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Winter Quarter 2022-2023: From Darkness to Light
Unit 2: God’s Promises
Sunday School Lesson for the week of January 22, 2023
By Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 58:6-10
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.
God Promises Light
- To learn how Isaiah 58 provides a unique perspective on God’s promise of light
- To explore God’s critique of his people’s fasting and the inconsistency in their devotion to God
- To reinforce the relevance of this message through similar messages from other prophets
- To reflect on the vertical and horizontal planes of life and God’s requirement that they harmonize
- To take in the emphasis God places on justice and freedom from oppression and bondage
- To appreciate fully the vision Isaiah 58 gives us of the light that can dawn upon God’s people when we become united in God’s mission of justice and alleviating suffering
The Winter Quarter’s lessons are designed to take us on a journey “from darkness to light.” During the month of January, we are narrowing our focus even more on God’s promises and their ability to propel us along this journey. We have explored 1) God’s promise to hear and forgive, 2) God’s promise to restore, and 3) God’s promise to guide. When we refer to forgiveness, restoration, and guidance, we know these words and what they mean.
In this lesson, we learn about God’s promise of light. In contrast to the promises we have already explored, the word “light” is a metaphor and can therefore refer to a lot of things. The promise of light is very much on point though because the intended goal in this winter journey is to move from darkness to light. We know that light can mean illumination, enlightenment, clarity, hope, and optimism.
What does light mean, however, when we focus on our key verse (Isaiah 58:10)? The light rising in the darkness is tied to offering our food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. Being about these things has the power to part the gloom and bring in the noonday sun. Don’t you want to know how these kinds of actions bring light to us and dispel the gloom? By digging into this verse, we stand to learn a great deal in our journey from darkness to light. To understand what this verse means, we want to take in the other verses in our selected passage that precede the key verse, starting with verse 6. In fact, to get the overall context, we want to start with the beginning of the 58th
chapter of Isaiah.
Why Does the 58th Chapter in Isaiah Focus on Fasting?
Isaiah 58 starts out focusing on fasting and ends up talking about a lot more. Fasting is a time honored and biblically supported devotional practice and means of God’s grace. God, however, did not seem to be pleased with his people’s actual practice of fasting at that particular moment in their history. God wanted it to be announced to his people that while they were fasting they were actually in rebellion against God. (vs. 1) They were carrying on a charade of seeking God, delighting to know his ways, and practicing righteousness. According to God, their goal was to get God on their side. (vs. 2) They complained that their fasting was not being noticed by God or making their voice heard by God. (vs. 3-4) They felt that they were humbling themselves before God, but God was not noticing. God saw their exaggerated attempts to humble themselves, but he saw huge inconsistencies between the pious show there were putting on and their everyday actions:
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day
and oppress all your workers.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.”
God asked the people if they were truly humbling themselves just because they went through the motions of fasting, bowing their heads, and lying in sackcloth and ashes. God accused them of oppressing their workers and fighting to get to the top, which certainly does not demonstrate true humility. For these reasons, God was not at all impressed with their fasting. God asked outright, “Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
We have heard this kind of message before from the prophets. According to the prophet Amos, God had grown to the point where he hated and despised the people’s religious festivals, took no delight in their religious gatherings, did not accept their offerings and sacrifices, and wanted their worship songs to cease. What God wanted instead was for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
Likewise, in the first chapter of Isaiah, God said that he had had enough of their many sacrifices, offerings, solemn assemblies, festivals and even prayers. He hated them. They were an abomination to God. They had become a heavy burden, and God no longer wanted to see any more of their religious observances. According to God, their hands were full of blood, which was a way of saying that they were full of guilt. What did God want in their place?
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove your evil deeds
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil;
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.”
The prophet Micah asked, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Then Micah answered his own question, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of youbut to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
(Micah 6:6-8) Many point to this scripture as one of the great summaries in the Old Testament of our obligation to God.
What do these prophetic messages have in common? There should be alignment between our piety and devotion, on the one hand, and our everyday life, on the other hand, as it is lived out in our relationships with members of the human family. There are ethical obligations placed upon our lives that we are called to live out in our daily lives. These ethical demands are carried out in the way we live with our neighbor and love our neighbor. If we think of our relationship with God as a vertical relationship, and our relationship with our fellow human beings as a horizontal relationship, then the message to us is that we are to hold the vertical and the horizontal together. We cannot separate the two.
