Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

5th Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday, February 5, 2023

Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20

When the Constitution of the United States of America was first adopted, it was an amazing document…one of the only constitutions that existed anywhere in the world at that time.

The rights, powers, governmental structure that was established with the adoption of that document set our brand new country on the road to becoming a great nation.

In 1789, at the time it began to be used, there was a situation that was not that unusual for the times – but was also unacceptable to several large, important groups of people that lived and worked in our country.  The situation I am referring to is the power to vote.

At its adoption, the US Constitution allowed only land-owning white males to vote.  That was it.  The reasoning was that the other groups that were left out did not have the education, brains, and ability it would take to vote intelligently.  This situation was not changed until after the Civil War.

Over the decades, people of color, women, native Americans, former criminals, and foreign-born people who became citizens advocated for their right to vote – and they did so in the face of violent opposition, hatred, ignorance, and new laws that made the right to vote almost an impossibility.  All of this may seem strange to our ears and our sensibilities today; but the right to vote continues to be something that is taken VERY seriously – and anything that takes away from that precious right is seen as unacceptable by calmer, more rational thinking.

It’s a curious thing: when we human beings perceive that something is unacceptable to us, we almost instinctively push back against it…

  • because it makes us angry;
  • because it makes us uncomfortable;
  • because it doesn’t really include us – and we fail to grasp why others think the way they do.

My favorite uncle has been the pastor of a small presbyterian church in Oklahoma for many, many years.  He loves that church and its people, and they love him in return.  He has been a faithful leader to them and has helped them try some new things that were out of their comfort zones – but they tried anyway.

However, there is one thing my uncle has stated categorically that is unacceptable to him: contemporary worship services.  He has told his very traditional church – with their piano and their organ and their hymnals and their choir and their pews and their pulpit – that if they ever want to change that, he will depart.

If things in a church are unacceptable to you or to a group of people, that church will inevitably have trouble.  It might be the style of worship, or the preacher’ choice of sermons, or the type of mission projects, or the direction of the Session, what’s posted on the church web page, what the denomination is voting on, or even the choice of flowers out on the church grounds.

You might be amazed at what is unacceptable to some folks…

When different people come together, you are bound to have some give and take.  But at times, this becomes more than just being flexible or “going along to get along” – it becomes unacceptable.

In the reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah that you heard today, it would seem that God is very tired of what his people are doing.  They might see their actions as justified and good, but God tells them through Isaiah that their so-called fasting is completely unacceptable to Him.

I wonder how many of the people were shocked when they heard Isaiah’s words…

I wonder how many of them had been thinking the same things for many years – but no one would listen to them…

God harshly criticized their version of fasting.  Today we would see it as a form of discipline – abstaining from eating and drinking for a set amount of time, praying some extra time, working to improve ourselves…not just skipping the fourth piece of pizza or not having desert during Lent.

God’s people were called out for the following during their fasts:

  • doing as they pleased;
  • exploiting their own workers;
  • quarrelling, fighting, strife;
  • pointing fingers and malicious talk.

After hearing that list of unacceptable behaviors, we would look pretty good if we just skipped the fourth piece of pizza or gave up dessert during Lent.

If that were all we had from Isaiah, we could relax.  But that’s not how God works, and we all know it.

Isaiah goes on to tell the people what God wants from them – in order for their fasting to become acceptable:

  • loose the chains of unjustice;
  • untie cords of the yoke on the necks of the people;
  • set the oppressed free;
  • share food, shelter, clothing.

This list might include some pretty broad topics for God’s requirements, but you get the picture.  It’s about more than just ourselves when we fast.

Then we get Jesus’ take on this whole concept of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

He has already praised the people who are doing good:

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
  • Happy are the peacemakers…
  • Congratulations to those who are merciful…

And now, as Jesus does so well, he takes what he just said and includes information to enhance everyone’s thinking.

He tells the people, “You are the salt of the earth.”

The word “you” is plural…not singular.

Jesus is telling the crowd that ALL of them are to be the salt of the earth, not just a few, not just the leaders, not just the respected few.

He tells the people, “You are the light of the world.”

Again, the word “you” is plural…not singurlar.

Jesus is telling the crowd that ALL of them need to shine with the light of God’s love within their hearts, not just the few, not just the nicest folks, not just the leaders, not just the respected few.

Before the people can even react to his words, Jesus jumps ahead to the thoughts that will inevitably enter their minds soon and become a negative distraction: 

“But the people will reject me.”

Jesus reminds them – and all of us too – that even the prophets were rejected by the people…ALL of them…every single one of them…rejected by the kings, queens, leaders, and the common folk.

“But Jesus…can’t I just take care of my own little corner of the world?  Maybe my own family?  Why must I act as a city on a hill to the whole world?”

Jesus reminds them – and all of us too – that a light that is hidden or only lit for one person will not be een by too many people.

Finally, I am reminded of when Jesus he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.  He told his disciples – and anyone else listening too, including the religious authorities who were always looking for trouble – that they must eat his body and drink his blood, that he was the living bread that came down from Heaven, that he would give his life for the life of the world.  John’s Gospel in chapter 6 tells us that many of his disciples said, “This is hard teaching!  Who can accept it?”

We all know that there are often hard teachings that the people of God have had to struggle with throughout the centuries.  Teachings such as:

  • Not praying to the saints;
  • Not obeying every word from the Pope;
  • Not wearing a robe every single Sunday;
  • Electing our church leaders;
  • Allowing women and people of color and native Americans and former criminals and foreign citizens participate fully in the life and leadership of presbyterian churches.

It’s all unacceptable to us until and unless we put ourselves into the shoes of other people, unless we walk with them and see for ourselves what their lives are like, or until we fully accept the direction and love and even consequences of following our Lord.

What is unacceptable to us…what is not.

In the end, we should all be wondering what is acceptable to God.