact that God did not seem to be blessing them as a result. Listen again to verses 2 and 3: “they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. 'Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

Fasting is not a magical, self-focused ritual for obtaining a blessing. The Jews had succumbed to thinking that they could manipulate God into doing what they wanted. One commentator wrote that “in a formula that reduced worship of God to the level of magic, [the Jews] apparently assumed that if they fasted, God should respond and address the situation that prompted the fasting.”

This problem wasn’t new. Listen to the words of the prophet Zechariah responding to the regular fasts of the Jews in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem: “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?”

The Jews had been fasting not out of devotion to God, but for their own interests. But fasting is not a magical, self-focused ritual for obtaining a blessing.

B. What it is: an active submission

Rather, fasting is an active submission. And this applies not just to fasting, but to any religious activity in which we take part. And since we declare that “all of life is religion,” every single part of our life should become active submission.

1. Be active

There are two parts to this: active submission means we need to be active, not passive. True devotion to God requires that we actively stand up for those who are oppressed, that we actively help those in need around us, that we actively loose the bonds of wickedness, share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our houses, and not hide ourselves from our own flesh and blood.

2. Serve the interests of others

And beyond simply being active, we need to submit—to put ourselves lower than God and others. In other words, the sole focus of our fasting, our religious activities, our entire life, must be to serve the interests of others. Only when we are submissive, only when we put our own interests and desires lower than God’s interests and desires and the desires and interests of others—only then will our fast be an acceptable fast. Only then will our lives be lived in a day acceptable to the Lord.

True fasting is an active submission of our needs and desires to those of God and others.

IV. The Sabbath

While the prophet spends most of his time talking about fasting, he turns his attention in the last two verses of the text to the Sabbath. Unfortunately, many writers and commentators who deal with Isaiah 58 tend to split up the chapter. Most sermons I’ve seen or heard deal solely with verses 1-12, focusing on the true fast as being a life of active submission to the will of God and service to our neighbors. The rest focus only on verses 13 and 14, reminding us that to experience true joy, we need to honor the Sabbath. Few commentators note the unity of the chapter or point out that fasting and keeping the Sabbath are just two examples of ways that we actively submit ourselves to God’s will and the needs of others.

A. Again—not a ritual for its own sake or for our own desires

The point of the prophet’s words in verse 13 parallel the point he made earlier with regard to fasting. First, the Sabbath is not a ritual for its own sake or for our own desires. In verse 13 he says: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD.”

The prophet’s words are clear—the Sabbath is not a ritual for its own sake or for our own desires.

B. Again, an active submission

In the same way, just as fasting is about an active submission, so is the Sabbath. It is only when we actively honor the Sabbath, putting our own ways and our own pursuit of pleasure below the ways of God, that we honor the Sabbath that God desires. The acceptable Sabbath is one in which we actively turn from our own pleasure and delight, actively devoting ourselves in submission to God. The acceptable Sabbath is an active submission.

So long as the Sabbath is viewed simply as a ritual, as a day where we put restrictions upon our normal business activities so that we can gain some expected blessing from God, we are no different than the merchants in the days of the prophet Amos, who wondered “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale?” Isaiah is telling us that just as fasting needs to be focused on our submission to God and others, our Sabbath observances need also to be focused on submitting ourselves to God, putting ourselves and our desires below the desires of God and the needs of others.

Ironically, the post-exile Jews, who treated the fast and the Sabbath as a ritual designed to bring themselves delight—whether by forcing God’s blessing or by giving themselves a sense of belonging within the Jewish community—could not experience true delight or a true connection with their heritage. For it is only when we actively submit ourselves, putting our needs and desires below those of others and of God that we can truly experience delight. As Isaiah says in verse 14, “Only then will you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.”

V. What does this mean for us today?

So what does Isaiah 58 mean for us today, on World Hunger Sunday 2008? What do the words an Old Testament prophet wrote about people who lived 2,500 years ago have to say to us?

A. We must examine ourselves for the same hypocrisy shown by Israel

First, we must examine ourselves for the same hypocrisy shown by Israel. We need to take the time to detect in ourselves when we do “good deeds” not out of a concern to serve others, but out of a desire for our own delight and pleasure.

The longest lasting scripted comedy in the history of television is “The Simpsons.” In one episode, Homer buys his wife Marge a bowling ball for her birthday. That would be all fine and good of course, except that Marge doesn’t bowl. And Homer, who does bowl, knows this. He figures Marge will just thank him and put aside the ball, never to be used again, like so many other presents he has given her. So instead of letting his gift go to waste, he’ll use it himself. In fact, planning in advance, Homer gets the holes in the ball drilled for his own fingers and has his initials engraved on the ball, even before he gives the ball to Marge.

