11 August 2013

Divine Generosity

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 & Luke 12:32-40

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost/ 11th August 2013

Isaiah throws us into court.  A trial is about to start.  In the dock is Israel; on the stand, the people of God.  The entire nation is on trial.  Yahweh is both prosecuting attorney and judge.  And the prophet Isaiah is a witness against the people, testifying against Israel.  This is his testimony. 

They are guilty.  What’s their crime?  Stupidity.  What have they done?  Willful stupidity.

            Now, you’re right to think:  It’s not a sin to be stupid.  Being stupid isn’t a crime. It’s not one of the Ten Commandments.

            So what has Israel done that’s so stupid, that’s worthy of God’s judgment?  It’s right there in 1:2:  “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:  I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.  The ox know its owner, the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”  What don’t they know, what don’t they understand?  That they belong to God.  The ox and the donkey are wiser than Israel because at least they know to whom they belong.  As for Israel, Israel does not know.  They have turned away from God. And as the leading Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts is, turning away from God is just plain stupid.  Willful stupidity.[1] Rebellion against God is not only wrong, it’s just plain dumb, it’s not very wise. 

            Israel, aloof and far from God, is suffering. The entire nation is full of iniquity, evil, and corruption, in young and old alike.  Desolation is all around them. The entire body politic is hurting. From head to foot, the wounds are deep; sores are bleeding and festering.  There’s no soundness, no health, no wholeness in the people. Then to drive the point home, Isaiah says Jerusalem, the Holy City of Yahweh’s peace, is no better than the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—an unimaginable, shocking comparison—cities destroyed because of their faithlessness.  There was no one left who truly welcomed the sovereignty of God, no one left who truly worshipped Yahweh.

            Like Sodom and Gomorrah, Jerusalem’s faith and worship life had become a joke.  And Isaiah has no difficulty locating the source of the trouble: he blames the temple.  And he doesn’t hold back against the temple in Jerusalem, he doesn’t hold back against the priestly activity of the temple, against the empty religiosity of the people.  It’s become a charade, a joke, and an insult to Yahweh.  Yahweh has had enough.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?...I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11).  Yahweh effectively says, “Don’t bother coming to my sanctuaries any more” (Is. 1:12).  “[B]ringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (Is. 1:13). Your feast days and rituals and festivals and liturgies “have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them” (Is. 1:14). They’re tiresome. And your prayers—your prayers are hollow because there’s blood on your hands (Is. 1:15). You think you worship me, God says, but my people suffer and die because you refuse to help.

            Remember, God authorized the building of the temple, required the sacrifices of rams and bulls and lambs and goats, sanctioned the festivals and liturgies for the Sabbath, and welcomed prayers.  God wants nothing to do with them now.

            Yahweh doesn’t welcomed them. Why?  Because religion can become toxic. Their liturgies and their pieties and priestly functions have failed them.  Why?  Because their worship didn’t lead them into a deeper relationship with God. They went through the rituals, Sabbath after Sabbath, but failed to help their neighbors, failed to ease their burdens.  Their worship was false, their offering dishonest, because their worship didn’t deepen the connection with God.  How do we know that?  Because one’s relationship with God yields a life whose actions are congruent with who God is and what God desires for all God’s people.  You become what you worship.  Jesus said, “By their fruit you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16).  Yahweh now rejects Israel.  You’re on your own now.  There’s the door. 

            Yahweh is angry here, full of rage toward Israel.  But before we get too comfortable in Christian self-righteousness here, we need to remember that the early Church saw itself as an extension of Israel.  The Church is an ever-expanding community called the people of God.  The indictments leveled against Israel can easily be leveled against the Church at any time in its history, including the present time, for precisely the same reasons Isaiah is furious with Israel: for the stupidity, the willful stupidity of the Church that tries to go it alone, that forgets it’s dependence upon God, that forgets that the Church doesn’t belong to itself, it belongs to God, when its pieties and liturgies and offerings are dishonest and empty because worship is not connecting us with God, when worship is having no tangible effect upon the way Christians live their lives, no bearing upon the way it cares for all God’s people, cares for its neighbors, eases their burdens. I wonder, does God ever reject the Church and say, “You’re on your own, I’m outta here”?

            It might feel this way at times.  What we’re left with is a God full of judgment. And there is a lot of judgment here—with good reason.  Just look at the mess the world is in. This is a spectacularly beautiful world, but look at the mess we’re in.  Just look at the mess of the Church today—with it’s idolatrous obsession with self-preservation at the expense of doing the gospel.  

            It’s easy to get depressed—you’re probably already depressed by all of this. This is a burdensome message—and we’re only looking at ten verses in the first chapter of Isaiah; just keep reading!  Isaiah is relentless.  No one ever welcomes the voice of the prophet.  And the Church is often uneasy with prophetic preaching because no one comes out looking good or feeling good. In fact, in twenty-three years of preaching no one has ever said to me, “Ken, give us more prophetic sermons.”  Israel has a long history of killing the prophets, as does the church.  Who wants to hear all this judgment?  Who can bear this?

            We don’t want to hear this because deep down we know it’s true.  We know we’re guilty.  That guilt informs the way we hear scripture, even verses like this.  Guilt informs the way we imagine God as essentially an angry judge.  We’re kind of pulled toward that image of God as judge because at some level we know we’re guilty or think we should feel guilty about something.   Unfortunately, our guilt hinders us from hearing and seeing the other thing going on here.

