This is the fourth sermon in a series I’ve called “Roots to Rise;” in it I’ve been talking about foundational narratives in the Bible. These stories are the roots of our faith and that tell us not only how to survive, but how to rise up in life and thrive—how to make choices that give life to ourselves and others and to turn away from the death dealing things of the world. In the first week we talked about the Creation stories and God’s invitation to be fed by the tree of life and place our trust in God rather than trying to play God ourselves—it’s not just a story about once upon a time, but a metaphor for a choice we have everyday of life in the world. In the second week, we looked at the story of Exodus and the journey of the Israelites to freedom—again a story that is not just ancient but is about the daily struggle not just to get human beings out of slavery, but to get the impulse toward slavery out of us. In the third week, Jana spoke about wisdom literature, the Bible’s words that help us understand how the world works and that inspire us to see life as a gift and our own lives as something created for good.
Today we turn to the role of prophesy in the Bible. This is where we make the most intentional turn outside of ourselves and our own personal faith and toward connection with life in the world. Prophesy, as I often tell you, is not about predicting the future through some kind of crystal ball; prophesy is rather about the present day. Prophets were ancient social commentators who looked at the world around them—the realities of poverty and justice, the role of leaders, and the role of religion—and they would speak and write about God’s vision of how life in the world should be. Prophesy in the ancient world meant saying pointed things to kings and priests and everyday people about their role in making the world a better place. So in the modern world, the words of the prophets are the place we go to see what God thinks about hunger and housing in our cities, violence in Israel and Gaza, and how to keep going in life when these problems and so many others seem impossible to fix. This morning we turn to one of these stories of prophesy in the Bible to see what it has to teach us.
The Book of Isaiah spans more than a century of especially desperate history in the land of Israel. After the journey into the Promised Land when the people left slavery in Egypt, that promise of home and freedom culminates in the glory days of kings David and Solomon; but following the life of Solomon, the kingdom is weakened; it divides into warring factions and is then threatened by outside invaders from other empires. Throughout the Book of Isaiah, the people are first under siege, then exiled from home in a story that sort of reinacts Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. Finally in the end they are able to return home. God’s faithfulness in response to the people’s rebellion shapes the story from start to finish. The Prophet speaks to the people about the society that is collapsing around them; he tries in vain to get them turn their lives around, and to make that choice for life with God that has been the point ever since Genesis.
In the passage you heard, Isaiah describes the need for the people to restore the essence of their religion, which has become an empty hypocrisy, like people who go to church on Sunday, but whose lives have no sign of God’s love the other 6 days of the week. The role of the Prophet is to invite, cajole, and use all means necessary to get the people to choose life, and to see the world not through the cynical eyes of hopelessness but through as God sees it.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist takes up this old mantle of prophesy, and frames the life of Jesus in exactly the same way: “Prepare the Way of the Lord; make his paths straight. Change your hearts and lives. Make your religion vital, relevant, and life-changing, and not just a hypocritical show.
The specifics of the passage we read reinforce this message; it is about the intimate connection between religious practice and life in the world. The rituals of faith, whether we are talking about fasting and bringing sacrifices to the Temple, or Communion and Baptism in our own tradition—these things are empty unless we connect them to the pain and struggle of life in the world. Baptism is about the acknowledgement that our whole lives belong not to the fleeting material luxuries and temptations of the world; our lives belong to God. And Communion—is a meal. It’s not just some little square of bread, but is meant to fill us in the places where we are hungry in life, and is a literal reminder that people are hungry and when they are it is our calling to feed them. When we take these rituals seriously, we steer away from religion that is hypocritical or religion that is merely polite and toward a faith that is actually transformative for ourselves and others. This is the biblical foundation for what the church calls mission.
So the passage from Isaiah warns against fasting and ritual sacrifice that is merely a show, where people parade their false piety, and allow oppression, petty conflict and anger to overshadow their religious practice. In contrast, the fast I choose, says God, is to share bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked, and in all things to be ‘repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in.”
