Pentecost 9: 11 August 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 1:1,10-20

Psalm 50:1-8,23-24

Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

Luke 12:32-20

The opening words of the prophet Isaiah set his ministry firmly in the context of four kings – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Beginning, as Isaiah did, at the end of the very long reign of King Uzziah, and speaking through a relatively peaceful period extending over forty or more years, we might expect that Isaiah’s words would reflect this settled period of life for the ancient Hebrew people. And to some extent they did – but perhaps not quite as they would have liked. It’s difficult to know accurately what life was like so long ago, but it does appear to have been a relatively prosperous and peaceful age. Reading between the lines there was enough peace and prosperity for the worship life of the people to take off.

The turbulent years of two centuries before – the time of the first kings Saul, David and Solomon – were long gone. The temple in Jerusalem had become increasingly important and, as has happened in the case of St Peter’s Cathedral, the physical aspect of the temple had been enhanced by decorations, carvings, tapestries and the like, presumably given by grateful parishioners. The same was true of the worship. It takes a while for a good team of sacristans and servers, choir and stewards, welcomers and flower arrangers to be brought together and to function as well as those here do. On one level, all was well in the Judah of Isaiah’s day.

And yet, as is clear from today’s reading from Isaiah 1: 10 ff, things were not as God would want them. Sure, there was beautiful worship. Sure, the correct sacrifices, accompanied by plenty of incense, were offered; carefully crafted prayers offered; and politically correct language used. But all was not well. Somewhere it seemed that God’s people had missed the mark.

A generation before Isaiah, some 800 years before the time of Jesus Christ, a new message began to be given to God’s people. Prophets like Amos and Hosea focused on what we today call social justice – the care of all members of society, especially those less well off than others. In biblical terms these less well-off can be encapsulated in the term ‘widows and orphans’. Knowing that background today’s reading from Isaiah begins to make sense. Yes, says Isaiah, your worship is near perfect but actually, that is not what God wants. Or perhaps, not the only thing that God wants. As a whole the Bible does not suggest there should be no worship of God. There are many many passages where the worship of God is encouraged, and God’s people are encouraged to come together in worship.

But worship alone is sterile. From Isaiah’s perspective worship alone is not enough – no matter how correct, or beautiful, or awe-inspiring. Way back in the history of the relationship between God and God’s people is the idea that God heard the cry of an oppressed people. Not only did God hear the cry, but God did something about it. God sent Moses to rescue them, to lead them out of bondage and, eventually, into a promised land. Described as a land flowing with milk and honey the people were urged never to forget that they had once been nobodies, without land, aliens. Year after year, as part of the harvest thanksgiving liturgy, these people were reminded that “my father was a wandering Aramean … and we cried to the Lord …and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” (cf Deut 26: 5ff)

Embedded in the story of the people of God, and seen as a required outcome of true worship, of true keeping of Torah, the Ten Commandments, was the care of the poor, the downtrodden, the destitute. So God, through Isaiah, can say, as we heard today, “Wash your hands; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Notice the strong verbs, the strong action words: wash, make clean, remove evil, cease to do evil. And then the tone changes to one more positive: learn, seek, rescue, defend, plead. The first negative verbs are all to do with what I am doing – and so must stop doing. The next set of positive action words are what I/we do for others. In other words, the focus shifts from how wonderful I am, and what lovely worship we offer to God, to our care for those less fortunate than ourselves.

Uncomfortable words yes, but this is also at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus when he preached the kingdom of God. This year we are focusing on Luke’s Gospel. You will, I am sure, remember that Luke has Jesus quote another passage from Isaiah at the start of Jesus’s public ministry. From Isaiah 61 we read

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners; …

At last weekend’s Deans’ Conference in Brisbane we heard Dave Andrews tell something of his story. For decades now Dave has read the Beatitudes daily, that list of ‘Blesseds’ found in both Matthew and Luke. He has been living intentionally with the Beatitudes as a daily life-guide. In fact, he talks about the Be-Attitudes. The attitudes for being Christian; the attitudes for living.

Is there something of this in today’s Gospel reading where Jesus talks about being dressed for action, lamps lit, like those waiting for their master to return? The ‘little flock’ who follow God’s way, those called by Jesus, baptized into His name, are challenged in a similar way to the people of Isaiah’s day. Just last week we heard of the rich man who built bigger and better barns to store all his money and possessions – all to no avail. With that story in the background Jesus goes on to tell his followers to ‘sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses … that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.’

These particular verses, Luke 12: 32 – 40, look towards the end days, towards what is sometimes called heaven. But of course, we have no idea when heaven is to come. Jesus exhorts his followers, his disciples, to be ready at all times – like the alert householder ready to meet the intruder no matter it be the middle of the night or dawn!

The two biblical passages we are offered today may be separated by hundreds of years in the writing, and thousands of years before we read them, but there is a common message. True worship of God is not self-centred but is other-centred. True worship takes into consideration the widows and orphans. True worship inspires a sitting lightly with the things of this world – yes, our so-called worldly goods which include the latest fashion trends, regular soy lattes and passionately held views on footy scores. True worship of God involves a turning to God, a regular re-focusing of attention, returning to the correct compass bearing; it includes turning away from, repenting and renouncing what is not God or of God. It is like being washed clean; like stepping from darkness into light. These powerful baptism symbols suggest a life focused on God and on the ones particularly close to God’s heart – the ‘widows and orphans’.

There are a number of practical ways we can do this. In the Cathedral context there is the opportunity to support the Magdalene Centre through regular giving of foodstuffs – those brought up to the altar each week, or perhaps volunteering during the week. There is also the way in which we make this sacred space available to all who enter the doors – the hospitality we offer simply by being here, as well as by reaching out and speaking to those alongside whom we worship. Next Sunday we will be invited to make a commitment to Planned Giving, the organized way in which we give money to support the mission and ministry of this Cathedral. That may seem to be at odds with Isaiah’s message, but perhaps not. True worship, beautiful awe-inspiring worship, God-focused worship, will encourage us to reach out with Jesus’s hands, feet, arms and voice, to the world around us. This, after all, is the call of our baptism; a call we reaffirm each time we approach the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ – so generously given to all who come to Him with open hearts.