I think “The Simpsons” has lasted so long on television partly because we can see ourselves in the lives of the characters. We may not be as blatant about it as Homer, but there is no doubt that we often give gifts hoping to get something out of it for ourselves. And this doesn’t just apply to volunteering to help someone move so we get invited to swim in their pool or giving to the church just so we can get a nice tax deduction. Rather, even in our own fasts and Sabbath celebrations, in our own works supposedly dedicated to God and others, we act out of selfishness and a desire for our own pleasure.

This selfishness and desire expresses itself in the same way as we see it in the post-exile Israelites. Just as their fasts became meaningless rituals performed out of a belief that God would be required to bless them as a result, we also look for ways to force God to bless us. Look at the popularity a few years back of the book, “The Prayer of Jabez.” Much of the popularity of the book stemmed from the idea that through praying a prayer like that of Jabez, we too could expect a blessing from God. The prayer simply became a self-focused ritual designed to magically obtain a blessing from God.

Another way our selfish desires infect our “good works” is the way we often do things as a way of gaining approval for ourselves. I once heard someone say they preferred being involved at certain fundraisers at the Christian School because more people could see their involvement in those activities than in some of the more “behind-the-scenes” activities. This thinking is no different than that of the ostentatiously praying Pharisee of whom Jesus spoke. Yet, if we are honest, the desire to receive acclaim from others is probably one of the biggest reasons we do good things for others. The prophet warns us to look for this tendency in ourselves every time we do something.

Finally, sometimes our actions come as a result of a more subtle selfish desire—the desire to rid ourselves of guilt. Some aid agencies play heavily on that desire in their requests for help. They show videos of starving children with distended stomachs and big, sad, brown eyes. They compare the poverty of places like India and Africa with our own wealth. And they do this knowing that many of us will try to assuage our guilt and give ourselves some pleasure by sending some cash their way. Again, our giving becomes not an act of active submission, but a caving in to a selfish desire to be free from our own guilty feelings.

Like the Israelites of old, we have a tendency to turn our deeds into obligations or ways of fulfilling our own desires. When we do this, God takes no delight in them whatsoever. He says to us the same thing he had the prophet Amos tell the people of Israel: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” To avoid God’s wrath, we must examine ourselves for the same hypocrisy shown by Israel.

B. We need to actively submit

But beyond simply looking to put away our own hypocrisy, the prophet’s words tell us that we need to actively submit. Our entire lives need to be given over to making the pleasure and delight of God and the people around us a priority. We must put ourselves last and serve our neighbors without any expectation of receiving anything in return. In doing so, we reflect the life our Savior, Jesus Christ, who submitted himself completely, giving up his very life for us sinners so that we may receive the ultimate delight of living forever in relationship with our Creator-Father. We need to actively submit.

1. Putting others first

We do this in two ways—by being active, not passive, and by putting others first.

There are any number of positive ways we can work to put others first. Let me highlight just a few.

a. Recognize the impoverished in our community

First, we need to recognize the impoverished in our community. I wish more of you could have the opportunity to serve as a deacon in this church. More than one person has commented to me that when they became a deacon they learned that there was an entire sector of our community of which they had been completely unaware.

Sometimes this lack of awareness is purposeful. Dealing with people who have been sucked into poverty is difficult—even maddening. Our assumptions about how people behave get thrown out the window. We see things and get involved in situations that make us cry or make us sick. And so we avoid getting involved.

Sometimes the lack of awareness is just because of the way we live our lives in our comfortably sheltered suburbia, looking through rose-colored stained glass windows, pretending poverty doesn’t exist, or that when it does it is someone else’s problem, someone else’s fault. We blame it on bad behavior, on a lack of willingness to learn English, a lack of desire to improve oneself. In doing so, we shift the blame away from ourselves.

