Sermon Seed: Break Forth
Sunday, February 5, 2023
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) • Psalm 112:1-9 (10) • 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16) • Matthew 5:13-2
Thrill and Rejoice (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Sometimes, God speaks in maddening mystery. Like riddles, we have to speculate and interpret meaning from imagery and statements that can have multiple understandings. Those times force the hearer and reader to wait, they test our patience, and they may lead to actions taken in haste by frustrated and confused people who lack the trust to endure the mystery until revelation comes. This passage is not like that.
The Holy One dictates a message to the prophet, not just in content but also in delivery and tone. God is deeply displeased, in fact, they appear to be angry at the rebellious people and want Isaiah to convey that emotional response by shouting the message like a trumpet. As an instrument, the trumpet is demanding to play. It requires the full lung capacity of the trumpeteur. So we can surmise that God wanted Isaiah to project the message with his full breath. “Do not hold back!” the Holy One admonishes. In addition, the trumpet only plays one note at a time. This is a focused message to be delivered forcefully. There’s no ambiguity in content nor softening in tone. God is determined that no one can claim they did not receive the message.
Like other passages that chastise the wayward nation, these words serve an indictment. The principle charge appears to be hypocrisy and disingenuousness. It seems to be a recurring phenomena that God is less offended by actual sin as much as the failure to confront the truth of it. It’s the pretense of righteousness that causes the most visceral responses from the Holy One. The life and ministry of Jesus was consistent with this pattern. When Jesus encountered a person who had sinned, his response was compassionate and grace-filled. When he encountered those who cloaked themselves in false piety and distorted religious practices, he turned over tables and raised his voice in rebuke.
This passage is ripe with rebuke for manufactured and empty appearance of righteousness in a community lacking love, community, and compassion:
Chapters 56–66 (TI) are set in Yehud (a term for Judah as a Persian province) after the exiles return to begin life in what remained of their ravaged homeland. The returnees, the Diaspora, include those who left Babylonia as well others who were exiled elsewhere after the destruction of Jerusalem. They joined people who remained in the land after 587 and eked out an existence with no infrastructure: no economic security, no food, and no governing bodies….
disagreements reach a high pitch. Factions argue about who is in charge, what is considered evidence of faith, what rules govern worship, and who is allowed to participate in this new community. One group emphasizes an inclusive viewpoint, accepting participation by all regardless of ethnicity or background. Another is more exclusive in perspective, especially with respect to foreigners and the indigenous populace.
Chapters 56–59 describe bitter conflicts in the newly constituted Yehud….
Chapters 58–59 return to the theme of the divided community and inadequate ritual behaviors. The issue in 58:1–9 is the efficacy of fasting. People protest that, while they fast and humble themselves, God does not acknowledge their acts. However, their behaviors belie the significance of fasting: they oppress their workers, quarrel with one another, and engage in acts of violence. An air of sarcasm and impatience underlies God’s accusations that they fast only for show. God redefines fasting as acts of social justice: freeing the oppressed; sharing food with the hungry, homes with the homeless, clothes with the naked; and satisfying needs of the afflicted (58:6–7, 10). The grievous nature of the people’s offenses intensifies in 59:1–4. Their hands are filled with blood, and they speak lying words; they have corrupted the court system. God’s defense is that their own sins prevent them from seeing God’s face and hearing God’s word.
Chris A. Franke
The indictment found in God’s chastisement is not for minor discretions and individual sins. This community suffers from pervasive immorality and abandonment of their covenantal relationship with the Holy One:
The greater part of this chapter (vv. 1-12) is dedicated to a sociomoral admonishment against the nation’s conduct, specifically their lack of abstinence from commerce on communal fast days (the reference is most likely to the Day of Atonement; see below). The nation accuses God of being inattentive to their pleas, despite, according to them, their genuine attempt to seek Him. They claim that they fulfill all their cultic obligations, yet the Lord remains unresponsive. In reply to their bitter complaint, however, the Deity Himself accuses the nation of hypocrisy and asserts that a true fast, i.e., “a fast acceptable to Him;’ is not solely a series of prescribed perfunctory rituals, but must be accompanied companied by a true moral reversal and by addressing social injustice. How can they be “eager to learn My ways” (v. 2), when on these very fast days “they see to their business and oppress all laborers” (v. 3)? The fast God desires is to provide food to the destitute, who have no choice but to fast. There is no intrinsic value to their mortification if it is not accompanied by aid and succor to the oppressed pressed and by “unlocking the fetters of wickedness” (v. 6). The Lord will answer His supplicants only when they respond, in turn, to the calls of the needy. God desires right, not rites.
Shalom M. Paul
The people are broken. The community is broken. The nation is broken. Broken is not limited to those in need, although their well-being is prioritized by the Holy One, who centers those placed on the margins. Those who oppress reflect their own brokenness through their immoral acts and lack of compassion. Fasting will not fix what is broken in the oppressor, and fasting is not intended as an end but as a means. The point is not to fast but to heal and restore. Fasting enables those engaging in the spiritual disciple to be freed of distractions that pull us away from God. But what happens when fasting is used to serve as a distraction to push God away from us…and our willful acts?
The allusion to sins (Is 58:1) and evil (Is 58:9) suggests that Trito-Isaiah was concerned with the issues of morality or what moral philosophers call metaethics….Moreover, the concepts of humaneness and wholeness are viewed as being integral to Ubuntu in South African scholarly literature (Ramose 2014:124). That is, because epistemology is empty without practice; the view that ethics and morality provide a practical content to epistemology seems to be plausible. This means the idea of humaneness and wholeness in Ubuntu is inseparable from the issues of ethics and morality, as Ramose (2014:124) would argue. It would be reasonable to assume then that one of the concerns among the addressees of Isaiah 58 is related to ‘humaneness’ and ‘wholeness’, and it is not surprising that the themes of comfort and healing in Isaiah 58 are presented in a holistic manner. Both humaneness and wholeness are presented as emanating from the act of redressing ‘sins’ and ‘evil’. In other words, moral regeneration forms part of holistic restoration in post-exilic Yehud.
