Epiphany Series: What Does the Lord Require of Us?
A Radical Shift
Prior to our wedding in 2007, Kevin and I thought we knew each other well. We thought we knew what each other liked. We thought we knew our routines. We thought we could predict the needs and wants of the other. Making it official would be so easy, right? Well not quite. Our journey of learning had hardly started. . .
This was a lesson that each of us clearly learned the first summer we were married. After being gone for a week at a work conference, I came home, eager to have some down time and a relaxing evening. I was looking forward to catching up with Kevin about the week’s events. All my expectations for my homecoming centered around sitting down at the table together and sharing a casual dinner of conversation. Time, is a love language for me, I assumed it was Kevin’s . . .
Instead, what he did to show that he missed me over the course of the week, being the good newlywed that he was his efforts centered around landscaping the yard. He took a day off of work. He planted flowers. He removed the leaves in the backyard that I had not raked the previous fall out of lack of interest. He just knew I’d love the way the yard looked and how clean it was on the inside as well.
But the thing was I really didn’t notice at all. Instead, upon pulling up to our house, I wondered why we were having houseguests for the evening (some college boys who were doing a service trip in DC) which meant I wouldn’t get my nice dinner with him alone. Acts of service toward our yard and clean kitchen and bathroom sinks really weren’t my idea of love (though now I acknowledge the error of my newlywed ways in discouraging him and we are trying to still learn).
Confusion about the expectations of showing love, as our household has experienced them as I’m sure yours has too, is nothing new under the sun. Not only, I believe have countless other relationships like ours struggled with what it means to show acceptable love in the other’s eyes, but in the difficulty of what it means show love to God. Asking the question like we are doing for the next couple of weeks in our services, “What does the Lord require of us?” is another way of saying, “How does God know that I love God?”
The residents of Jerusalem, newly returned from exile, were answering such a question as described in Isaiah 58 with the word, “fasting.” They felt that God would truly feel pleased with them, honor them, and pat them on the back saying, “good job, good job” because they were participating in the prescribed fasts plus some. Withholding form their diet their normal patterns of receiving daily food and nutrients as a way to show their devotion to the Lord.
Though fasting is known from our modern religious landscape as a practices quite typical to the most devout, in this ancient time, such was not the case. While there is mention in scripture of incidences where fasting was a part of a time of preparation and/or repentance in the life of a leader, fasting wouldn’t have been something that every person a part of the Jewish faith at that time would have regularly participated in.
However, at such a time as this, when the land and the future of the land was in chaos—Isaiah speaks of the people’s fascination and participation in this practice as the thing they thought would make them seem really committed.
If you’ve ever tried fasting for religious purposes, or even read about people who do, you realize that fasting is no small thing. Fasting is more than writing a check to a non-profit, showing up at something for a good cause or even bowing your head in prayer. Rather, fasting is actually a radical act of completely given over to God your entire bodily needs and desires in order to be full of something else.
In a religious fast, though it can be done different ways—with water, without water, with juices—the methods are all encompassing. For you simply can’t wake up and decide one morning, “Today I am going to fast” and it not completely change the outlook on your day and your activities therein: fasting is making a commitment of complete awareness to something greater than your own self and its needs. And while physical needs of food and water are important, in a fast, the dependence on food and water is shifted to spiritual needs.
With this said, the Israelites, had reason, don’t you think to be proud of themselves for fasting? And, the way Isaiah speaks of their practice it was more than a one-time only occasion: it was a regular occurrence. Such makes my admiration of their devotion go up, doesn’t it yours?
The real shocker though, was that such didn’t really matter to God in this case. The fasting was nice and all . . . . but there was one HUGE problem with their fasting. Like my lack of admiration in yard work, so was how God felt about their fasting. It wasn’t what God required of them. It wasn’t center stage to what a life of discipleship was all about.
The life God was calling the people too would be radical but it wouldn’t be a radical stand alone act, rather it would be a rather shift of how they saw and treated their neighbors.
Consider this: when you and I began a journey of faith (or begin to take it seriously for the first time as an adult), we shift our lives to the love and forgiveness and teachings of Jesus. We realized a need for “something bigger than us.” We knew we needed a change.
Yet, when such a shift toward faith in Christ is made, I dare say for most of us the expectations go something like this: “Come to church. Get involved with something at church—a study, a service project. Give your money. Pray when you can. Get to know the Bible.” And as we get in the motions of entering this kind of faith, we might begin to feel that our acts of devotion are no more than robotic gestures that make us feel like a good person from time to time. We study, we pray, we serve, we give simply because “It is the right thing to do.”
However, what Isaiah was saying to the Israelites and what I believe he might be saying to us in this Christian culture is thank you for your devotion, thank you for shifting your lives closer to things of God but if you want to know what I truly require of you, then know your life’s direction will radically change. Don’t be scared, though, it’s a direction that will be oh so fulfilling for you and oh so pleasing to me. Why? Because more of MY light, instead of just yours, will shine on this earth.
