For some of the last few Sundays, Rev. Laurie and I have been following the suggestion of the Old Testament part of the Lectionary . . . to spend one Sunday with each of several of the prophets of the Old Testament.
They lived and spoke and wrote, for the most part, in roughly the period 750 to 500 B.C. This time frame doesn’t mean, as we will see again today, that we’re focusing only on a long-ago far-away time and place, the Israel centuries before Jesus; our reflections are not confined to that distant history.
When we considered Amos’ words, for example, on what is worship pleasing to God, we ended up looking at how we worship, here and now. Hosea described the tenderness of God’s love, like a mother for a child, for Israel then and for us today. Micah posed the question: What does God want as a response from us, to all the good things God has done for us—certainly a question Christians can still consider today. And Habakkuk asked the question believers for centuries have asked and still ask: Why does God let bad things happen, to the people of God?
Most of these sermons, by the way, either are or soon will be on the church website, so if you have a particular interest in the prophetic books, or any of these particular issues, you can find them there.
Today as you have heard, we are turning to the prophet Isaiah. And part of our discussion will include some thoughts presented by Rev. Christine Pohl, a professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. Her remarks, which I’ve adapted, revised, and expanded upon a bit, appeared in an issue of “Christian Century” magazine.
As you hear the beginning of her comments, I have to admit that I’m not the most appropriate person to start here; in fact I’m not even the most appropriate person in my family. See, her opening image has to do with gardening, and as many of you know, Rev. Laurie gets all the credit for the gardening that goes on around our house. So if you get a chance to admire the flowers and bright colors around the manse, please remember: that’s all her work. But that image of gardening is where my sermon goes from here.
As a weekend gardener, Rev. Pohl begins, I have discovered the deep satisfaction of seeing the fruit of a well-watered garden. Months of tending and watering yield a delightful harvest of well-formed, abundant produce. In contrast, a hot summer, with little water, yields plants that are shriveled and produce that is unusable. For a casual gardener, the difference is merely distressing; for a hungry family, the difference can be life-threatening.
Isaiah says that those who live justly and who delight in God are like well-watered gardens, satisfied and strengthened by God in a parched land—verse 11. His definition of “living justly” includes: feeding the hungry; helping the oppressed toward freedom; comforting the afflicted.
People who do these things will be the well-watered gardens, sustained by God. Then he continues, in verse 13, along the lines of the subject you considered last Sunday: Also those who take delight in the Sabbath, who honor God’s seventh day, are those who will be fruitful and find joy in God.
The prophet warns that those who pursue their own interests, on the other hand—trampling the poor and trampling the Sabbath—may seek God’s attention, but will not find God present to them. “If you offer your food to the hungry,” verse 10 says, “if you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interest on my holy day,” verse 13 continues, “then you shall take delight in the Lord, and be fed.”
By emphasizing both conditions, both “if’s,” Isaiah reminds us that our behavior on the Sabbath can’t be separated from our behavior the rest of the week; worship and daily practice are somehow all one piece. And generally we recognize, I think, that trying to split off worship from life, isolate piety from practice, is ultimately unsustainable; we can’t keep up that contradiction forever.
But it is surprisingly easy, is it not, to slip up, to wander away from God’s intent, and consequently to begin shriveling up, like those unwatered plants. When our primary concern becomes, for whatever reason, our own gain, we drift over into trampling the poor and trampling the Sabbath. When our focus becomes distorted, we quickly get disconnected from the creator and source of life—and then we shrivel like plants whose roots are injured.
It can be disappointing to see a shriveled garden; but it is heartbreaking to see a shriveled Christian, or a shriveled church—one who has gotten disconnected from God. When we see individuals and congregations whose vision is no bigger than their own interests, or whose personal agendas have displaced God’s larger purposes, we are seeing someone, or a group of someones, who has gotten away from God’s sustaining, God’s tending, God’s “water.”
