Preaching Isaiah 58 & 59

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For the last six months I’ve spent a lot of my time reading through Isaiah 58 and 59 and writing on how we might preach these texts.  As I was immersed in these words it once again struck me how much God is concerned with social justice issues so I thought I would share portions of a sample sermon I wrote.
‘We often choose to be blind to the things we don’t want to deal with. We choose to be blind to the hard truths of who we are and what we are capable of doing to another. We are afraid of becoming blind, of being vulnerable and yet we are people who grope around thinking we see but we don’t. That’s why God would raise up prophets, people to speak on his behalf, people to shake us up and confront us with the reality of this world. And so the prophets shouted, not holding anything back, again and again declaring to the people- open your eyes and see your sins! Open your eyes and see your sins so you might turn back to God, our healer and life-giver.
The people of Israel in the time of Isaiah thought they could see. They thought they were right with God and they didn’t understand why he seemed so distant. They were in a lot of ways like you and me. They sought him daily and professed to delight in his ways. People who read their Bibles, prayed often, perhaps were part of a small group where they do these things with others, people who loved to sing praises to God as an act of worship, people who believed things like justice is important, who delighted to draw near to God.
Yet God seemed distant.
Have you ever experienced that?
Have you ever found yourself asking-
‘Why have we prayed, and you do not answer? Why we do all these things; read the Bible, come to church, serve others, and it doesn’t even feel like you’re here? Why are you so distant from us?’
Or we could flip the question around ask-
What does God think about our worship? Is he pleased?
That’s a good question to ask. I remember a friend at Uni raising that exact question one night after church. We spend so much time talking about how we experience worship, what we like to see in a church service, but what does God think?
In Isaiah’s time God declared that the people were blind. They thought they were a nation that honoured God. But that is not what God sees. He sees people who are more interested in what helps them- oppressing their workers so they might be richer, getting into fights when things don’t go their way.
Only God can see all things, can penetrate deep into our motives and reasons and know the truth. He knows how genuine our worship is, he knows how easy we forget to live by his ways even though again and again he tells us, and left us the scriptures, still we forget the truth.
God cares about how we live and what type of people we are becoming so he brings truth and direction, Isaiah 58:6-7:
‘Is not this fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the throngs 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 the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’
God wants us to be people who care about others, especially those who are vulnerable. He calls us not to just love our family or our friends but open our eyes wider- to see the world, those who toil and struggle earning less than a dollar a day so we can have cheap clothes, to see the hidden people- the poor, the addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless and then with eyes wide open to open our arms wide and include them in our love. To love the other means engaging at a practical level. There should be a sense of fairness in our interactions with others as we work towards having enough for everyone. This is the world that God is in the business of creating but it is not the world we live in. We pretend to say we value love and justice but the reality bears a different story.
We live in a world where not all children even have access to toilets and they die before their 5th birthday from a disease like diarrhoea while others simply go to hospital and are fine. We live in a world where women are chained to beds forced to be sex slaves while businessmen use them for their pleasure. We live in a world where families perish on the seas travelling on a small boat in search of somewhere safe from violence and persecution while other families say, ‘keep them out’. We live in a world where some people are literally starving because there is not enough food while others are trying to keep a diet and are surrounded by food. We live in a world where kids complain about having to go to school and do assignments and exams while others work ten hours day collecting rubbish and sorting it out.
And we are all complicit.
Isaiah 59:7-8:
‘Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths.’
Every part of us and every one of us participates in creating this world where the guilty go free, where lies disguise the truth, where the stronger one, the one with the all the weapons or the fist wins, the richer get richer and the poor get poorer. We keep the systems going- using all the resources for ourselves; hoarding, stuffing our faces, consuming, putting up our walls to keep our things and wealth nice and secure. It’s like we’re born with this instinct, watch toddlers, how they snatch and grab shouting ‘Mine! Mine! Mine!’ They have to be taught to share. It does not come naturally.
No wonder it’s hard to hear God. No wonder he seems distant we’re too busy hearing our own thoughts to hear anybody else. He sees it all. Isaiah 59:15b-16:
‘Yahweh saw it and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him.’
God is outraged by how we have degraded this world. We have trashed it like little children, stomping over one another, pushing down and shutting out those who are weaker than us. And so like a parent he comes to defend those who cannot defend themselves. He comes to set things right. If nobody else is going to act then he will and it’s going to be terrifying when he acts for he will exact payment on all who are guilty.
There’s just one problem. We’re not the good guys, we’re not the heroes.
Can you acknowledge you are complicit creating a world of injustice? Can you acknowledge you are blind? This is the confession from the people in Isaiah’s day, 59:19-10, 12-13:
‘Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead…for our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities; transgressing and denying Yahweh and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart.’        
If you want to be cured from this blindness that plagues humankind it begins by naming the role you have played in creating such a cruel world. Maybe you can’t see, but you can hear even above our worship music and Christian jargon we like to sprout; there is the sound of people crying, guns been fired, harsh words hurled into the air, whispered backroom deals, the taunts and insults thrown at another, the lies that sound like wisdom, the shouts for ‘help!’, and above it all is God calling out for us to be people who stand with justice and righteousness. And we have to admit that we have tuned out those voices and turned the other way, and we are sorry. It is only when we reach this point that these last words in Isaiah 59:20 bear any hope:
‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion to those in Jacob who turn from transgression’ declares Yahweh.’
The name of our redeemer is Jesus Christ. He came to bring sight to the blind. He came to set the world to right. God knew that we had no hope of fixing this world by ourselves because we are the problem and so he sent Jesus, to be the one to nail our injustice and sin to the cross. He bore our sin and injustice and died so it could be dealt with once and for all. Then God raised him to new life and offers to anyone who turns to Jesus the same deal: their sin put to death and left behind as they are raised to new life, filled with the Spirit of God, transformed to live another way.  God’s way is to be people who care about others more than ourselves. He wants us to be able to see people suffering and come alongside them and love them. God came close, so close we could touch him. So close he touched people’s eyes and healed them.  We too can know that healing by turning to Jesus and joining in the work of Jesus of restoring sight and healing to this whole world. Isaiah 58:9-11:
‘Then you shall call, and Yahweh will answer; you shall cry and he will say, ‘Here I am’. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Yahweh will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden.’
Jesus wants to transform the world. Those of us who know the healing work he has done in our lives, those of us who have our sight restored are called to join in this work. Such a movement of people could change the world. Especially when we know God of truth who is with us giving us all that we need to keep toiling for these good things even when it seems hopeless because we know it is not. Jesus has risen. Death is not the end, good is coming and those in Jesus will be healed and flourish in God’s new creation where all can see and where all are embraced.’
Do you have a social justice sermon you’ve preached recently? I’d love to read or hear it!

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