Few weeks go by without someone saying just how wonderful it is that we who come from all over the world can gather in cathedral and chapel on Epiphany Island to worship God and pray together. Technology allows us to do something we could not do in our offline lives. I know that these times of coming together mean a great deal to many in our community. They remind them of God, they encourage them in their daily walk with Christ, they comfort them in times of trouble.
Gathering for worship meant a lot to the people to whom our passage from Isaiah was addressed. These were the people of Judah who had come back from exile in Babylon. Anyone with a fairly basic knowledge of the Old Testament is probably aware that God tried and tried through his prophets to help his people keep their side of the covenant. They turned away, worshipped other gods and seemed quite dismissive of the power which God has to bless and to punish. In the end, the inevitable happened and they were punished for their unfaithfulness. Once back home, it’s easy to imagine how dedicated to God they would be out of gratitude and relief.
On the surface, all seems to be well between God and his people. They seem to be seeking God every day; they are eager to know God’s ways; eager to draw near to God; fasting regularly. What can be wrong about that?
God is not fooled and makes that clear through the trumpet voice of Isaiah. The seeking after God was only “as if” the people were righteous and followed God’s ordinances. However, they are doing the right things outwardly because they are trying to persuade God to favour them, to give them righteous judgements. Fasting is supposed to be a way of showing humility or mourning or a recognition of human weakness or to help concentrate on God. Instead their fasting, which they complained God did not take notice of, was a time when they continued to behave badly: oppressing workers, fighting and quarrelling. Fasting was simply another mechanism to try to persuade God to do what they wanted him to do. Isaiah is clear: this kind of fast which is purely for manipulation of God, will not get them heard.
God intended that the ways of worship he had put in place were not to be outward show or a way to make God the servant of the people. They were instead designed to remind people of God’s ordinances, his heart for the poor and the oppressed and his wish that his people should share that heart. When he lists the way of true fasting, there is nothing really new there: free the oppressed, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, clothe the naked, remember your shared humanity. The Psalmist said much the same, in words that had no doubt been sung in worship day after day for many years: be generous in lending, conduct yourself justly, give to the poor.
Only when the heart of the people was right would they be heard by God. They would call and God would answer their cry. They would be healed and protected by God’s glory. They would live in light so that even their gloomiest times would be like the light at noon. They would have God’s guidance all the time and know his presence. Every need would be fulfilled, they would be strong physically and spiritually.
Once again the Psalmist agrees. The righteous, those who delight in God’s commandments will be blessed, they will be provided with material goods, they will live in the light, they will be remembered for generations to come, they will have no need to fear whatever comes in life.
In Jesus’ time, it seems that the Pharisees at least had decided to follow all of God’s ordinances to the letter. They fasted, they prayed, they tithed, they kept the commandments. Jesus was accused by them of not following God’s ways. He didn’t obey all the rules surrounding the Sabbath, he didn’t fast, he didn’t follow the rules about washing before meals. Here was a man who apparently disregarded what God was asking of his people, and who taught others to do the same.
However, Jesus makes plain in the teaching we have read today that he had absolutely no intention of sweeping away the law and the prophets. On the contrary, he had come to fulfil all that they were pointing to. If anyone had hoped that Jesus was going to make it easier to serve God, they were probably disappointed. In fact Jesus warns of the consequences of breaking the law and teaching others to do so. As in other places in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually seems to make things tougher. It was not enough to be as good as the scribes and Pharisees in following the law and the prophets. Jesus’ followers had to demonstrate righteousness that exceeded that of those most scrupulous of religious people. They had to be better than the experts.
We know from elsewhere that Jesus’ way to be righteous was not being even more scrupulous in keeping rules. Outward show would not do. As God makes clear through Isaiah, true worship of God is seen in acts of justice and mercy. Jesus is the supreme example of this. He didn’t let petty rules stand in his way. If a rule contradicted the law of love, it was the rule which was swept away every time.
As we follow Jesus’ way of obeying the law and the prophets, we are being salt in a world that easily goes rotten. Salt preserves food so that it keeps longer and can offer nourishment. In small quantities it acts as a fertilizer to increase yields of crops, fruit and vegetables. It also acts as a disinfectant to help heal damaged skin. As salt, we are called to do good and hamper the spread of evil. If instead we are like some of the salt from the Dead Sea which had very little true salt in it and lots of other substances, we are useless.
Our obedience also leads to us being light. Light is designed to be seen, to shine out and illuminate all around it. Light that is covered up is not serving its purpose, just as flavourless salt is not either. We are designed to be light; not our own light but the light of God. We remembered last week Jesus revealed as the light to enlighten the Gentiles; Jesus is called the Light of the World. Jesus calls us, individually and corporately, to be light just as God is light. True worship is not just gathering here, or anywhere else, to say words, to pray, to listen, valuable though those acts are. True worship is to perform acts of justice and mercy and thus enlighten a world that can be very dark indeed. When we let our light shine in this way, others will give glory to God. They too will be inspired to worship, something an outward show of piety could never inspire.
Jesus’ challenge to his followers down the ages is this: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor