The following is a sermon preached in ACU Graduate Chapel on February 1, 2017.
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Wow—the lectionary isn’t pulling any punches this week, is it? Sometimes I wonder what the leaders who were involved with the Consultation on Common Texts were thinking when they paired certain texts for specific Sundays in the liturgical calendar to produce the Revised Common Lectionary. “Let’s see, it’s Year A, Fifth Sunday in Epiphany. We don’t want preachers to get bored in ordinary time, so let’s throw in some zingers to keep them on their toes.” The Consultation finished their work in the early 90s. I wonder if they knew almost 25 years ago how well these texts would speak to current events. Talk about zingers! Have you seen the headlines lately? “Breaking News: Newly Elected President Keeps Outrageous Campaign Promises.” It doesn’t matter what side of the American political system you find yourself on. The past weeks and months have been contentious. And divisive. And distracting.
Speaking of distractions, have you been on social media lately? I don’t spend a lot of time using social media—I’d rather use my computer for more important things, like beating my high score in solitaire. But when I do occasionally check Facebook I’m often surprised by the stark opinions I find there. I’m not sure what your news feed looks like these days, but between the cat videos and silly jokes I’m seeing a wide range of thoughts about politics, and religion, and even more politics. I was always told not to discuss religion or politics in polite company. Apparently Facebook isn’t polite company. It isn’t polite, anyway. I’m amazed by the angry, hurtful things people who are supposed to be my friends will post for the whole world to see. Educated individuals make irrational, unsupported claims. Ordinarily pleasant people blast judgment and condemnation against anyone who has the audacity to disagree with them. We’re all so offended and self-righteous on Facebook. I’m feeling a little offended and self-righteous just talking about it.
How did this happen? When did it become okay to share whatever you feel like saying? If you can’t say anything nice … post it on your timeline. We like liking things on Facebook, don’t we? What we like even more is un-liking things—with long, angry rants since there’s no thumbs-down button. We also like un-following anyone who doesn’t agree with us. The recent election and even more recent executive orders have provided us with a whole host of things to like and un-like. Even God has a Facebook account—though he hasn’t sent me a friend request yet.
I wonder what Isaiah’s Facebook post would say?
Shout it out, do not hold back. Lift up your voice like a trumpet. Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of America their sins. Yet day after day they put Bible verses on their coffee mugs and delight to buy books about me, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask me to bless America, they delight in claiming to be a Christian nation. “Why do we go to church, but you do not see? Why put money in the offering plate, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest in worship, and oppress your waitress at lunch afterwards. Look, you sing songs in church only to argue and fight and cut people off in the parking lot on your way out. Such worship as you do today will not make America great…
That’s probably a misapplication of the text. I have no idea what’s posted on God’s timeline (he hasn’t friended me, remember). But I’m pretty sure that the fast God chooses—loosening bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked—that fast is hard to accomplish when we’re too busy scrolling through our news feed to pay attention to our neighbor. Maybe the fast God chooses today would be a social media fast, or an angry-rant fast, or a fast from empty words that aren’t lived out in real life.
Isaiah pleads with his audience in verse 9: “Remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” Have you ever thought about social media as a yoke? Not joke—there are plenty of jokes online—but yoke with a y. Animals wear yokes to pull heavy burdens for their master. Has Facebook ever felt like a burden to you? Do you sometimes post half-truths about yourself, your job, or your family to avoid pointing fingers of judgment from your friends? Have you ever liked or shared posts that speak evil of people you really don’t know—or worse, leaders you’ve been called to respect? Is your news feed full of posts by people who see things exactly the same way you do? Are you pulling social media’s yoke, or is it pulling you? Who is the master online? The answer to those questions depends on the direction you’re going and where you end up.
Isaiah’s plea comes with a promise: when we feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of others the Lord will guide us and satisfy our needs. Strong bones, springs of water, rebuilt ruins, restored communities. That’s better than cat videos and silly jokes any day.
The Sermon on the Mount uses more familiar analogies to remind us of our calling to participate in the world around us instead of just posting about it. We are salt and light—preserving God’s truth and setting an example for others to follow. These everyday items are useless unless they’re put into action. Salt that’s still in the saltshaker leaves food bland. Lights turned off don’t help anyone find their way. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “You can be the salt of the earth in your spare time,” or, “You might want to think about being the light of the world.” These are statements of fact. We ARE salt—24/7, 365, on workdays and holidays and weekends, whether we’re hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic or updating our status. We ARE light—for better or worse, like it or not, when we’ve got it all together and when things are falling apart. The world is watching. When we live up to our identity as God’s people the world sees our good works and gives glory to the Father.
Jesus goes on to talk about the law. He didn’t come to thumbs-up the law, or post top-ten lists about the law, or rant about the parts of the law he didn’t like. He came to fulfill the law. Fulfill implies action. Actions like healing the sick, feeding the hungry and teaching God’s word. Isaiah’s fast that God chooses was his everyday life, a life we are called to follow in ways that do more than just populate our news feed. Whoever breaks even the smallest commandment—teaching others by their example—has no standing in God’s kingdom. But when we do the law, living out the commandments through acts of mercy and service—that’s where greatness comes in the kingdom.
This part of the Sermon on the Mount includes a statement we often misunderstand: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). That’s not a call to self-righteousness, nor is it a comparison to see who can be holier-than-thou. Right-standing with God comes through action. For the scribes and Pharisees, those actions had to do with the sacrificial and purity systems instituted in the temple. Since Jesus just reminded his followers that every aspect of the law is still in force “until all is accomplished,” we might be tempted to think that we have to jump through hoops to maintain right relationship with our holy God. But the good news of the gospel reminds us that Christ’s death accomplished the fulfillment of the law through a pure sacrifice. Our righteousness is determined by the cross, not our own accomplishments. Salvation frees us from self-righteousness and sends us into the world as salt and light. The ancient ruins of keeping score are rebuilt with grace. The foundation of faith is raised up for all generations everywhere. The breach of sin is repaired with forgiveness, restoring the streets we live in—both church and community. Now there’s something worth posting about.
May God cause your light to break forth like the dawn, your healing to spring up quickly. For your vindicator—Jesus Christ—goes before you, and the glory of the Lord is your rear guard. When you call the Lord will answer. When you cry for help the Lord is saying, “Here I am.” Go today in the knowledge of God’s promises. Go in peace.
Dr. Melinda (Mindi) Thompson serves as Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Director of Distance Education for the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. She is an active member at Highland Church of Christ, serving on the adult education ministry team and teaching regularly. Mindi and her husband Terry moved to Abilene in 2011.