Below is my sermon from February 5, 2017. The main texts I focus on are Isaiah 58 and a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. In worship, our children sang (twice!) the traditional gospel hymn, “This Little Light of Mine.” As much as we emphatically shout, “No!” that we won’t hide our light away, I fear we often find ourselves doing just that. Pressures from society and from our own insecurities can lead us to keep our light hidden. How do you find opportunities to share your light?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is such a great passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Some of Jesus’ greatest hits are right here: You are the light of the world, a city on a hill. Let your light shine before others. You are the salt of the earth. And I promise, I’m going to come back to all of that, but I want to start with the end of our gospel reading. With the Pharisees.
You see, Pharisees get some a lot of bad press in the gospels. There’s reasons for that: when the gospels were being written, the Pharisees presented a threat to the continuation of the church. And it’s important that when we read about Pharisees in scripture, we remember we’re hearing their opponents side of the picture. Because a lot of the unfavorable references to Pharisees and Jews in the gospels have led, and still today continue to lead, to terrible acts of anti-Semitism around the world.
Which is why I wanted to spend some time with the Pharisees, and offer maybe a more complete picture. The Pharisees were a certain division of Judaism in the first century who were committed to keeping and living the law the very best they could.
They were the most committed people of their religion. The ones who went to the synagogue, and wanted to please God, and wanted others to live their lives in the same way.
From the stories we have in the gospels, it does seem as if the Pharisees could get caught up in following the rules at the expense of caring for others in the community. Although the Pharisees in scripture were Jewish, like Jesus, every religion has its Pharisees. The Pharisees can be seen as the most committed people of any religion, gone wrong. They are the most committed people of our religion, gone wrong.
I’m a Pharisee sometimes. Maybe you are sometimes, too. From early on, I learned how to do the right things. We were church goers, every single Sunday, dressed in church clothes, too. We were serious about doing the right thing—being polite, following the rules, being respectful.
Now, these are all good things. There’s obviously nothing wrong with being polite and going to church. In fact, I encourage it. But where we, and the Pharisees, get off track is when we do the right things for the sake of doing the right things.
That’s what was going on with the people in the first lesson from Isaiah. The people had recently returned from exile, and were seeking the right ways to worship God. They were trying to figure out how to be God’s people.
And they were doing all the right things—they worshipped God according to the law, did everything by the book. If we were to look for parallels today, these Israelites are the best at performing worship—they know the responses, and the songs, maybe they even sit and stand without being prompted.
And they can’t figure out why it is not pleasing to their God. They cry out to God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do no notice?” In other words: we’re being really humble down here God, and it doesn’t seem like you’re paying attention! The people are proud of their religious festivals and their piety, but God is not giving them the credit they seek.
God’s answer gives them the key to what type of worship is pleasing to the Lord. And it gives us the reminder we need, whenever we might start to resemble them in our actions. God says to the people:
“Is this not 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 he naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Isaiah tells us that God is not interested in religious acts for the sake of religious acts. Worship that does not engage our consciences, that does not affect the way we live our lives the other six days of the week rings hollow to God’s ears. God is instead interested in worship lived out: in helping our neighbors in need, in speaking out for the oppressed and forgotten, in not hiding ourselves from injustice but daring to meet it.
The passage in Isaiah ends before we find out whether or not the people take the Lord’s suggestion to heart. I’m not sure why their response isn’t recorded, but I like to think it’s because the prophet knew that this declaration wasn’t just for those people in that place. But that it truly was meant for all people, of all times.
And so the response is open-ended, because we are living the response. It is for us to share in the Lord’s fast of feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger, and refusing to stand idly by when we see injustice and oppression.
I promised, when I began, that I would, eventually, get to Jesus’ somewhat odd declarations that we are the salt of the earth and the light for the world. Salt and light are two things that are absolutely necessary to life.
We take them for granted, when we can get them with a simple flick of a switch or drive to the grocery store. But they were valued commodities in the ancient world. Salt, and the oil to give light, were often used as currencies. They were undeniably essential to preserve food, to stay safe, to be able to live.
And Jesus says: that’s you. There’s no condition here, nothing we have to do in order to be salt or to be light. It’s just a promise. You are the salt of the earth and light for the world. You are incredibly valuable and essential to God.
And not just to God, but when we let that light shine, as the children’s song says, we are incredibly valuable to our neighbors and to the world we are called to serve.
May that always be the case. May our worship be acceptable in God’s sight, a fast pleasing to the Lord. And may the light of God, the light we carry with us, break forth like the dawn in all the dark places in this world. Amen.