Sermon: Be afraid, very afraid – or reassured and encouraged

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
7th of August, 2022

Isaiah 1:1 10-20
Luke 12:32-40

‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’

‘[I]f you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Today’s readings from the prophecies of Isaiah and the Gospel according to Luke are either encouraging and reassuring, or utterly terrifying, depending on where we sit as we listen to them. Are we among the ‘little flock’ who have no need to worry over what we are to eat, what we are to drink, and what we are to wear, because we know that we are of more value than the birds that God feeds and the grass that he clothes? Or are we among the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah, whose worship God refuses to hear because it is not accompanied by justice?

I have mentioned before that the Book of Isaiah contains the words of three prophets. Isaiah of Jerusalem, First Isaiah, wrote in the eighth century BCE, warning his people that if they did not ‘cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,’ they would be punished by the invasion and destruction of their land. Two hundred years’ later, in the sixth century, when Second Isaiah was writing, Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians, its Temple had been destroyed, and two-thirds of its people had been deported. Second Isaiah’s prophecies offered them comfort and reassurance that even in a strange land the Lord was with them. Then Third Isaiah offered hope to the people who found themselves living among difficulties and dangers after the return from exile in Babylon. They had returned to their homes, but found there no new and glorious kingdom. In some ways, their lives were even harder back in Jerusalem than they had been in Babylon. And so Third Isaiah continued to console them with the hope and promise of God’s new creation.

Clean-shaven man with olive skin in a pink robe with a blue cloak seated, holding a large book listening to a cherub seated at his right shoulder.

The Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel

The passage we hear today was probably written late in the fifth century BCE as an introduction to all the prophecies collected as those of ‘Isaiah’. It summarises the messages of all three Isaiahs and, since in the Christian canon the Book of Isaiah is the first of the prophetic books, it also provides an introduction to the messages of all the prophets. The prophets told the people of Israel again and again that in order to be the people of God it was not enough for them simply to worship God, no matter how carefully they followed the requirements for such worship given in the books of the Law. To truly belong to God, the people of God needed to live out their calling in justice, and in caring for those most in need. Otherwise, Isaiah warns today, God would hate their offerings and incense, their festivals and solemn assemblies, so much so that God would refuse to listen to their prayers, and God would turn away from their outstretched hands.

How could that possibly be true? Can we imagine a God so wearied by human failure to live as the people of God that God turns away? Surely this is just prophetic exaggeration. But I can imagine that the God revealed by the prophets and the God that Jesus called ‘Abba’ could be so sickened and appalled at the use of worship to oppress God’s children and to justify that oppression that they turned away. I think of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who called international attention to the plight of their disappeared children through weekly vigils in front the presidential palace in Buenos Aires from 1977 to 2006. The theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid writes of them: ‘Some of the Mothers remember with irony that they were usually sent to “go and pray to the Virgin Mary” by priests, bishops and men of power … Testimonies from tortured victims of the Junta describe how, in the concentration camps, they were forced to pray “Hail Marys” before bedtime’.[1] Can anyone doubt that God turned away from the worship of such ‘priests, bishops and men of power,’ telling them, ‘I will not listen; your hands are full of blood’? What about the worship of all the good Christians throughout the centuries who have used ‘spreading the gospel’ as an excuse for violent colonisation and dispossession? How do we imagine God responded to the worship of slave traders and slave owners? ‘Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them,’ says Isaiah, and we can understand why.

At the beginning of his ministry, so Luke tells us, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah in describing what he was called to do: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19) So it is unsurprising that Jesus’ commandments to his followers resonate with Isaiah’s commands that the people cease to do evil and learn to do good. ‘Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

Where our treasure is, our heart will be also. We can see the truth of this in reverse; we show what we truly care about by the things on which we spend our money. Anyone could look at my bank statements, for example, and work out that I love owning books, support the welcome and resettlement of refugees in Australia, and do not care in the slightest about clothes. It is an exercise that I recommend you to do, too. Look at your bank statements and see what they tell you about where your heart is. Apart from the necessities, what John Wesley describes as ‘things needful for yourself; food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength,’ what we spend our money on shows us where our heart is, and Jesus reminds us that our hearts should be focused on God.

