Last week we celebrated Pentecost, and considered what the Pentecost text in Acts chapter 2 might mean for us today. You’ll remember that the ‘believers’ were able to communicate the good news of Jesus in languages that they had not previously known or learnt. These languages allowed the good news of Jesus to cross cultural boundaries to a broader audience. We talked about the different boundaries that exist today: non-belief, antagonism, bad experiences and deep hurts; some people not having even heard of Jesus or seen a credible witness to him. And we also talked about the sort of ‘language’ which would help us connect, relate and share the good news today. We mentioned the language of love, the language of compassion, and the language of hope.
There is another ‘language’ too … that is tied up in today’s reading from Isaiah 58. We can well reflect back on the ancient prophet Isaiah, because Jesus himself often fulfilled and typified these writings. When Jesus wants to explain the nature of his mission and ministry (to those gathered in the synagogue in Luke 4), he partly quotes from this passage (v.6). Isaiah often pointed out how God’s people were going wrong, and the poor affect this was having in the general community. So where many people think that the church has let them down, or worse, has hurt them, then we have to listen to these words of Isaiah (and apply them to our particular context). I think that this text should both challenge and inspire us to speak the ‘language’ of integrity.
2. Proper Fasting
Isaiah refers here to “fasts”, and choosing the right sort of “fast”. A “fast” is generally seen as a commitment to a sacrifice of some kind, i.e. doing without, usually food, in connection with prayer, mourning or repentance, and in the quest for God’s blessing. However such “fasts” could, and often did, become mere religious rituals (where people would “fast” just for the sake of it or to be seen “fasting”). Jesus himself criticised the boastful nature of some of those who were “fasting”, who were only seeking to draw attention to themselves. In this way, “fasting” was no longer connected to the broader issues of life, and to morals and ethics, and thus was seen to be empty and wasted. So Isaiah connects the act of “fasting” to the unchallenged existence of injustice. One cannot make a big thing of their “fasting” (or their spiritual commitment) if it is not connected to the alleviation of people’s struggles.
True fasting and genuine repentance should be connected with turning away from self-indulgence and greed. Isaiah saw people, in this case employers, pretending to spiritually “fast”, while ignoring the exploitation of workers; earlier in chapter 58 we read “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (Is.58:3b). Such lack of integrity, and lack of credibility, will not please God, and will not win any fans. There is a big difference between ‘ritual fasting’ or going through habitual religious motions, to true and complete repentance that leads on to practical fruit. How often has the church self-righteously worried about the specks in the eyes of others while missing the logs in their own eyes.
If, however, on the other hand, our “fasting”, i.e. our sense of commitment and relationship to God, leads us to help those who are struggling, then look at the potential! Structure: verses 6-7 and then 9b-10a speak of the practical activity that comes out of a commitment to God, while verses 8-9a and then 10b-12 speak of the results. There is a clear connection between our actions in response to need … and the credibility of our witness to Jesus.
It is verse 12 that most excites me! This is another “Pentecost” possibility – seeing the old “ruins” being rebuilt into something that counts, building up a “foundation” for future generations, being the “repairer of the breach” and the “restorer of streets” (v.12). We shall come back to this.
There are other great benefits listed first! As we “fast” i.e. wait upon God and properly set priorities, then:
· our light shall break forth out of the darkness like the dawn;
· even our more difficult times will shine out because of the way we handle them (“your gloom will be like the noonday” – v.10b);
· our capacity for healing and durability shall quickly spring up – first, our own healing (The Lord will “make your bones strong” – v.11); and secondly our capacity to offer pathways of healing and durability to others;
· it will be obvious that we are following a gracious giving God (“your vindicator shall go before you”), and the shadow that we cast or the reflection that we offer … will be the glory of the Lord (v.8);
· when we are dry or thirsty, we shall become “like a watered garden” … blossoming, flourishing (v.11) – streams of ‘living water’ refresh parched and fragile places;
· also, there will be various obvious and ground-breaking answers to our prayers – God will be clearly present with us guiding us (v.9,11). Our prayers, coupled with the right heart responses that back them up, will surely be effective. There will be something of a free-flowing relationship with God (Motyer). If … if … if!
3. The Language of Integrity
If … if … if!! If we respond holistically!!!
‘Loosing’ the “bonds of injustice” … is really about responding to things that just are NOT right. Light can only shine where ‘evil’ is renounced! For example:
· there are more people in slavery in the world today than ever before; there are political prisoners – in jail for simply having a different opinion; there are those under religious persecution; there are those living in refugee camps and detention centres who are ‘stateless’ and no one wants them; there are those living under incredible poverty;
· there are the hungry who need to be fed; the poor who need clothes; there are the homeless who need to be welcomed, given accommodation and hospitality, offered a home and family (bit of a challenge the way this is put – v.7 … “bring the homeless poor into your house”);
· also, there are our own family members who need us – v.7 … “and not to hide yourself from your own kin”, and in some cases families need to be reunited;
· and, there is also something here about creating the environment in which quality relationships can be built (v.9b) – this involves desisting from “pointing the finger” and “speaking evil”. “Pointing the finger” in judgment, and being critical of others, is usually based around self-interest, and lifting up ourselves over others. This discouragement can be the beginning of a new oppression for others, as they start to suffer under the weight of such negative assessments. This is NOT consistent with the grace that we should be known for. James puts it this way, “From the same mouth come[s] blessing and cursing … this ought not to be so” (3:10)!
“The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept.” (This quote from a message from the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO, to the Australian Army following the announcement on Thursday, 13 June 2013 of civilian police and defence investigations into allegations of unacceptable behaviour by Army members.)
This is also about fighting entrenched injustice – like William Wilberforce did in the case of slavery, and Martin Luther King in the case of racism and civil rights, Nelson Mandela with apartheid; like Mother Teresa did for the starving of Calcutta, and Malcolm Fraser with Vietnamese refugees. Many other examples.
We need to be thinking about foreign aid, about closing the gap in terms of aboriginal disadvantage, about what needs to change to address family violence. You could easily add to this.
4. An Outstanding Vision (v.12)
It is in verse 12 that we see grand new possibilities built out of the ‘language’ of integrity. This is so important when we see people having such a struggle with life. To have a church community which is widely known as a place where help (of various natures) can be found is something to aspire to.
(a) Whenever the ancient people of Israel were defeated by foreign enemies, their physical and spiritual home in Jerusalem was often ransacked and destroyed. Whenever they returned from a period of exile, they had the opportunity of rebuilding both their material and spiritual lives. Old “ruins” could be rebuilt. No matter how bad things get for people, there is always a chance for a re-birth. All the learnings from the past are compiled into a structure that will count for much in the future. Where people are released from what has held them back, there can be bright new horizons.
(b) This then leads to a good, solid and healthy “foundation” being built for future generations. Everything we do in this church will either build a good foundation for the future, or not!
(c) The ‘language of integrity’ not only can heal the past and build for the future, but it can significantly impact on the present, e.g. being a “repairer of the breach”. A “breach” is some sort of separation or breakdown – a breakdown of relationship or structure or sense of well-being … some form of human brokenness. To be able to have some role in repairing what has been previously broken is a great ministry. There is that saying about ‘stepping into the breach’; this is giving help in a crisis (where others are lacking the required resources).
(d) And being the “restorer of streets”, not only suggests a positive impact on various individual homes, but also bringing healing to relationships between neighbours, and right throughout segments of the community. This involves being good listeners, interpreters, integrators, reconcilers and relational bridge-builders. This is indeed being the light that shines like the brilliantly lit city built up high on a hill (Matthew 5:14).