Topical Scripture: Isaiah 58.1-14
A friend recently sent me this wonderful story. It seems that a group of salesmen were attending a regional sales convention in Chicago, and were rushing to their airport gate when one accidentally kicked over a display of apples in a basket. Apples flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they managed to reach the plane just before takeoff. All but one. He paused, told his buddies to go on, told one to call his wife when they arrived home to explain his late arrival. Then he returned to the terminal where the apples were lying all over the floor.
He was glad he did. The 16-year-old girl whose apple stand had been overturned was totally blind. She was crying softly, helplessly groping for her spilled produce. The crowd swirled around her, no one stopping. The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them into the basket, and helped set up the display. He then pulled out his wallet and said to the girl, “Please take this $20 for the damage we did. Are you okay?”
She nodded through her tears. As the salesman started to walk away, the bewildered girl called out to him. “Mister….” He paused and turned to look back into her blind eyes. She continued, “Are you Jesus?”
Do people mistake you for Jesus? Here’s how they can.
Don’t confuse religion with faith (vs. 1-5)
The people of Judah have been imprisoned in the pagan wasteland of Babylon. But in Isaiah 56 the scene changes. The last eleven chapters of this book prophesy the nation’s return from exile to their home in the Promised Land. But all is not well: “Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins” (v. 1).
They think their religion guarantees their relationship with God:
They “seek me out” and “seem eager to know my ways” (v. 2).
They “ask me for just decisions,” praying for his guidance.
They have “fasted” and “humbled” themselves (v. 3). Their religion is in order, their worship attendance exemplary, their church involvement outstanding.
But their lives give the lie to their religion:
“You do as you please” (v. 3b). Sunday has no effect on Monday.
They “exploit all your workers” and engage in “quarreling and strife” (v. 4).
Their religion is for show, “bowing one’s head like a reed” and “lying on sackcloth and ashes” (v. 5). They look religious, and act the part. But God knows better.
I’m glad you’re here this morning. My friend, Frank Herrington, longtime pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, used to say that his first thought at the start of every Sunday sermon was, “I’m glad someone came to hear me preach.” I feel the same way.
But we will do well to remember from our text that religion does not guarantee faith. Being right with the church doesn’t mean we’re right with the Christ. There’s more to faith than religion.
Turn obstacles into opportunities
So what do we do to be the “body of Christ,” to show him to our community this week? First, act with justice: “loose the chains of injustice” (v. 6). Act with justice in your business dealings, your finances, your personal ethics: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17); “The righteous detest the dishonest; the wicked detest the upright” (Proverbs 29:27).
Will someone see your moral example this week and ask if you are Jesus?
Second, care for the impoverished: “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (v. 7); “when you see the naked, to clothe him” (v. 7b).
More than one tenth of Dallas County lives below the poverty level. One out of five Texans lives in poverty. One in ten children in our state is hungry today. By the time I finish this sentence, two people will have died from hunger-related causes worldwide, 24,000 by the end of this day. The number of homeless people in our city has nearly doubled in two years.
Scripture is clear on our subject: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13); “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:16); “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17); “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
Will someone receive your gift of compassion this week and ask if you are Jesus?
Third, speak the truth in love: “do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk” (v. 9).
The Bible is crystal clear in its condemnation of gossip, slander, and lies: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Leviticus 19:16); “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11.13); “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9); “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8); “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:20-21); “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psalm 34:13); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3); “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).
Will someone hear your words this week and ask if you are Jesus?
When we give the gifts of moral example, compassionate help, and loving speech, we define our lives by God’s cause. We become the body of Christ, his hands and feet, giving his love in ours: “The holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people…go out of the church door into the world to be the Church. We don’t go to church; we are the Church” (Ernest Southcott).
Claim triumph in trials
And what we give to others, we give to ourselves. The proverb is right: “Those whom God wishes to bless, he puts in their hands the means of helping others.” When we give the gifts of righteous integrity, compassionate help, and loving speech, we bless ourselves.