We know that God needs nothing from us. In some of the verses from today’s psalm God says: ‘I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds. For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.’ (Psalm 50:9-13.) We cannot ‘give to God’ by giving to God; we give to God by sharing what we have with the poor. As the Book of Proverbs tells us: ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord’. (Proverbs 19:17) God has everything and needs nothing from us, but through the words of the prophets and the life of his Son, God has made it abundantly clear how we can make purses for ourselves that do not wear out.

A sneaky secret: ‘giving alms’ as Jesus commands is not necessarily altruistic. A decade or so ago journalist and economist Ross Gittins wrote, in an article that I have kept and pull out every-so-often, that:

[Psychologist Elizabeth] Dunn has done various experiments that show giving gifts to people or making donations to charity makes people happier than spending money on themselves. Studies of people’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging showed that when people chose to give money to a local food bank this caused activity in the part of their brain typically associated with receiving rewards.[2]

When I first read Gittins’ article I found it so fascinating that I went to check out the study he quotes, in which:

Researchers approached individuals on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus, handed them a $5 or $20 bill, and then randomly assigned them to spend the money on themselves or on others by the end of the day. When participants were contacted that evening, individuals who had been assigned to spend their windfall on others were happier than those who had been assigned to spend the money on themselves. The benefits of prosocial spending appear to be cross-cultural. Over 600 students attending universities in Canada and in the East African nation of Uganda were randomly assigned to reflect on a time they had spent money on themselves or on others. Participants felt significantly happier when they reflected on a time they had spent money on others, and this effect emerged consistently across these vastly different cultural contexts—even though the specific ways in which participants spent their money varied dramatically between cultures.[3]

Of course, we could say that psychological experiments are an artificial construct, and that people would not get the same joy in the real world, except that I know that I do. One of the things that I did regularly during the various Melbourne lockdowns, whenever I felt myself to be most frustrated and isolated, was to make an online donation to somewhere like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or Boroondara Community Outreach. I am completely certain that such donations lit up the part of my brain that is ‘typically associated with receiving rewards’. They definitely made me feel better while I was locked down alone.

We do not ‘give alms’ to feel good. We do it because Jesus commanded it of us; because we know that everything we have has been given to us by God to share; because we know that doing so means that we are living dressed for action and with our lamps lit, ‘like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet’. But while we do not give to receive any reward, in today’s reading Jesus describes to the little flock a reward that would have been entirely unexpected in the hierarchical world in which they lived: ‘Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.’

This is an image of the hospitality of God, an illustration of God’s love for us. In the same way, while Isaiah’s prophecies describe God’s horror and outrage at the misuse of worship, they also have God saying, ‘Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land’. God does not want to turn away from us. God wants to welcome us to the kingdom.

As I said at the beginning of this Reflection, today’s readings are either encouraging and reassuring or utterly terrifying. Isaiah says, ‘if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’. Jesus warns, ‘If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ Both Isaiah and Jesus are deliberately alarming to get our attention. Readiness, doing good, leads to banquets and eating the good of the land as we are welcomed into God’s hospitality; lack of readiness, doing evil, means losing everything to theft and being devoured by the sword.

Despite these warnings, I want to end where I began: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ We do not need to fear; we know how to cease to do evil and learn to do good. We do not need to be afraid that we might somehow accidentally imitate the leaders and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, that our worship might somehow be unacceptable to God. We simply need to share what we have with those in need. And, as psychologists have shown, this will make us happy, too. So may our lamps be lit. Amen.

[1] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology, Routledge, New York, 2000, p. 51.

[2] Ross Gittins, ‘How spending money can make you much happier’ Sydney Morning Herald, December 21, 2011.

[3] Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson, ‘Research Dialogue: If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right,’ Journal of Consumer Psychology 21 (2011) 115–125.

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