            The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted that theologically, biblically speaking we need to hold judgment and mercy in tension. In our society we tend to want to separate them, either judgment or mercy.  However, Barth observed that judgment and mercy are the opposite sides of the same coin, as it were.  There’s judgment in God. But God’s judgment and anger are never ends in themselves. (This can’t be stressed enough!) The intent of God’s judgment is not to destroy or annihilate.  If “God is love” (1 John 4:16b), as the Bible affirms, if in the face of Jesus Christ we know that God is love, then we need to ask: what does judgment from a loving God look like? God’s judgment is upon the things that hinder God’s will for creation.  It is judgment that judges sin (not people) in order clear away everything that hinders God’s desire for the world, for God’s ultimate desire is to redeem, to restore, to heal, to make whole.  It’s the kind of judgment that embodies what the Bible understands as restorative justice.  Yes, there’s plenty of judgment here to go around, but the judgment is never the last word.  The last word is always mercy, grace.

            And that mercy, that grace, arrives as a kind of whiplash, it’s not what we expect; it catches us by surprise, catches us off-guard.  It breaks in and undoes what we expect. It breaks the cycle of violence and death.  We expect the judgment to just keep on coming, of God giving up on his people.  And then the great reversal comes:  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the orphan.  …Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is. 1:16-17, 18b).

            You see that’s what God really wants for God’s people.  Not judgment, but mercy.  And that’s what God really wants to give and is giving God’s people, if only we remember who we are, that we belong not to ourselves, but to God. 

            The Revised Common Lectionary for today links this Isaiah text with Luke 12.  We’ve been walking through Luke this summer, looking at the parables of the kingdom.  As we’ve seen, the kingdom is not “up there;” God’s kingdom is here and now and on the way.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).  Good pleasure.  It’s directly related to the angels’ message to the shepherds in Luke 2, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born a Savior…. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (2:10-11,14). On earth peace.  And the coming of the kingdom of God means we can trust in God’s providential care over the earth, which means we don’t have to worry (as we saw last week) or hoard things.  We can open our tight fists and give; there’s no need to grasp. True security is found in God.

            Then, Jesus says, we can “be dressed for action.”  Be ready for vigorous activity. For the kingdom is coming.  And the lord of the kingdom is on his way.  So be ready. And he’s not only coming to judge, so relax.  The master is coming and when he arrives, something remarkable and unexpected will happen, be on your guard or else you’ll miss it, for it will shock and surprise you.  What will happen?  Jesus says, [T]ruly I tell you, [the master] will fasten his belt and have his servants sit down to eat [at this table], and he will come and serve them.” The servant becomes the master. The master comes to serve. The master invites the servant to sit down.  He will serve the servant. For in the kingdom of God roles are reversed.  The kingdom is all about reversal.  “The first will discover they are last and the last will be given the place of honor. The mighty come down, and the lowly find themselves exalted.  The rich go hungry, while the poor are filled with delights.  Priests and temple functionaries pass by victims, while hated Samaritans demonstrate the meaning of faithfulness [and grace].  Sinners attain justification, while the prayers of the righteous rebound against the floors of heaven (Luke 18:11-14).”[2]

            Luke’s entire gospel, from beginning to end, establishes a larger context of God’s kingdom and the kingdom is an extension of God’s good pleasure.  That’s what Jesus wants his people to know, to claim for their lives, and then from that knowledge he wants us to go out and preach the kingdom, serve the kingdom, live the kingdom, receive the kingdom, discover it.  This becomes the foundation for Christian discipleship, the Christian life.  Greg Carey, New Testament scholar at Lancaster Theological Seminary, is right when he says, “Discipleship emerges not from fearsome demands but from the outpouring of God’ love. Divine generosity sets the tone for all of God’s expectations.”

            It’s the same divine generosity pouring through the prophetic judgments of Isaiah, because, he too, knows that Yahweh is merciful and faithful and seeks our welfare.  He, too, knows God’s expectations for us. Isaiah, too, envisioned the kingdom of God. 

            God’s generosity, an awareness of God’s generosity, shapes who we are as a people and then it informs how we live in the body politic, out in the community.  We discover God’s generosity in our worship and devotional life, in prayer, in the depths of our relationship with God. And from that relationship, we act.

            For Isaiah (and for Jesus) right worship leads to right neighbor practices, which is how the Bible defines social justice.  This is what the Bible means by righteousness.[3]  Right worship will lead us away from evil toward the good.  Right worship will lead you into the cause of God’s justice.  Right worship spills over into social relationships and personal relationships and the responsibilities that come with them.  In the worship of Yahweh, you and I discover that we have an obligation to rescue the oppressed.  We have a responsibility toward the orphans and the widows. In other words, our focus and concern must be for the weakest members of society, the most vulnerable in our society, the ones without an advocate or friend, those subject to political exclusion and economic exploitation.  This is not debatable.  Walter Brueggemann, again, is pretty blunt:  “An appeal to the authority of the Bible, in all its literalness, is phony if these issues [of social justice] are not front and center.”[4]  In other words, you can’t say that the Bible has authority for you and ignore these issues.

            Our faith is a charade if worship doesn’t make us ready for action, to follow where Jesus leads, leading us into the kingdom that is here and on the way, knowing that it is God’s good pleasure to give the kingdom. 

            What difference will having been at worship today make in your week?  Or, how about this, name an orphan or widow you know.  Right now, think of someone you know who is vulnerable, alone, scared, terrified, weak.  Now, what are you going to do about it?

            For it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. We are called to action. Called to serve the one who came not to be served, but to serve.

[1]Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 13.
[2]Greg Carey, “The Social Shape of Divine Generosity (Luke 12:32-40), http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/2013/08/02/the-social-shape-of-divine-generosity-luke-1232-40.
[3] Brueggemann, 19.
[4] Brueggemann, 19.

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