Prophesy is connected to the other stories we’ve talked about in this series because it is intended to help us choose life in a world that wants to lead us toward death. Prophesy is meant to guide us in daily decisions to look outward beyond ourselves and seek to love and serve others. This daily practice of prophesy isn’t just an arrow pointing out into the world, it’s more like a loop that connects the inner life with the outer; so we look outward to connect our lives with the needs of the world, and we come back to the resources of faith to keep us from losing hope when the challenges seem too great.
You can probably think of someone you’ve known in life who has this figured out. Most people who lead lives of service, directed toward others, are also grounded in a spiritual foundation that feeds them for the work. These are the “restorers of the breach” mentioned in the Scripture—the ones who have the grounding in the faith and the love for the world to be changemakers in the world, and also to realize the limits of what we can fix and still not get discouraged.
I’ve been deeply troubled, as I know you are, by the terrible violence in Israel and Gaza and the explosive potential of that situation. I am far from an expert on the situations, and struggle to know what is the right thing to say, but still, God calls us to speak. I read this week about a circumstance in which a local clergy person said and did something that seemed to me like the right thing, connecting faith with action, and I wanted to share it with you.
A rabbi in the DC area and a local friend who is an Imam, share a long relationship. The Dulles Area Muslim Society has held their Friday prayers in the Synagogue building of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation since 2008. Following the recent acts of terror perpetrated by Hamas, and the military response from Israel, Imam Mohammad Magid contacted his friend Rabbi Michael Holzman; he volunteered that his community would take no offense if it was simply too painful for their Jewish friends to continue to host them in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attacks on October 7.
I’d like to read some of the lines from Rabbi Holzman’s response:
October 11, 2023
“On behalf of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, we invite the members of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society to attend Jumma prayers at our synagogue building as you have done every Friday for over fifteen years.
We do not want to support the notion that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is primarily a conflict between Judaism and Islam. Both of our religions clearly prohibit violence against innocents, the taking of revenge, or the holding of hostages. We reject the idea that the Holy Land is meant for believers of any one faith. We affirm the teaching of the holy Koran that God created us differently so that we can learn from one another. We understand from the Torah’s command to love the neighbor that we must first know the neighbor, and therefore we are meant to co-exist in proximity to one another.
We…believe that through our small, shared prayer space we demonstrate the greatness of human nobility. Our welcome is rooted in a desire to defeat extremism and the idolatry of vengeance.” (The Presbyterian Outlook, Oct 19, 2023, www.pres-outlook.org )
You can read the full text of the letter in our denominational publication called the Presbyterian Outlook. It was published this week with permission, as a testimony to the beauty of the relationship between these two communities who have reached out to one another so prophetically, and who refuse to give in to cynicism and despair.
In this story, we see a model of how to shape one’s life and relationships through an ongoing effort to connect faith with action, to have our deeds follow our words, and to be emboldened by our faith to take risks for the benefit of others. How amazing is the Rabbi’s testimony, that in an act of prayer in a local community, these two local communities are “demonstrating the greatness of human nobility.” And they are. Though an act that originates in the fundamental practices of their faith, they are doing something, in the midst of an impossible situation, where most of us feel lost, to advocate for goodness and peace. In the face of suffering and death, they are what Isaiah calls “repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.”
This week, members of Knox are in McAllen, Texas along the southern US border working with refugees, meeting and feeding them, praying and extending a hand of friendship. You were invited in this morning’s Minute for Mission to join us in a couple of Saturdays and spend the day getting to know one of our church’s mission partners, who support and encourage families who have lost their homes and children who spend most of their days hungry. These are not problems that are easily solvable, but in all of them we make our humble efforts to understand more, to connect faith with real life in the world, and to perhaps be drawn into something larger than ourselves, because we turn outward and listen for God’s voice. This is prophesy: the invitation—the daily invitation—to have our faith inspire us to be repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in. Amen.