“Radical” such is a word that I know congers up in us images that we dare not go toward. Radical extremists, radical choices, radical religion are among topics we most like to avoid. Moderate, progressive and gradual change are all the more pleasing terms.
Yet, modeled after the concept of fasting, where the Israelites were already devoting themselves to God with their bodily urges for nourishment, we are invited to such an all encompassing shift, not just on “fast day” but every day.
This “every day” Isaiah was prescribing included becoming a socially aware person, functioning not as an island, or on their church as an island, but a citizen in the larger world—deeply connected to everyone in whom they encountered.
Look with me at verse 6: “Is not this the fast I choose: to lose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” And Isaiah goes on in verse 7 to say this: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?”
The Lord was saying, come see, my people that a life of faith is not solely about what religious devotion you can muster up to me in private, but come participate in the radical act of seeing others in the community as beloved children of God, just as they are to me. For the people could not go to temple with a smile on their face after completing a fast, which is an individual act, and then go to work the next day and oppress their employees. Because when you do, you’ll begin to want to re-order the finances, time and priorities of your life to think not only of yourself and your family but these folks as well.
Two weeks ago, while in an Israeli settlement outside of Jerusalem our Interfaith travel group had the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Mark Cohen, an orthodox Rabbi, living in an intentional community of Jewish prayer and study with over 50 families.
Politically living in an Israeli “settlement” where Rabbi Cohen and his wife and eight children dwell with him is a complicated act. Such land is not technically his or his Jewish neighbors according to International law or the Palestinians who used to dwell there. Yet, Rabbi Cohen is not the kind of guy to bother himself with the politics of boundary lines and land disputes, for him, while his choice of residence by nature IS a political statement, his greatest desire is to study the ancient texts and teach them to his people in a rural setting.
As part of our visit to Rabbi Cohen’s community, we were graciously invited into his home and prepared tea and snacks by his wife. As we reclined at his kitchen table, we were among some of the first Christians and Muslims he’d ever received into his residence. Rarely did he ever meet his Arab neighbors, talk to them and even went on to say, “I don’t know why the Arabs want our land so badly. God gave it to us long ago through the covenant it is ours and I really have nothing else to say about that.”
Eager to connect with him about something he cared about, John, the non-denominational pastor on our trip quickly pulled out his Bible. He turned to Isaiah and read some words from this book which are a lot like our text for this morning from verse 8: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring forth quickly.” Pastor John asked Rabbi Cohen what he thought of this text saying, “In conversation with what you just said about your Arab neighbors and as this text speaks of the Jewish people being a light, a light for Gentiles to see, how do you feel you are being a light to your neighbors?”
This talkative Rabbi was stunned to have been asked such a question . . . . I don’t think he’d ever really thought of his neighbors like this . . . and was speechless.
Though none of us in this room live in a Jewish settlement community that is causing us to have land wars with our neighbors about disputes that go back to ancient times, I dare say, Pastor John’s questionings might offer us some direction about the radical shift of lifestyle that following Christ’s teaching might be asking us to make.
For if we are going to truly be disciples, not just religious observers, then we are going to have to begin thinking more about our neighbors—all of them. And, if we don’t know where to start, it is always good to think about who lives and works closest to us.
And while our choices to spend more time out of our normal patterns of work and play might be costly (we might have less time for friends who are just like us, we might lose money as we are moved to share with those who have less than we do, we might lose our naivety of being a insulated citizen of America as stories like the one we’ve been watching all we about Egypt become a part of our heart), the call to relate to one another in love remains the same.
For me, I’ve become more convicted over the last week that following Jesus for me over the next season of my life is going to including strengthening more friendships with people who are not like me on the surface— breaking down labels of “poor” “Hispanic” “Muslim” “un-religious” and the list could go on.
I can’t let the friendships I made on a 10 day trip be just that, a 10 day trip where I check off the box in my life, “engaged in interfaith work.” No, if I truly think that God is calling me, calling our community to break the bonds of injustice in any way it can be done, then I have to continue to have my life transformed through relationships with others, especially those who are Muslim and Jewish. It’s a radical shift for me to integrate this into my life patterns.
And today, I ask you to prayerfully examine what God’s radical call of discipleship might be for you. Who might you need to get to know? Who might you need to re-connect with? Who might you need to honor? Who might you need to give your money to?
Because after all, didn’t Jesus say, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” It’s light my friends, it’s joy my friends, it’s peace my friends that is going to come from you and not being the people who are going through the motions of faith, yet another year, but instead, laying down what is comfortable and picking up what is of God. and as the Psalmist once said, “how good and blessed it is when brothers and sisters dwell together.”
And, an opportunity to know God is here today where we remember the most radical shift made of all—here at this table. Here we are invited to receive what was broken for us, not just for the sake of being broken, but given in love so that God’s light might shine to all people. So today, let us gather and shift our hearts to taste and see that God is good beginning here right now, in the eyes of the diversity of one another.