God's Priorities

“God’s Priorities”     2-5-23        Isaiah 58:1-9a, Matthew 5:13-20         Pastor Teddie McConnell
Here’s a story from Behavior of Belief by Spiros Zodhiates. A man sat through a church service and then on the way home he fussed about the sermon, he fussed about the traffic, he fussed about the heat, and he fussed about the lateness of the meal being served. Then he bowed and prayed. His son was watching him all the way through this post-church experience. Just as they were beginning to pass the food he said, “Daddy, did God hear you when we left the church and you started fussin’ about the sermon and about the traffic and the heat and how  dinner was late?” The father sort of blushed and said, “Well, yes, son, He heard me.” “Well, Daddy, did God hear you when you just gave thanks over the food right now?” And he said, “Well, yes, son. He…He…He heard me.” “So, well, Daddy, which one did God believe?”
Like the son in the story, Isaiah confronted Israel on God’s behalf about their hypocrisy. They were finally back in Jerusalem, although the temple wasn’t rebuilt yet. They were only required by the Torah to fast one day a year. In those times, however, they fasted more often than that, hoping to manipulate and pressure God to do their bidding by doing the right rituals. Their priority was their own personal happiness, getting God to keep them healthy, wealthy and safe, to take care of them in exchange for their worship. They weren’t thinking about what would make God happy. They weren’t even letting the experience of being hungry make them more sympathetic to the plight of those who never have enough to eat. They ignored God’s priorities, because they were more interested in being heard by God than in listening to God.
The irony is that they wanted to be treated well, but they were unwilling to treat others well. They would go to work and beat or abuse their employees. They would finish fasting and fight over the next meal and who got the last piece of pie. They ignored the poor, the inconvenient, the oppressed, the naked, even their own flesh and blood. Their fasting was all an act, not a real demonstration of humility.
God was fed up with them and told Isaiah to blow a trumpet, which in those days was used to summon the people to war. In a way, God was declaring war on their hypocrisy, their sinful self-centeredness. Once they had gathered, Isaiah let loose. He told them that what God really wants isn’t fasting or sackcloth and ashes, especially when their behavior the rest of the time was abhorrently greedy and even cruel. Instead of outward rituals, God wants inner commitment to His true fast, which is taking action to bring justice, liberation, and care to the homeless, hungry and naked. What God really wants is for His priorities of helping the hurting to become so ingrained that God’s supernatural grace and love for everyone becomes our first priority, too.
God’s priorities were nothing new or surprising to the Jewish people, not if they were paying attention to their rabbis and the Torah. Of course, some teachers or preachers only talk about what they think their people want to hear. Then worship becomes based on the values and priorities of the surrounding culture, comforting rather than challenging. The history of God’s people tells of a sad and repeating cycle that goes like this.
God gives good things to the people – the garden of Eden, the parting of the Red Sea, or freedom from the Babylonian oppressors. The people are grateful and enjoy these good things for a while, even for a number of generations, but then they drift away into sin and rebellion, taking on the values of the surrounding culture. So God sends prophets who warn them to repent and He punishes those who don’t. The faithful start over and try to please God. Over the course of time, the sin nature inevitably takes over any community unless prophets or the Holy Spirit can call them back to the true and selfless worship and work of God. God loves us too much to give up on us, to leave us in our sin.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that sooner or later we all go through the motions of faith in the context of church, and then do things outside of church hours that aren’t consistent with our Sunday values, with God’s priorities. We can develop blind spots to the will of God, relegating God to a Sunday-only deity who we think won’t pay attention to us the rest of the week. All we can do to avoid that kind of blindness is to study and follow what we’ve been told in the Word, returning to God in humility and repentance.
Isaiah was one of a long line of prophets. He taught the people on behalf of the Lord, reminding them not only of what God wants them to do for others, but also that their generosity would be healing to their own souls. Helping others makes the helpers happy, too. Their righteousness would go before them, and the Lord would be their rear guard.