A recent study examined the lives of 65 men and women between the ages of 30 and 90, all of whom were caring for a loved one suffering from advanced cancer. Results showed that people who dedicate themselves to caring for a loved one not only gain a stronger sense of purpose in life, but also tend to have better physical health in the process. There is a positive correlation between helping others and helping ourselves (Harry R. Moody and David Carroll, The Five Stages of the Soul, 242).
The psychologist Abraham Maslow discovered that a psychologically healthy person achieves what he called a state of “self-actualization,” defined as “an ongoing actualization of potential, capacities, talents as fulfillment of a mission” (ibid, 278).
The more we fulfill our mission of helping others, the more we fulfill ourselves:
“Your light will break forth like the dawn” (v. 8a)—your light will shine so that others will see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew5.16).
“Your healing will quickly appear” (v. 8b)—as you help others, you position yourself to be helped by them and by God.
“Your righteousness will go before you” (v. 8c)—God will guide you, for you are willing to follow his mission for your life.
“The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (v. 8d)—he will protect you, for you are walking in his will.
“You will call, and the Lord will answer” (v. 9a)—he will hear and answer your prayers, for you are close to him and his call on your life.
With these results:
“You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (v. 11). You will give to others, and never run out. Your well will never go dry.
“You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls” (v. 12). When you give broken lives and hearts your gifts of integrity, compassion, and truth, you will leave such an eternal legacy.
And “you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob” (v. 14).
Decide today to measure your success not by what you gain, but by what you give. Not by what people call you, but by what you call them. Find a need and meet it. See every obstacle as an opportunity to give someone your moral example, your compassionate help, your loving words. Treat every problem as a chance to share God’s love in yours.
Do what you can, while you can. You are not responsible for the needs you cannot meet, just those you can. The Jewish rabbi Zusia once said, “In the world to come, no one will ask me why I was not Moses. I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusia?'”
Jeff Lewis told us we are called to our neighbor and nation. Last week we learned that we have a specific call from God. As William Carey was called to his India, so are we to ours. How do we answer our call? By meeting needs with God’s love. By giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. By treating every problem as a chance to share God’s word and God’s grace.
It’s an attitude first, a way of seeing things. Jesus fed the hungry whenever he found them; he healed the sick wherever he met them; he taught the crowds whenever they asked him or would hear him. He walked through his ministry, meeting the needs he found with the love of God. His life left the greatest legacy in world history.
Now we are called to do the same, so that someone will ask, Are you Jesus?
No other approach to life will bring us such purpose and fulfillment.
Count Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, achieved the highest stature of fame and worldly success. His masterpiece, War and Peace, was heralded as the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy was rich, titled, in good health, lord over a vast estate, father of a happy family, only to discover at age 50, “I did not know how to live.”
He later wrote, “I felt that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped.” He began to contemplate suicide. In his spiritual testament, A Confession, he likened life to a traveler who is chased by a ferocious beast and climbs down a well to safety, only to discover that a fierce dragon is waiting at its bottom for him. To save himself, he grabs a small branch protruding from a crack in the wall, and dangles helplessly. A mouse appears and starts to gnaw through the branch. All will soon be lost.
Just then the man sees a cluster of berries growing nearby. He picks several and swallows them with gusto. How sweet they taste! This, Tolstoy came to see, is the human condition. Hanging between birth and death, we await annihilation. While dangling, we pass the time eating the small pleasures that fall to our lot. Then the branch snaps and we plunge into nothingness.
It’s not an inspiring picture. But here’s what happened next for Leo Tolstoy. He came to see that the apparent emptiness of our lives is a kind of mercy sent to us to shake us loose from superficial concerns and to call us back to our spiritual roots. Tolstoy called this “a thirst for God.” The famous novelist gave the rest of his life to filling that thirst. Ignoring the honors showered on him from around the world, he chose to dress and live in the simple manner of a peasant. He grew his own food, provided spiritual guidance and money to all who asked, and lived out his days in worship and service.
He learned that all we have been given was meant to be given, that we were saved to serve, that we were created to care. That every problem we meet is a chance to love someone God loves.
So look for some spilled apples this week. Someone else will be glad you did, but no one more than you.