The vertical relationship has to do with how we seek to grow in our relationship with God. The goal of this relationship is to please God, to grow in our awareness of God’s presence in our lives, to be able to listen to God, and to develop intimacy with God. The horizontal plane of our lives could be thought of as the ethical and moral plane upon which life is lived. In the 58th
chapter of Isaiah, God is looking for consistency between the way we live out our lives along both the vertical plane and the horizontal plane.
It comes down to holiness of heart and life. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus focused first, in chapter 5, on the relational obligations that flow from the ten commandments. Jesus’ word to them in this chapter was to let their light shine publicly so that people may give glory to God. Then, in chapter 6, Jesus focused on how we should pray, fast, and give alms outside of public view. Jesus was saying in effect that it is not about looking holy, it is about being and becoming holy.
How would you characterize the message of these prophets? Why is it so easy to put forth the effort to look holy and miss out on the opportunity to actually be holy in our conduct, our actions, and our relationships? Why is it a temptation to go through the motions of religion and neglect the ethical obligations that are lived out on the horizontal plane among our fellow human beings?
How a Just and Ethical Life Flows from a Relationship with God
So, as we lean into our selected scripture passage (Isaiah 58:6-10), we want to focus on this discussion God is having with his people related to the fast they have called. We want to explore why their relations with their fellow human beings were in conflict with their stated desire to humble themselves before God. We want to learn all we can from this discussion and then apply it to our daily walk with God.
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Compare this with what God said about their actions a few verses earlier in verses 3 and 4. God told his people that they were serving their own interests on their fast day, that they were oppressing all their workers, and that they were quarreling and fighting. This behavior was not consistent with fasting, which is supposed to help those fasting to humble themselves before God. God is saying that if we want to humble ourselves before God, we must avoid being proud, arrogant, and quarrelsome in our relationships with the members of the human family of which we are a part.
Recall what Jesus told his disciples on one particular occasion. The occasion was when the two disciples, James and John, and their mother had gone to Jesus to try and claim the top spots on Jesus’ left and right in Jesus’ kingdom. When the other disciples heard about it, they were angry with James and John. Jesus reminded them that the gentile rulers lorded it over others and the most powerful of them were true tyrants. Jesus told them in no uncertain terms that his followers were not to behave this way. They were called to be like Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:20-28)
Jesus could have said the same thing about the secular world of today. People still look to their own interests, fixate on getting to the top, use people for their own ends, and ignore the suffering of others.
In contrast to this way of the world, God chooses a kind of fasting observance where people would actually humble themselves and not just go through the motions of humbling themselves. God would have his people give up being haughty, arrogant, proud, dominating, overbearing, and dehumanizing by the way they see people and use people for their own selfish ends. If people want to truly humble themselves before God, it means walking a mile in the other person’s shoes. We refer to this as empathy. Empathy involves seeing the bonds of injustice that oppress people. It means recognizing the privileges that are afforded to us and realizing that others do not enjoy the same privileges. It means seeing the burdens of others and removing them.
Notice what is happening between verses 3 through 4, on the one hand, and verse 6, on the other hand. The first word to us is to stop being a part of the problem, and the second word to us is to start being a part of the solution. First, stop using people, and second, start breaking every yoke that oppresses people and keeps them down.
I am in a phase of life where I want to appreciate the privileges that have been afforded me. I want to recognize that not everyone shares those privileges. Yes, I know that there are others who have had more privileges than I, but that does not negate the fact I enjoy privileges that others do not share. I notice that we live in a culture where people wear their feelings quite exposed. They seem fragile. They feel threatened when anyone starts talking about privileges they might enjoy. It is natural to want to think that what we have, we have earned to some degree.
Yet, in this later phase in life, I am learning not to be so fragile. Acknowledging privilege does not take away the fact that I have earned a few things along the way. Understanding that my life is a mixture of both the “givens” in my life and the work I have done still sets me apart, because I know that some people try just as hard, but they don’t seem to have gotten any breaks in life. It is important for me to understand that life has not been fair to some people. They have lived under a yoke that they did not ask for.
Because of our fragile souls, we can have a hard time seeing instances where we might be a part of the problem, but I still want God to teach me. Even if we cannot immediately see instances where we might be a part of the problem, we are nevertheless called to be a part of the solution. Speaking for myself, if I do not seek to understand the suffering of others, do I not contribute to the perpetuation of their suffering? If I remain silent about the suffering of others, does that not contribute to their oppression? If I do not seek to be a part of the solution, that in itself contributes to the problem.