Centuries later, Jesus came to remind the people of God of these same things. He was the latest, greatest and last in the line of prophets God sent to tell us what’s what. Jesus was clear: He was not there to change the Law, because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The difference in Christ, however, was his willingness to fulfill the Law by giving us an example of how God wants us to live and by being the living sacrifice that takes our sins away for us. He called on His disciples to live in even more compassionate ways that glorify God through our loving actions. Instead of taking an eye for an eye, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt or use you.
Today’s passage from Matthew continues Jesus’ sermon that includes the Beatitudes. He was trying to address and resolve an ongoing conflict within the Jewish community about the future of their faith and what it meant to be Jewish, not unlike the arguements in today’s churches over our future. He used two metaphors to talk about following God’s priorities in this world with integrity and unity of purpose – salt and light.
Jesus commanded the disciples as a group to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world as we work with our Christian siblings in a loving community to further God’s work in the world. Notice, it was a command, not a suggestion.
What does it mean to be “salt of the earth?” This phrase has become so commonplace in English as a metaphor for a good person that we don’t hear it with the same impact that it had originally. Let’s replace it with something else. Here’s my idea: you are the coffee of the world! You are to make it more flavorful, more awake, more alive, more vibrant. You are to bring people together.
But let’s go back to salt. In Biblical times, it was used to clean and heal wounds and to preserve food. It also represented sacrifice and fidelity to God’s covenant. It was a layered metaphor for healing each other and bringing out the best in each other, the goodness within each of us that God created and we are to nurture. Food in general has always been a source of community feelings among people, and salt makes food taste better.
Here's a quote from David H. Johnson. “Sodium is an extremely active element found naturally only in combined form; it always links itself to another element. Chlorine, on the other hand, is the poisonous gas that gives bleach its offensive odor. When sodium and chlorine are combined, the result is sodium chloride--common table salt. Love and truth can be like sodium and chlorine. Love without truth is flighty, sometimes blind, willing to combine with various doctrines. On the other hand, truth by itself can be offensive, sometimes even poisonous. Spoken without love, it can turn people away from the gospel. When truth and love are combined in an individual or a church, however, then we have what Jesus called ‘the salt of the earth,’  and we're able to preserve and bring out the beauty of our faith.”
Salt can be too much of a good thing when overused or lose its power when mixed with the wrong elements. The idea that salt can lose its saltiness is a reminder that we must work courageously against the status quo or lose our power to bring God’s priorities to life. Drinking too much coffee can make you jittery and sleep-deprived. All things must be used appropriately in the right context, in the proportions, and in keeping with their God-given nature.
Light has several properties. Obviously, it makes it possible for us to see. It gives things color, supplies the energy for plants to grow, gives us solar power, and can be used in a focused way to make a laser tool or to spotlight something important. I love watching how sunlight can bring out the beauty of God’s creation, a reminder of how precious it is.
The light we bring to this dark and broken world comes from having Christ as our Lord and the leader of our community as we do good works of love and mercy. That light is not from our own individual flames. We are the glass on the lantern, and Jesus is the flame within us. At our best, we allow the light of Christ’s grace, justice, and mercy to shine out through us unchanged. This light gives things color when we interact with diverse types of people and treat them all with respect, justice, and love. It inspires us to protect the ecosystem of the planet so plants continue to grow and feed everyone. It provides power to generate justice and peace, and it can be focused for the specific purpose of repairing and restoring damaged relationships or finding creative solutions to problems.
Being the invisible glass in the lantern goes against our sin nature, our vanity. We’d prefer to be the focus of attention. When the lantern glass is dirtied with selfish concerns and conflicts , little or no light comes through. We need the Holy Spirit to clean our glass from all unrighteousness and to refill our lamp oil regularly to power it. Without God, our lamps are dark and dirty. With God, our lamps can make our corner of the world brighter and more beautiful. We need to remember who we are and whose we are. Our righteousness must exceed the legalistic and showy piety of the scribes and pharisees by maintaining and improving our relationship with God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and each other. We need to live every day with justice and mercy out of our gratitude to and love for God, extending our worship throughout our lives. Let’s passionately help to birth the new society of God’s priorities, of God’s favor, blessings and love.

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