Pastor Joe Skogmo
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN
Epiphany 5 | 02.09.2020 | Isaiah 58:1-7, 10
*DISLCAIMER: This sermon will read less like a usual manuscript as it was preached with light notes and somewhat ‘off the cuff.’ The book of focus, Isaiah, is a historically complicated book, so a large part of the delivered sermon was reviewing highlights in the timeline of the Old Testament in order to place ourselves in history with regards to Isaiah. Then, with regard to Isaiah’s 58th chapter, a very brief summary breakdown of the book of Isaiah was offered. This is all to set up and clarify the main preaching points made on Isaiah 58:1-7, 10.*
A brief history of Israel up to Babylonian Exile & Return
Adam & Eve
Noah & Flood
Abraham and Sarah
Isaac & Rebecca
Jacob – Rachel, Leah, (Bilhah), (Zilpah) (12 Sons, 1 Daughter)
One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, sold into slavery by brothers, ends up in Egypt
Later united, the Hebrews settle in EGYPT for hundreds of years
Promised Land and Judges
Assyria Conquers and Exiles North
Babylon Conquers and Exiles all of Israel
RETURN from Babylon (*Context of Isaiah 58)
Breaking Down Isaiah:
- PRE EXILE
- “Much of the first part of Isaiah (1-33) is attributed to Isaiah son of Amoz, who preaching in Judah from about 742 to 700 B.C.E. He is sometimes called 1st Isaiah or Isaiah of Jerusalem Chapters 34-39 probably date to a later time.
- IN EXILE
- “The second major portion of the book (chapters 40-55) dates from the time when God’s people had been taken away from their homeland to live in exile in Babylonia (587 to 538 B.C.E). The writer of this section is an unnamed prophet sometimes called Second Isaiah or Isaiah of Babylon.
- POST EXILE
- “Chapters 56-66 dated in the period after many of the people returned from exile after 528 B.C.E., are sometimes called Third Isaiah, but these chapters are probably not the work of a single writer.”
- PRE EXILE
- *“First Isaiah takes place amid conflicts among Israel, Judah, and Assyria…The second part of Isaiah takes place about one hundred years later. Assyria’s power had diminished and Babylon had become a great power…[and then a] new life in Jerusalem forms the background of the final part of the book of Isaiah.”
- First Part: Isaiah preaches that both kingdoms’ political maneuvering neglects and fails to be reliant on God and his promises.
- Second Part: Exile is the consequence of sin, but God who is steadfast in faithfulness is at work in Cyrus and will deliver his people.
- Third Part: Back in Jerusalem, now, praise for God’s restoration, but reminder that God demands justice toward one another. This is the context of Isaiah 58.
Isaiah 58:1-7, 10:
The context of our passage: it has “instruction for people who have returned to rebuild their homeland. In the midst of joyful return, God issues judgment, and the prophet shouts as a trumpet to this indictment.”
Here is God’s searing judgement to the recently returned people:
(v. 1): “[Isaiah,] announce to my people their rebellion…their sins” (v. 1).
(vv. 3-7): What is then listed is a litany of all the empty practices that the people are doing: they are fasting, they are forcing their laborers to fast, they are wearing fancy religious garments – a sackcloth, and they are even covering themselves in ashes as a supposed sign of humility, and upon that, they are complaining that God doesn’t really seem to notice.
To be sure, it’s not the rituals and worship that God was calling out – it was the emptiness, the hypocrisy behind them.
This is where God gets painfully honest, and implies that God doesn’t really care that they these things, virtually saying:
“You do these empty rituals thinking they will impress me but they only serve your own interest (v. 3)!—for instance, fasting is really only to save you food cost for your workers and laborers! Oh, and you do these fancy religious things and yet you completely neglect the poor, the hungry, the homeless, you quarrel with friends and neighbor (v. 4), you intentionally toil with your sisters and brothers (v. 7), and you let workers be oppressed (v. 3)…AND YOU THINK THAT THAT THIS IS ALL ACCEPTABLE!? (v. 5)—because you fast, because you wear fancy religious garments, and put some ash all over your body?”
No way. This is the fast God requires, says Isaiah:
…to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house (v. 7).
Again, I am telling you, God is seething about this and this is attention grabbing—so, this is your trigger warning before I translate this into our modern context for you and I, and our world.
What God is saying to the Israelites in Isaiah is like God saying something like this to us: “Oh you wear cross necklaces? You show up to worship? You have fancy worship? You adorn your social media with religious regalia? You gave up some chocolate for lent? But do you neglect the poor? Do you neglect the hungry? Do you fight and cause division!?
“Then this is the worship which I require of you: Fight for the oppressed workers, the exploited labor. Make that your fast. Make peace with your neighbor, your friends, your family – make that your cross necklace. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love and bring in the homeless poor. Make that your religious regalia.”
This all sounds harsh, and it is, AND, the Good News implied in all of this is that, clearly, God doesn’t need you to do trite, religious-y, or pious works for you to be acceptable to God. You are already loved and accepted. Remember, the context of this passage is that these Israelites were already God’s saved and redeemed people!
So, now – redeemed, loved, and freed – now, go out and spend your energy on the people that are hurting in this world. And, in so doing, in giving yourself to others, you will find your true self—you will have meaningful and joyful life, “…then your light shall rise in darkness” (v. 10). Amen.
 Amy G. Oden, “Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12],” First Reading, Working Preacher.org, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4374.