Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Good morning. I can’t hear this morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah without thinking of an incident from seminary. I know a few of you have heard this story before, but it’s really funny and it fits with the reading. It involves one of my classmates, a guy I’ll call Will, though that’s not his real name.
Will is a younger guy, and like me, he doesn’t miss too many meals. One day, another one of our classmates, Rachel—and that is her real name—brought a pan of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies to class. Rachel did this from time to time and her cookies were legendary. When the pan of cookies reached Will, he said, “No thank you; I’m fasting today!” He said it just loud enough so that everyone in the room could hear.
Really? In a class in seminary, where everyone knew this scripture from Isaiah. To say nothing of the next chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus instructs the disciples:
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Truly, truly, Will must have known those scriptures, yet it didn’t stop him from calling our attention to his fast. We were all a little amused. Also, I was glad there was an extra cookie for me.
The prophets of the Old Testament are consistent; they call for God’s chosen people, Israel, to take care of the poor and the vulnerable, feed the hungry, end injustice and oppression. The people want to worship God correctly and righteously, but they come up short. They get the form of worship correct, they fast as they are instructed, but they can’t integrate this part of the ritual into a complete and righteous spiritual life; they fast, “but their fasting does not seem to affect their actions toward others.” They just want to know which rituals they have to complete and how much money they have to put in the collection plate. They want to finish worship on time so they can get home in time to watch the Steelers. Wait. Maybe that last example isn’t from ancient Israel.
Our life of faith is about more than what we do while we’re in worship. If our main concern is about what we do here in church or how much money we give, then the giving becomes about us. It is not true worship. No. True worship begins with humility; it begins when we admit that we are dependent upon God for all our blessings; and it begins when we thank God for all the wonderful things that God has done for us, simply because God loves us.
The proper response to God’s love is to love and worship God, and also to love everyone else, because we are all created by God. We return that love by doing justice and acting kindly toward one another. That is what the prophet Micah told us last week and that is also what Isaiah tells us this Sunday. When the people of Israel complain that God doesn’t notice their fasting, God speaks to them through the prophet Isaiah. God says:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 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.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 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?
7 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?
I can’t hear this without hearing Jesus saying: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you clothed me.” Here’s the thing: “Religious ritual when unaccompanied by social action is self-serving. It is empty.”
That’s not to say that we are to abandon the rituals of worship or stop observing the law! In fact, Jesus states this very clearly in this morning’s gospel lesson: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus is the only one who acts with complete and total righteousness. But what does it mean to fulfill the law and the prophets?
The short answer is that Jesus came into the world to bring about the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it. This is the world as God would have it; the world in which all people are reconciled with God and all people are reconciled with one another.
The human Jesus only accomplished part of this in his lifetime—through his death and resurrection, he makes it possible for us to be reconciled with God the Father. In his lifetime, Jesus taught the disciples, and through them, Jesus has equipped us for this work, too.
But there’s an inherent tension between these two ideas. Because we’re called to carry on Jesus’ work of reconciliation, it almost suggests that we can work our own way into salvation—that we can do enough good deeds, enough righteous acts, that God will acknowledge all we’ve done and welcome us into eternal life—because we were “good people,” whatever that means.
Yet Jesus reminds the disciples, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven, to enter the world as God would have it, is by God’s grace. But if that’s the case, if we are only reconciled to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then why do we have to do anything? Why do we have to work for reconciliation, if Jesus has already done the work for us? And besides, the job is too big for us, right?
What’s the point?
What’s our place in this story?
The answer has always been there. In the Book of Genesis, God visits an old man named Abraham. Abraham has no children at that point in his life, but God tells Abraham that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars. More than that, Abraham’s ancestors will be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). They will be blessed through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, who is renamed Israel. All of his descendants, all of God’s chosen people, bear that name, too, Israel.
The prophets of the Old Testament frequently remind the people that Israel is called to be a light to the Gentiles, to all the other nations of the world. The prophet Isaiah clearly tells the people called Israel that if they do justice, if they feed the hungry, if they bring the homeless poor into their houses, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (58:8).
The people of Israel had the opportunity to heal themselves by living into God’s call; that is, they could begin the healing by living into God’s promises. Had they done so they would have shown to the world the fruits of living into a right relationship with God.
When that didn’t work, God tried something new. God entered the world in the person of Jesus. Jesus called disciples to help him in God’s work. And then Jesus charged them to baptize and teach and make disciples of all nations. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells them to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. A light to the nations. All of them.
I believe that we have a mistaken notion of what salvation is. I’ve said this before. We are not saved from death and damnation, so much as we are saved for the work of building the kingdom of heaven; we are saved so that we may be the salt and the light. We are saved to be a blessing to others.
Do you want to know something interesting about salt? It can’t actually lose its saltiness. The way it tastes comes from the structure of the salt crystals—it’s actually the way the sodium and the chlorine line up when they come together and form salt. Salt can only lose its saltiness if it becomes something else—if the sodium and chlorine get ripped apart and then bond with other chemicals. But as long as it’s sodium and chlorine together, it’s going to have the structure and taste that we all know as salt.
What we think is flavor—that is, saltiness—is actually a physical structure that is very easily broken down on our taste buds. The presence of salt stimulates the production of saliva, which helps to break down the salt. The saliva also helps to break down whatever food we have salted. And because of this, we get more flavor out of the food we eat if there is salt in the food.
I think my friend Rachel put a tiny pinch of salt in her chocolate chip cookies. That made all the other flavors come alive. That’s probably why salted caramel is so popular, too. But the salt serves little purpose if it isn’t added to food, if it isn’t put to use.
That’s what Jesus is saying to the disciples: all of their blessings are of no use if they don’t share them, if they don’t take up Jesus’ work of reconciliation and justice, and make the world as God would have it. And as they work toward that, the light of God’s love will shine in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. People will be drawn to it.
The work of building the kingdom of heaven is our work too. We do that work because there is separation and suffering in this world, and there are lots of hungry people to feed and prisoners to visit. The work persists. Let us continue this work as individuals, and also together, as congregations and communities. Let us be the salt and the light. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to share our blessings with all people. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Tyler Mayfield, “Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3153  Tyler Mayfield.  Tyler Mayfield.