Luke 7:18-22, Isaiah 58:6-11
Dr. Anne M. Cameron
July 10, 2011
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
It has been said that Jesus Christ was not a very religious person. It could be argued that he was not a very observant Jew, either. Think about all the times Jesus did not follow the Jewish dietary laws, the times he repeatedly broke the Sabbath rules, the times he associated with those who were ritually (and actually) unclean. He touched lepers, the lame, Samaritans, dead bodies, and (most shocking of all) women. All of these actions were forbidden to observant Jews. Jesus didn't seem too impressed with the religious authorities of his time, nor was he put off by religious persons of a despised denomination---Samaritans. Though he was arguably the most spiritual of persons, Jesus was probably not all that impressed with religion.
The difference between religiosity and spirituality is clear today in both of the scriptures we just heard. The difference between 'talkin' the talk' and 'walkin' the walk' is laid out in spades. In the gospel of Luke, John's followers wonder: Is Jesus the Messiah they have been hoping for? John wonders, too. So when they crowd up to Jesus and ask him the big question, "Are you the one?" his answer is fascinating. It is fascinating not only in what he does say, but in what he does not. Jesus doesn't go into his pedigree. He doesn't go into what he knows. He doesn't spout off about what all the prophets said and how his birth fulfilled that. No.
What he says is simply this, "Look around. What have you seen? What have you heard? Blind people can read again, lame people have thrown away their wheelchairs and are dancing in the streets. The sick have a clean bill of health. The deaf no longer need their hearing aids. Dead people are alive again, and poor people finally have some good news to come home to. Look around. What do you see? What do you hear? You tell me. Am I the one?"
Likewise we see this contrast between religiosity and spirituality in this gorgeous passage from Isaiah. This is stunning poetry, yes, but it is also chilling. Isaiah chastises the hypocrisy of those most religious. Chapter 58 of Isaiah deals with the theme of what constitutes authentic religion. Is it to be found in fasting, worship, and other religious practice? The prophet is perfectly clear. Simply going through religious motions is not enough. It is especially not enough when God's broken people are neglected, which was happening in Israel. Isaiah tells God's people they are busy with the "wrong kind of religion." Instead, they should be concerned with a deeper spirituality rooted in caring for the material needs of others. God cares more about our taking care of those in need than in our religious piety.
When we care for others' material needs: food, shelter, clothing, freedom from oppression---we make a difference for Christ. We live in obedience to both the word of God which we find in scripture and to the spirit of Christ who emphasized action over talk.
There is so much here that runs against our culture, both our larger culture and even our church culture. As an institution, the church has sometimes been more concerned about rules and self-preservation than about people, especially those outside the church. It's not easy to be generous with strangers. It's unpleasant to encounter people in desperate need. It's heartbreaking and depressing. It's overwhelming to think about our commitments to care for others expanding far beyond our own circle of friends and family.
God knew this. Jesus knew this. The wonderful thing is, God knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows these kinds of actions give us life. When we give, we receive far more than we ever give. Our hearts are enlarged and our capacity to love multiplies. That's because when we give, we connect with God's purpose for us. Discerning God's purpose is crucial if we are going to live in God's joy. As it says in Proverbs: "The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established." (Proverbs 19:21)
And there's more here in Isaiah. God promises when we do these good things---when we make a difference in the lives of the hungry, or the oppressed, or the poor wanderer---then our light shall break forth like the dawn. Then our righteousness will go before us. I want my light to shine, and I know you do, too! I want my righteousness to go before me, like a red carpet, rolled out a ready, and I know you do too! God is near when we do these things. We get to begin living our eternal life here and now when we do these things. Not just someday after we die, but now, we get to experience God's peace and joy. We were created to be givers. That's why it feels so good when we give!
Yesterday the Session and Staff participated in a vision planning meeting. We were each asked to write down our dream for LHPC. I was particularly struck by the comments of one woman who said she wants LHPC to be known in Lake Highlands for making a difference in our community. We felt we want to be a vibrant missional presence in Lake Highlands. This is what Isaiah is talking about!
I was out of the office during the week. Early this morning I pulled my stack of mail out of my mailbox. There was a letter waiting for me, from someone in prison. I set it aside, but something urged me to open it right before I came into worship. I think that was the Holy Spirit. It was a letter from a prisoner telling me the need that prisoners have for the Good News of Jesus, for a comforting word from those outside prison, asking for people to write letters to prisoners. In his letter he said, "you can make a difference to someone in prison. You can bring a badly needed ray of hope." I think this was a message for us this morning, something we can do to fulfill God's purpose for us. If this is something that you think you can do, please let me know or write it down on the back of the Communication Card.
I especially love verse 11 in this passage in Isaiah. In it the prophet tells us of God's promise to us, what God will do when we obey his command to make a difference in the lives of others in need. "And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones, and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail."
When we care for others, God builds up our own strength for the hard times. God provides deeper and deeper spiritual wells for us when we walk the walk. Here in the hot days of July, when most of the state around us suffers profound, unprecedented drought, we can relate.
Is your own life scorched?
Are your bones brittle and weak?
Is your garden eking by with practically no water?
Do you feel your life counts for very little?
Then God has an answer for you. God has a solution, and God has a promise. God says: "Feed my people. Take care of the suffering. Make room for the person who has no place to go. Work against injustice in every form. Give clothing to someone with nothing."
And when you do, you will be strengthened, and fed, and comforted. When you do, you will make a difference, a difference which allows you to outlive your life, a difference which brings joy and peace.
Jesus wasn't a particularly religious person, if you think about rules and regulations and formalized worship. He was, however, profoundly spiritual and profoundly concerned with the material needs of others.
When our religion and our life is oriented to Jesus' way, the world will be fed, injustice will stop, God's children will be loved, and we too will outlive our life.