St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 112.1-10; 1 Corinthians 2.1-16; Matthew 5.13-20
In this season of Epiphany, we have focused on Jesus as light coming into the world. Two weeks ago, we noted the personal and universal implications of Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. Belief in Jesus Christ assures our personal salvation but there is so much more to consider. Christ’s Advent serves as an axial event in human history, for Christ’s life calls us to a new morality which will ultimately lead to a new social order grounded in the Kingdom of God.
Last Sunday we considered Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation at the temple. The gospel called us to rejoice with Simeon in the recognition of the long-promised Messiah. We now begin to consider some of the central features of Jesus message and ministry as he begins to teach his disciples. Today’s readings set the stage for Jesus’ teaching and ministry.
In Isaiah 58, we encounter the prophetic call to righteousness. Isaiah is addressing God’s people following their return from the Babylonian captivity. These were difficult times – many had fallen away and were half-heartedly serving God. Isaiah depicts God as saying: “Shout out, do not hold back! … Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58.1; NRSV). Speaking for God, Isaiah declares that although some still seek God, and continue to petition God for righteous judgments, they wonder why God does not notice their fasting and answer their prayers. Does any of this sound familiar? The words of Isaiah apply to many times and many people – perhaps even to us.
How does God answer? “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58.3b-4; NRSV).
What does God want? What does God expect? While the people may fast from food, God desires they fast from unrighteousness, from living by the standards of this world. Listen to these words of the prophet:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs 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? (Isaiah 58.6-7; NRSV)
And how will God respond? Isaiah tells us the benefits of such a fast: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call and the Lord will answer: you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am” (Isaiah 58.8-9a; NRSV). We find much the same message in James 5.16: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (NRSV).
And what does the appointed psalm tell us about those who choose to live and love in righteousness? “Hallelujah! Happy (Blessed) are they who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments! . . . Wealth and riches will be in their house, and their righteousness will last forever” (Psalm 112.1, 3; BCP). The wealth and riches may or may not be worldly wealth, but those who follow God’s commandments have spiritual wealth in God’s Kingdom! Such as these are generous in lending and freely give to the poor (Vss. 5, 9).
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul tells us the spiritually mature have wisdom and speak it; the rulers of this age do not understand such wisdom, for if they had, Christ would not have been crucified. Paul quotes Psalm 31.19 when he tells us no one has seen, heard, or conceived “what God has prepared for those who love him” (2.9; NRSV). The good which God has prepared for us is only known through the Spirit who “searches everything, even the depths of God” (2.10; NRSV). When we came to know and to love our Lord Jesus Christ, we were baptized in the Spirit that we might know and “understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2.12; NRSV). Later in his letter, Paul discloses the nature of these gifts: wisdom, knowledge, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12.8-11), then Paul points the Church of Corinth to the “still more excellent way” – the way of love!
The spiritual gifts and the way of love are countercultural – they stand in sharp contrast to the nature and the desires of this world! As Paul tells us, the unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit – indeed, they view such gifts as foolishness. Who are these holy fools!? The worldly fail to understand such gifts for they come only through spiritual discernment, through the mind of Christ!
With the above as background, we now come to the good stuff – to the gospel. Our text from Matthew 5 is part of the Sermon on the Mount. After having seen the crowds who are searching, suffering, and enslaved in the snares of this world, Jesus goes up the mountain, sits down with his disciples, and begins his teaching with the beatitudes. In setting forth the beatitudes, Jesus is getting to the very heart of his instruction – to the way of love. Jesus tells the disciples, if you would be blessed, be poor in spirit, mourn, be meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, be merciful, be pure in heart, be peacemakers, endure persecution for righteousness sake, be reviled and persecuted. The beatitudes stand in sharp contrast to worldly wisdom.
Jesus is preparing his disciples for ministry to the crowds, to all who are ensnared in worldly desires. Hence, Jesus tells them, “You are the salt of the earth…”; “You are the light of the world…” (Vss. 13-14; NRSV). Salt is used for flavoring and preserving – as Christ’s disciples we are to flavor and preserve relationships with others. How do we do that? By loving others as ourselves. We do not light candles for the purpose of hiding them under a bushel – no, we place the candle on a lampstand so all can see! Jesus is saying, as my disciples, people should see my light shining through you and your good works.
Believing in Jesus may grant salvation, but we are not meant to stop there. One of my ministerial friends recently preached a sermon entitled “Saved for Good Works.” Our salvation is only the start of our journey in Christ. As God’s Spirit enlightens us and transforms us, our lives change; we are blessed and joyful, and it is only natural that we desire to share our joy with others. If we follow Jesus, if we are his disciples, we are to be the salt and light others seek.
Those who heard Senator Romney’s speech to his Senate colleagues this week witnessed a good example of being salt and light. I am sure that many of his colleagues have condemned him and considered his stand to be foolish. Many others are heartened by his example. He will likely pay a political price, but as Jesus told his disciples, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5.11-12; NRSV).
I am shocked and saddened at how many people choose not to develop their gifts such that they may be used in service to others. Sometimes people who are highly talented and gifted think using their gifts will only serve to draw attention to themselves; they think the safe thing to do is to sit quietly and humbly. Not so, we are to thank God for our gifts, and to use them for others and for God’s glory. How will we answer Christ at the judgment when asked why we did not serve as salt or light? Christ was serious when he told his disciples, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.16; NRSV). Let’s encourage one another to be a bit more salty and to shine more brightly. Let’s shake and shine!