This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The text I preached on was Isaiah 58:9b-14.
One verse. One single verse arrested my attention as I prepared for this sermon. The very first verse from our first reading in Isaiah. One verse, yet it overwhelmed me with its power and truth. One verse, yet, this sermon will be actually be longer than usual, and for that I am sorry. One verse, and I saw that the people Isaiah wrote to were just like us, and we need to hear this one verse as much as they did.
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil…”Isaiah 58:9b
It’s not even a complete thought. The sentence doesn’t end until the following verse, and I’ll get to that. But let’s look at the people Isaiah wrote to.
This section of Isaiah was written shortly after the Babylonian Exile ended. It was a very specific time in the history of Judah, with very particular needs. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of what had happened.
The exile had begun seventy years earlier, when the Babylonian Empire attacked the land of Judah, and sacked the capital city of Jerusalem. They ransacked the temple, and took many of the Judeans captive. They took the leaders, the artists, the skilled workers. All these people were taken into captivity in the land of Babylon. They were treated fairly well, all things considered, but they were not in their own land, and they could not return.
These leaders, artists, and skilled workers were in Babylon for seventy years. Over time, they raised families. Children and grandchildren. And over time, they discovered and invented a new way to be Jewish. A new way to be faithful to God, even without living in the land God had promised. Even without the Temple. In some ways, this tragedy led to a deepening of faith.
At the same time, there were many Judeans who were left behind in Judah. And while the exiles were discerning a new form of Judaism, those left behind were also developing in different ways. They left the ruined temple behind, and also found a new way to worship.
For seventy years, the people were split. Each group in a way became a new Judah. After seventy years of this, almost nobody was alive in either place who remembered a time before the exile. But then the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and the Persian king allowed the exiles to return. All the Judeans in Babylon went home, to a home they had heard about but never seen, to the ruins of a temple and a capital city that lived only in legend.
But the homecoming was not as easy as you might expect. The returning exiles thought they were the true Judeans, the ones who had suffered and learning, and that they should be put in charge immediately. Of course, those who had remained didn’t agree with this. They saw themselves as the true Judeans, and that the returning exiles should do what they said.
And so this nation was split in two, with two completely different understandings of national identity. Who should be in charge? How should the temple be rebuilt? How were we to treat one another? How should we relate to outsiders? Each side accused the other of being wrong, ungodly, misguided, evil. And they simply could not communicate. They could not understand one another. There were fights and arguments, accusations and anger. Anger that led to hatred.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine living in a nation where there are two sides, each of whom is convinced that only they understand what that nation is supposed to be? Each of whom is convinced that the other side is wrong, twisted, misguided, perhaps even evil. Each of whom refuses to trust anything spoken by someone from the other side. Can you imagine that? I can. I can imagine Red Judah and Blue Judah, fighting for dominance, with no compromise, no understanding, no listening. I can imagine that too well.
During this time of arguing, Judah was not flourishing. There was poverty and hunger, worries about foreign armies, painful anxiety about the future. The people began to wonder if God had abandoned them. They complained to God about this. Complaint is an ancient form of prayer; it’s okay to complain to God.
God’s response? Through the prophet Isaiah, God responded like this: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday.” Isaiah goes on like this for the rest of the chapter, telling the people that if they follow God’s commands, they will experience a revitalization.
And I wonder. Perhaps one side shouted, “Absolutely! If they just stop taking God out of our schools, things will improve.”
And perhaps the other side shouted, “Absolutely! If they just stop ignoring God’s command to welcome the immigrant, things will improve.”
I wonder if both sides were convinced that God was on my side, not theirs.
And perhaps that’s why Isaiah ordered his message the way he did. When he described God’s will, he included things like feeding the hungry, honoring the Sabbath, taking care of the poor. But before all that, the first thing he mentions is, “remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.”
Thousands of years later, in the land of Germany, Martin Luther wrote a little book for teaching young people. He called it Der Kleine Katechismus, the Small Catechism. We still use it five hundred years later as the core of our Confirmation curriculum. Luther wrote this about the eighth commandment:
The eighth commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.Martin Luther, The Small Catechism
Listen to that again. In order to follow the eighth commandment, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
When Isaiah spoke to the people following the exile, the first command he gave them was indeed this eighth commandment: remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. For us who live in such similar circumstances, could that be our first command from God?
What would happen if we did this? If just us, just the hundred or so people in this room, did this?
What would happen if we all committed, today, to always come to our neighbors’ defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light?
What would that look like?
What if we, just we, stopped insulting and disparaging those who disagree with us?
What would happen if we, just we, committed to stop saying things like, “Well, they’re all the same.”
What would happen if we, just we, committed to listening to those who disagree with us. Instead of saying, “You’re just wrong,” we asked them, “What experiences have led you to think that way?” What would happen?
What if we, just we, stopped all gossip, all complaining about how horrible this person or that group is, and instead spent our energy trying to figure out just why others think the way they do?
I bet many of you can think of someone else who needs to hear this message. Think about that person. Bring their face to mind right now. Now, what if, instead of wishing they would hear this and change, what if we changed the way we relate to them. What would happen if you tried to interpret that person’s actions and words in the best possible light? What if it starts not with them, never with them, but with us? With you and me? What would happen if we committed to doing this?
Well, according to Isaiah, “If you remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, etc. etc., then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, and you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”
Isaiah made that promise to the Judeans after the exile. Is that a promise for us as well? I don’t know. What if we put it to the test?
Just a quick story for the end. I was once active in the local Ministerium, as was Pastor M___, the pastor of a fundamentalist church on the other end of town. He and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of theological things. But two things stick in my memory about him. First, he taught me that churches with major disagreements on theology can still do service projects together, and make a difference in the community.
And second, there was one year that his church was hosting the community Vacation Bible School we all ran together. That year, his church chose a curriculum that, to me, was beyond the pale. It was so far from Lutheran theology that I found it offensive; I didn’t want the kids in my church learning this stuff, and I wasn’t going to participate. I was scared to tell Pastor M___ that my church was going to sit this year out. I thought he would accuse me of all kinds of things, not being a true Christian, etc., blah blah blah. But when I got up the courage to tell him, he said, “It’s okay. You’re allowed to be wrong.” And he smiled, not smugly but honestly. And thanks to his smile, I smiled back. We each thought the other was wrong, but we smiled. And we each knew that even though we’d part ways for that VBS, the next time a service project came up, we’d be working together on it. And we did.
In that moment, he refused to point the finger or speak evil. He accepted my view, and smiled. What would happen if we could all learn that? What if we tried?