But we cannot actively untie the cords of the yoke of poverty unless we recognize poverty within our community. We cannot actively loose the chains of injustice unless we know about the injustices suffered by people around the world. Unless we know where we can find the hungry, the poor, and the naked, we won’t be able to share our food, provide shelter, and clothe the naked. We need to recognize the impoverished in our community.

b. Live in a way that helps others

Another way to put others first is to live in a way that helps others. This includes giving of course—helping others a priority in our lives. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am so appreciative of the way Calvin Church does this symbolically every week by making the first offering each morning a benevolent offering—an offering destined to help those in need in some way. The active submission God desires from us means putting others first, and our offering structure is symbolic way of doing this. I hope you can find a way in your lives to also make sure that your “first offering” is for helping others, and it is only after that that you provide for your own needs and desires.

c. Spread the wealth

A third way we can put others first is to spread the wealth. Now I know that my use of those words is going to be controversial, given how those words have been used and abused in the current election campaign. As Christians, we may disagree on how we spread the wealth and the role of the state in doing so. But as Christians, whose job it is to put the welfare of others above our own, we must recognize that we have an obligation to spread the wealth.

In our text this morning, God is not saying “The poor you have with you always, so relax, take your time, pay your bills, balance your budget, fill up the SUV, build a big house out in the town, take a vacation, and, if there are any crumbs left on the table, have your kids put some pennies in their Peter Fish to help the hungry.” Rather, God clearly gives feeding the hungry high priority on the daily agenda of God’s people, even higher than providing for our own security, whether it be job security, security in our retirement investments or our kids’ college funds, or security in our access to foreign oil.

Our only security, our only comfort, comes from the fact that we belong, body and soul, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ. And that security is a security that cannot be taken from us. Our response to that security can be no less than doing just what Jesus did—putting our own pleasure and delight below that of others.

The bottom line in this text from Isaiah is that God wants us to spread the wealth by feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. That means changing our focus from “making a killing” to “making a living.” We must learn to live with less and use the excess to help others. We should support organizations worldwide that work with the needy at the local level and focus on spreading the wealth in a way that promotes justice for all—organizations like the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, the Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity. In our purchases and investments, too, we need to end our support for businesses and companies that value profit maximization more than making sure that everyone has enough.

And we should learn all we can about the structures in our society that cause poverty and hunger. For example, I highly encourage you to read the cover story in this month’s Christianity Today, entitled “Hunger Isn’t History.” It gives good information on how some of aid we give is actually doing more harm than good. We may certainly disagree on what role the government should take in spreading the wealth, but as Christians we must put our own wants and desires behind the needs of the poor in our community and around the world. We must spread the wealth.

d. Vote

One last suggestion—when you vote on Tuesday, vote in a way that puts others first. One of the most sickening things about election campaigns is how so often the focus of political ads is on getting you to believe that one candidate or the other will put your desires first, vilifying the other candidate as someone who doesn’t have your desires and interests in mind. On Tuesday, ignore all those ads. Instead, put your own interests behind the interests of the powerless, the impoverished, and the needy in our society and world. Then, vote for the person you think will best represent those interests. I’m not going to tell you who that is—we may well disagree on that. But when you vote, vote with Isaiah 58 written in your mind and engraved on your heart.

2. We need to be active, not passive

Isaiah’s call to active submission means that we must put others first and that we need to be active, not passive. This means not just setting aside a percentage of our time and money to help, but undergoing a complete change in our lifestyle and in our priorities. We need to actively examine our budgets, our vacations, our habits, our hobbies, even our rituals and religious practices, to make sure that they provide evidence that we are actively submitting ourselves to God’s will and to the needs of others. If we find areas in our lives that we hold as higher priorities than the needs of others, we need to cut them out, even if doing so causes us pain.

VI. Conclusion

Look again at verses 6 and 7 of our text. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

When I read those verses I can’t help but to think of the Old Testament requirement for the Year of Jubilee—the year in which debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and confiscated land returned to its previous owners. In Old Testament Israel, the Year of Jubilee was what one writer calls “a kind of divinely mandated ‘do-over’ for all people.” The purpose of the Year of Jubilee was to restore everyone to the right relationships, the shalom they had had before. What the prophet is doing in our text, though, is taking the radical position that God demands Year of Jubilee behavior EVERY year. The Year of Jubilee becomes a permanent state, in which God’s people devote themselves to seeking His justice by loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing their bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless poor into your house.

There is another set of verses that I also hope you hear reflected in verse 7—these words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

‘Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The words of the prophet Isaiah mesh well with the words of Jesus. And well they should, since many of Isaiah’s words foretold the coming of Jesus to earth. When Jesus came, he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, the eternal Year of Jubilee. While the final consummation of the Kingdom has not yet arrived, we still live and work in the Christ’s kingdom. One of our jobs as his Kingdom servants is to declare the permanent Year of Jubilee, the time in which, as we pour ourselves out for the hungry and satisfy the desires of the afflicted, God’s light shall rise in the darkness and all the ancient ruins are rebuilt.


No comments: