Text: Isaiah 58:9b-13
If, this afternoon, I do a load of laundry, and go to the grocery store; then my return back to work tomorrow will go a little more smoothly.
If I make sure that we have lunch containers, and we do the last of the school supply shopping; then the first week of school will be a little more bearable for everyone in my house.
We use 'if/then' thinking all the time to sort through actions and consequences. We use it when we're planning – If I do this... then I can do that. We use it as promises to others or ourselves.
If I go for a run, then I can have ice cream.
We learn to evaluate the promises that are made to us.
If you drive me to my friends' Friday night, Mom; then I'll mow the lawn on the weekend.
And yet somehow, it's an easy construction to miss in scripture. But it's one that the prophets, especially, were very fond of.
(Prophets: not fortune tellers, but speaking God's words to us)
Isaiah and the other prophets are hugely, particularly focused on action and consequences. They use it to explain the past, the current situation, and to call the people to God's preferred actions for the future.
The past and future that Isaiah needs to explain is the Babylonian invasion/captivity/exile. And from that context of exile – Isaiah, in this section uses If/Then to call attention to what the people need to be doing.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 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 the noonday.
58:11 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.
58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Well. That's not so bad. If I'm a nice person, then God will do good things for me. That's a pretty appealing message right there actually. (And that should be my first warning sign that I'm still not interpreting the scripture right, actually) – All I need to do is be nice to people today. I can chat after church; make sure I don't run any yellow lights on the way home; watch out for cyclists and I'm good to go. God will have my back all week.
What is so easy to miss is the particularities of what Isaiah is saying.
If.... I stop pointing fingers and speaking evil.
If.... we feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted.
Then... God will water our lives like gardens. God will guide us. We will restore the ruins, repair the breaches and rebuild the streets to live in.
Hm. So those are fairly particular demands.
If we feed the hungry. If we comfort the afflicted.
And the temptation here again is to try and find the easy way of fulfilling our part; the “if” - maybe donating to the food bank; or donating to the M&S fund; or the hospital. That counts as feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted, right?
Except that we've been donating to the food bank and hospital for years now; and there are still underlying causes that keep creating and re-creating situations of poverty and misery. And we know that until we more systemically address the root causes: until we have better mental health services, better addiction programmes, better employment situations – the food banks really don't feed the hungry for long.
And when we hear and read the news from Syria and Egypt – the violence and civil strife; the chemical attack on civilians; the news that 1 million Syrian children are now refugees. (One million. I can't even conceive of a number that huge – so for perspective, there are 2 million children in Ontario. Imagine half of them gone to live in refugee camps. Half. Half of our kids. Imagine our classrooms, our school buses, our hockey teams and dance classes half empty next month).
So comforting the afflicted is a much larger problem too.
And if we work at doing this, the feeding and comforting, the speaking good of others – what is promised to us? To Isaiah's people, who were also living in exile?
The restoration of our ruins. The rebuilding of the breaches. The repairing of our streets.
Now – this is not just an architectural, community development project (although significant that it is given in such concrete terms). Isaiah is promising (god is promising through Isaiah) that our actual physical communities can be restored – an important promise for Isaiah's exiles, who would have lost cities during war. But Isaiah is also speaking of more than physical infrastructure.
The restoration of our ruins implies that that which was important to us will still be important. Transformed and changed, yes – but restoration always holds on to the integral pieces of the past.
Rebuilding the breaches is not just shoring up our walls against those who would do harm in our communities; it also restores the connections between us. Draws us closer together.
Rebuilding our streets is not a promise of yet more traffic cones and reduced lanes and new conrete islands and paving – it is a promise of connecting. Our streets connect us: one house to the next; one neighbourhood to the next. The promise: from ruins and breaches – to streets – is that God will build community amongst us. And that is a promise that is as needed and relevant today, here and now in London 2013, as it was to the Israelites in exile in Babylon.
But... that's not the only If/Then section that Isaiah has for us this morning. What else does he have to say?
58:13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
58:14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Sabbath – not just for personal relaxation; but again with a community focus – and our promise is for the heights, for delight and the heritage of Jacob (trickster).