Isaiah 56:1-2, 6-8
1Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.
6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
Hope for an effective vaccine continues as more people in the USA test positive, too many ignore physical distancing and mask-wearing mandates, as schools, students, teachers, parents, administrators at all educational levels wonder how to proceed. In any case, healthcare professionals and other staff, essential workers such as grocery store employees, police, and fire personnel deserve our ongoing prayers and gratitude.
Prayer: Psalm 67
May God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.
That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.
Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth. Selah.
Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear God!
Short overview of the long book of Isaiah that's in three distinct sections and from three different primary authors:
• 1st Isaiah – chapters 1-39 before the Babylonian exile
• 2nd Isaiah – 40-55 during the Babylonian exile
• 3rd Isaiah – 56-66 after the exile, mostly addressed to people who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild city, temple, and their own lives. Some individuals and groups decided to remain in Babylon.
Despite clear-cut authorship of each section of the 66 chapter long book of Isaiah, all three also include material whose overall style doesn't accord with the rest and that's almost definitely from another writer.
All of Greater Isaiah(!) brings us magnificent inclusive universalism that's not squishy, sweet, contentless New Age, but reveals a God who reaches out with love and mercy to all people and all creation everywhere. Together with his eighth century counterpart Amos, 1st Isaiah brings us the earliest articulation of true monotheism.
Today's Isaiah Reading…
…easily can be misunderstood as it begins with God telling the people to act with justice and righteousness and then redemption – "deliverance" in the NRSV – will arrive. That feels backwards and theologically, it is. This scripture reading – and sometimes others – may appear as if grace is conditional and happens as a result of our behaviors (works-righteousness), but with God that's never the case.
In Deuteronomy 4:7-8 we hear, "What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?" God gave (I love the word bestowed) the commandments as a sign that God was close to the people and as a gift to enable them to blossom and thrive.
Related to December holidays of Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa, sometimes we talk about "exchanging gifts" or a workplace "gift exchange" but an exchange is an economic transaction, and by definition a gift cannot be earned or paid for. On those holidays we either give presents or perform transactions; it cannot be both.
As we know from the biblical narrative, grace-filled life with God starts with the gift of creation, continues with the astonishing gift of redemption, and then moves on with the Spirit-filled gift of the law with guidelines for living as redeemed people. You remember how God gave israel the Ten Words or Commandments of the Sinai Covenant after they'd been released from slavery in imperial Egypt, but while they still were trekking toward the Land of Promise where they'd settle down and need to know how to live as neighbors to one another and to the surrounding non-israelites? Where they'd need to "hold fast" to God's covenant of grace?
In addition, as God's people responded to grace in loving, justice-oriented ways, those around them would begin to know God through the presence and actions of God's people. What is more, eventually in Jesus Christ God kept both sides of the covenant and fulfilled it – held fast to it – for everyone everywhere in a way Israel never could.
This opening passage of Third Isaiah reminds us of holy demands of a holy God to do justice and righteousness, and to keep Sabbath. It also reveals a God who loves, includes, and embraces everyone—including Israel's enemies! From Isaiah 56:7, the cornerstone of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown LA announces "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." This is ecumenical cooperation between very different, quite similar, and closely related Christian denominations—it's also interfaith, just as it was during Third Isaiah's sixth century.
The official Sabbath day never changed from setting apart the hours from Friday sundown through Saturday sundown, but we often expand the word "sabbath" to describe any time of rest from productive activity, for any time specifically for God, for worship, for family, for not conceding to the demands of empire. Maybe ironically, when an academic goes on a sabbatical year or semester they expect to study and produce, but it still is a refreshing period of apartness from normal expectations and involvement.
Because of Jesus' resurrection on Sunday, Christians typically worship and whenever possible refrain from paid work and other busyness on Sundays, but that's not possible for everyone. Most Sundays most pastors are on the clock! Sunday employment slots obviously need to be filled by health care, police, fire, transportation, and other essential personnel. Nowadays most retailers stay open on Sundays so need to stay staffed. However, human bodies and spirits require regular time away from being busy, time to simply be, and scheduling a regular time of sabbath is not only important, but necessary for good mental health and physical health.