The symptoms of such shriveling include:
- An attitude of pettiness replacing one of gratitude
- A temperament of peevishness displacing trust, and delight in other’s company
- We begin to be majorly upset by minor inconveniences; we easily become indignant
- We fail to see our own wrongdoing, and are eager to assign evil motives to others
- Even things which used to seem beautiful and good become irritations.
As with fretful infants who turn away from their source of comfort, nothing satisfies. We have become the unwatered garden, in contrast to verse 11; the weakened bones, the spring whose waters have failed.
The scene from our new Testament lesson today, Luke 13, seems to be an enactment of Isaiah’s words: Jesus encounters a woman and sets her free from a crippling disease that has bent and bound her for eighteen years. Freed, she stands straight and praises God. What could be wrong with such a happy picture, of healing and joyful response?
But for the leader of the synagogue, this transformation occurs at the wrong time: Jesus is working on the Sabbath, he says, and in doing so disrupting the regular activities of the synagogue.
It is easy for us to be horrified at a religious leader who becomes indignant because Jesus cures on the Sabbath. How could he be so heartless, we say, so absorbed by his religious traditions that he misses the chance to delight in a miracle? He is committed to protecting a distinctive feature of his religion’s identity, but isn’t he also trying to contain a God of love and grace—to confine God’s mercy and power to only those times and recipients he considers appropriate? Isn’t this an example of someone so worried about his own concerns that in the end he tramples both the poor and the Sabbath?
A daughter of the covenant has been restored! Through his words and action, Jesus has taken a physically-broken woman and returned her to full participation in the religious tradition the synagogue leader is trying to preserve. Jesus has rescued “a daughter of Abraham.”
But the religious leader is indignant. He’s comfortable about rescuing a farm animal on the Sabbath, but has trouble rejoicing when a bound woman is freed. For Jesus, on the other hand, and Isaiah, and the woman, and the crowd, the healing of the broken does not detract from delighting in the Sabbath—because that healing is a way of delighting in God.
Now in a way, the synagogue leader’s intentions are good. It isn’t wrong to want to protect the Sabbath day and worship from intrusions of regular work. But in the context of the miracle, the leader appears silly and shriveled—one of those who have been caught up in the pettiness, in majoring in minors, in the posture of indignance.
Being indignant at mercy and goodness looks ridiculous. What is missing is the ability to delight in God’s mercy, in Jesus’ power, in a true meaning of Sabbath, in a restored sister. In attempting to protect his idea of what is holy, the leader misses a transforming encounter with Jesus the Holy One. His attempt to trample on the poor—the broken woman—and trample the Sabbath—through misunderstanding its intent—cuts him off from seeing and delighting in God. Just as Isaiah has said.
Which raises some questions for us “people of the synagogue,” the church, the worshiping community, today: Do we ever become indignant when God’s moves catch us by surprise? Is our attachment to any of our religious traditions so strong that we could end up resisting a way God is trying to be active, because “that’s not the way we do things here”? Are we in danger of confusing our interests with God’s? Or the interests of our church group or faction? Or the interests of one congregation?
Do we see a needy person as one more interruption, or a child of God longing for freedom, restoration, or healing? Do we “trample the poor” by “protecting” our church from them, or by always being busy with “more important” things?
Are we missing chances to delight in, or rest in, or be sustained by God, because they are crowded out by other, small concerns? Do we ever make ourselves and our interests the focus of our worship—my feelings, my experience, my needs? For worship, Isaiah and Jesus remind us, is our corporate delight in God’s acts and character and provision, our response to God’s grace and goodness, in gardening us.
May we never “shrivel up” by missing opportunities to be nurtured by God. May we never fail to delight in God’s provision for us. Or as Hebrews 12:28 puts it: “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by offering to God an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
Let’s pray: God, please help us to heed the words of the prophets and the actions of Jesus as we seek the appropriate attitude toward worship, and the Sabbath, and the people around us, especially those in need of our assistance. Help us to choose the “fast,” the worship, the Christian life that you choose, that you value. Amen.