A sermon given during the 6:00pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould, on the 5th February 2023.
If you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall rise in darkness, and your obscurity be as the noonday. (Isa. 58:10)
Prior to the passage from Isa. 58 which we read tonight, we read of God’s people complaining that they are fasting and yet God is taking no notice. But Isaiah is quick to give them an explanation, pointing out that they are fasting to fulfil a ritual whilst continuing to exploit their workers and to get involved with fights and quarrels.
A verse later Isaiah proclaims:
“isn’t this that fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke.” (Isa:58.6)
To honour this, direction demands a great deal more of God’s people, then and now, than ritual and symbolic fasting, as significant as that can be if it is done with a spiritual intent.
Only yesterday I spoke to a clergy colleague who told me that he has been fasting monthly for a couple of years and had become aware that going without food and tea and coffee had almost become a habit that was relatively easy. He admitted that his real problem was using that fast as an opportunity for prayer and taking time to listen to and respond to God. This is an older priest who I have admired for a long time, and I was humbled by his honesty.
It reminded me of how relatively easy it can be for any of us to get into the habit of coming to church (not that that’s a bad thing!) and to miss or simply dismiss (because they are too hard) the challenges committed to us as Christ’s body in the world. And I definitely include myself in that.
It is no coincidence that in Luke’s gospel, before Jesus begins his active ministry, he proclaims his mission statement based on Isa.58, and Isa.61 where we find the prophet proclaiming:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners,” (Isa. 61:1)
Compare this with what St. Luke writes when Jesus announces:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,” (Lk.4:18)
We find those priorities stated in a different way in the well know and well-loved Beatitudes (Matt.5:1-12)
What then does it mean for us to have good news to preach to the poor? In the context of the passage from Isaiah the better interpretation is poor in spirit, but that doesn’t let us off the hook from caring for those who live in some kind of economic poverty.
Perhaps the good news we have to preach to the poor in spirit is that God can provide something much richer and more durable than the self-worth we can establish through our own sense of self- righteousness.
What does it mean to bind up the broken hearted? Perhaps it refers to those who recognise their personal sin and woundedness, not trying to nullify the pain by comparing themselves favourably with those who may be worse sinners, but accepting themselves for who they are and are willing to open themselves to Christs healing love.
To bring recovery of sight to the blind. In Isaiah this is the equivalent of opening the prison door to those who are bound. For Isaiah, the person in prison could see no light and so were represented as blind. This is probably a reasonable analogy of many prisoners today who have no vision or are ill equipped for life beyond incarceration.
God in Christ can open to prison door that entrap people in all manner of prisons, and thus enlighten them.
To really appreciate the light, we must all have stumbled through darkness. When we are helped to see the light of Christ, we emerge with new understanding based on wisdom and truth.
To set the oppressed free. Perhaps this is our greatest challenge. We see the dramatic and terrifying effects of oppression in wars, conflicts, and harsh political regimes throughout the world. We see oppression through various laws, and punishments most dramatically the punishment of women in places like Afghanistan and Iran, but it happens places closer to home as well. We see the effects of oppression in Alice Springs, due to ongoing deprivation of First Nation peoples, addiction to alcohol, and now in the fear and entrapment of all citizens due to the uncontrolled violence in that city.
But we are not immune. If we are honest, we recognise oppression in our own society and communities, with increasing drug and alcohol addictions, domestic violence, suicides, complaints to the fair work commissioner about wages not paid, rising interest rates and increasing levels of homelessness to say nothing of an over run health system which leaves some of most vulnerable people without timely or appropriate care.
We can’t begin to solve all these issues, but we can reflect on the root causes of some of them and perhaps talk to our local politicians or support someone we know in need.
But the one thing we can do, in a climate when so many people have turned away from faith is to pray for God’s guidance and direction so that we may live our own lives more in accordance with the mission statement and direction of Jesus.
We can seek to change things in our lives which are oppressive to us, or thigs which cause oppression to others, however subtle.
And God promises us a reward. “If you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall rise in darkness, and your obscurity be as the noonday. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. (Isa:10.11b)”
Last Thursday we celebrated Candlemas or The Presentation of Christ to the Temple, which marks the end of the 40 days of Christmas. It is the festival on which we remember the old man Simeon rejoicing as he encounters the One born to be “a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of (God’s) people Israel”.
The Work of Christmas Begins (Michael Dougherty)
When the carols have been stilled,
When the star-topped tree is taken down,
When family and friends are gone home,
When we are back to our schedules
The work of Christmas begins:
To welcome the refugee,
To heal a broken planet,
To feed the hungry,
To build bridges of trust, not walls of fear,
To share our gifts,
To seek justice and peace for all people,
To bring Christ’s light to the world.