Bhele Ndikhokele Mtshiselwa
Sometimes, the break is necessary. This is not to glorify suffering, which may be redeemed but holds no intrinsic redeeming value. God does not desire that we suffer. Jesus was sent into the world to be in the world; his suffering was a predictable outcome but not the aspirational objective of his ministry and mission. What needed to be broken was not his legs, but those things that stand in the way of flourishing of all creation in the kindom of God. What needs breaking are the barriers to God’s vision of beloved community.
I had a friend in grade school who broke his leg. In the process of attempting to repair his leg, somehow the break was not healing properly. The doctors responsible for his care feared they would have to break his leg again in order to reset it. That did not happen for him, but they explained that sometimes you have to break a bone that is not healing properly at the location of the original break. That second break is restorative rather than restorative.
Recently, I have been reading the book The Body Keeps the Score. (Warning: This book addressed trauma in sometimes explicit detail.) The primary thesis of the book, as expressed in the title, is that trauma becomes embodied. We hold it physically and it manifests in physical responses. In order to move toward healing, the original trauma has to be confronted in some way. There are strategies and techniques to make that confrontation more accessible in the midst of tremendous pain…in part by providing enough of a distraction to enable the survivor to gain some distance from what happened to them. But healing requires confrontation.
The passage ends with a promise, proving that even when the Righteous God is angry, God is still compassionate, faithful, and full of grace. If the nation will do the work, restore those in need, and turn back to the will of God, they will “break forth.” The oppressor will heal, but their healing is dependent upon the well-being and restoration of the oppressed. Their flourishing is tied to the elevation of the lowly. Transformation provides and promotes healing of all–the privileged and the marginalized alike. The breaking of the yoke leads to the breaking of the dawn. Like the promise of God’s abiding presence, the hope found in the break endures for us all.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Desmond Tutu, Excerpt of his Nobel Lecture 1984
I come from a beautiful land, richly endowed by God with wonderful natural resources, wide expanses, rolling mountains, singing birds, bright shining stars out of blue skies, with radiant sunshine, golden sunshine. There is enough of the good things that come from God’s bounty, there is enough for everyone, but apartheid has confirmed some in their selfishness, causing them to grasp greedily a disproportionate share, the lion’s share, because of their power. They have taken 87 of the land, though being only about 20 of our population. The rest have had to make do with the remaining 13. Apartheid has decreed the politics of exclusion. 73 of the population is excluded from any meaningful participation in the political decision-making processes of the land of their birth. The new constitution, making provision of three chambers, for whites, coloreds, and Indians, mentions blacks only once, and thereafter ignores them completely. Thus this new constitution, lauded in parts of the West as a step in the right direction, entrenches racism and ethnicity. The constitutional committees are composed in the ratio of 4 whites to 2 coloreds and 1 Indian. 0 black. 2 + 1 can never equal, let alone be more than, 4. Hence this constitution perpetuates by law and entrenches white minority rule. Blacks are expected to exercise their political ambitions in unviable, poverty-stricken, arid, bantustan homelands, ghettoes of misery, inexhaustible reservoirs of cheap black labor, bantustans into which South Africa is being balkanized. Blacks are systematically being stripped of their South African citizenship and being turned into aliens in the land of their birth. This is apartheid’s final solution, just as Nazism had its final solution for the Jews in Hitler’s Aryan madness. The South African Government is smart. Aliens can claim but very few rights, least of all political rights.
In pursuance of apartheid’s ideological racist dream, over 3.000.000 of God’s children have been uprooted from their homes, which have been demolished, whilst they have then been dumped in the bantustan homeland resettlement camps. I say dumped advisedly: only things or rubbish is dumped, not human beings. Apartheid has, however, ensured that God’s children, just because they are black, should be treated as if they were things, and not as of infinite value as being created in the image of God. These dumping grounds are far from where work and food can be procured easily. Children starve, suffer from the often irreversible consequences of malnutrition – this happens to them not accidentally, but by deliberate Government policy. They starve in a land that could be the bread basket of Africa, a land that normally is a net exporter of food.
Read the full speech: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1984/tutu/lecture/
For further reflection
“t’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” – Lena Horne
“A chill wind blew across the frozen water. There was no marker to show where the land ended and the sea began, except for the blocks of solid sea, where the water had frosted over, shifted, then frozen
again. Tiny slabs of ice squatted, stacked like tombstones.
We walked out onto the crusted water. The ice groaned under our feet, the rumble of an Arctic bear, warning as the dark water beneath shifted. We stopped. My heart beat in my throat. I waited for the crack of the ice, the roar of the water.
The world held its breath.” ― Caroline Lea
“Cheers to always bending and breaking and finding pieces that fit.” ― Darnell Lamont Walker
“A fine glass vase goes from treasure to trash, the moment it is broken. Fortunately, something else happens to you and me. Pick up your pieces. Then, help me gather mine.” ― Vera Nazarian
Franke, Chris A. “Isaiah 40-66.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Mtshiselwa, Ndikhokele. “An African Philosophical Analysis of Isaiah 58: A Hermeneutic Enthused by Ubuntu.” Scriptura 116, no. 1 (2017): 1–12. doi:10.7833/116-1-970.
Shalom M. Paul. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the gathered assembly to consider and confront an area of brokenness in the community you are situated. Make space for a time of healing prayer.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) • Psalm 112:1-9 (10) • 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16) • Matthew 5:13-2
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=17