Who are the oppressed in your part of the world? Can you point to times when you felt you had fulfilled your obligation to God just by not being a part of the problem? Have you ever sought to be a part of the solution, but got frustrated by those who are part of the problem? Do you see any problems in society that you may contribute to? Are there privileges you enjoy that God is calling you to share in some way with those who are lacking?
How do we become part of the solution? Isaiah 58 continues to show us the way by continuing to look at the fast God chooses.
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Notice that the focus in this verse is on action—specific actions. We become a part of the solution when we share our bread with the hungry. “Bread,” being a staple of life, includes other food staples, of course. We become a part of the solution when we bring the homeless poor into our houses, churches, and shelters in our neighborhoods or next to the paths we take. We become a part of the solution when we clothe those who lack adequate clothing.
When the scripture talks about not hiding ourselves from our kin, it can refer to our closest relatives, but it could also be extended to any and all those with whom we are connected in some way—our shared humanity. We are not to hide ourselves from those with whom we share natural connections. We are not to distance ourselves from the “problem” for the overwhelming reason that we are talking human beings created in the image of God.
When I came to Martha Bowman United Methodist Church to be their pastor, I was immediately attracted to their mission statement: “save the lost, disciple the saved, and alleviate suffering.” I noticed the disciple-making implications of this statement for a church in mission. The church reaches out to the lost (those who are not in a relationship with Jesus). The journey begins for this lost person when the lost person is saved. The journey continues when this saved person is discipled.
The journey then continues when the disciple pays forward what he or she has received. Disciples learn to reach out to those who are lost just as they were lost. Disciples also do their part to disciple others. Finally, disciples participate in the church’s mission to alleviate suffering of others, whether or not they are disciples of Jesus yet. Alleviating the suffering of others is very biblical and central to the life of a disciple. A church that is fulfilling this mission can be said to be a healthy, fruitful, and fully functioning church.
As a disciple of Jesus, do you see your role in alleviating the suffering of others? Who are the heroes in your church or community who see the alleviating of suffering as their ministry? Could you come alongside them to help them? Could they become a mentor for you?
The Vision Statement of Isaiah 58
Our scripture passage that we are examining culminates in a vision statement. A vision statement describes God’s preferred future for a people. A vision statement should be bold. It should be an imaginative word-picture. It should be hope-filled. It should be inspiring. A vision is God’s sign that God’s message has gotten through. A compelling vision makes it where you cannot wait to go out and fulfill God’s word. You could say that Isaiah 58:8-10 contains the vision statement that crowns this message, which until this point has been a soul-searching, convicting, and challenging message.
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
When God’s people begin sharing their bread with the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked, then they have moved from being a part of the problem to being a part of God’s solution. They are becoming a part of God’s answer to the prayers of others. They are joining God’s mission. The shift from one state to another is clear and profound in its effects.
No wonder their light breaks forth like the dawn. No wonder their healing springs up so quickly. God is waiting for his people to move from trying to look holy to actually being holy, and once that starts, divine light dawns and healing springs forth.
Moreover, the Lord becomes his people’s vindicator. The Lord is the one who cheers us on approvingly. The Lord is the one who defends our cause.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
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.
If we are about God’s mission, then when we call, the Lord will answer. We are nearest to God when we share God’s heart and share God’s desire to alleviate the suffering of his children. God is near therefore when we may be the one crying for help. When we cry out to God, we can hear God say, “Here I am,” because our heart has been in sync with God’s heart before. God no longer seems remote. The more we root out oppression, the more we root out the pointing of the finger and speaking of evil, the better our part of the world becomes. The more we offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, the better they enjoy life and the better we all enjoy life. God’s light and God’s hope rises in the darkness and dispels the gloom.
Isn’t this the teaching of Matthew 25:31-46? When we do not care for the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned, the least, the last, or the lost, we live in a world overwhelmed by suffering and human alienation, and our experience of Jesus is like that of some distant figure. When we feed, clothe, and visit the lonely, sick, and imprisoned, when we care for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we are never more near to Jesus and the heart of God. The greatest part of this scripture for me is the sheer surprise of those who did not realize that their care for the least, the last, and the lost was also caring for Jesus himself. There was something unassuming and therefore beautiful about their care for others. They cared without expecting something in return.
How would you describe the light that is meant to rise in the darkness and dispel the gloom? In what areas in the life of the world is this light needed? What is yearning for healing in your community and world?
God of light and God of hope, through your prophet, you call us to a fast that is not a mere charade of looking holy. Humble us in our relationships with our fellow human beings, and help us see where we may be a part of the problem, so that we might share our resources with the less fortunate and be a part of your light that is dawning, through Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at email@example.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com.