Epiphany 5A; Isaiah 58:1-12
Epiphany is the season of manifestation and revelation, or revealing. Jesus was manifested to the Gentiles by the star and acknowledge as king by foreigners who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Christian tradition has seen these gifts as representing his kingship and divinity (gold and frankincense), and foreshadowing his death (myrrh). Later, at his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God as we were given a glimpse of the Holy Trinity. And all through this season we are admonished to let our light, and the light of Christ, so shine in the world that it scatters the darkness. That light reveals Christ to the world.
Have you ever noticed, though, that when you shine a light into dark places, not only does that light dispel the darkness, but it also shows imperfections or other scary things? And depending on what kind of light you shine, you might find something even worse. Shine a light in your basement or crawl spaces and you might find cracks in the foundation or mold growing in the corners. I tend to watch a lot of Forensic Files. Shine the right kind of light and you can detect blood on the walls.
When we shine the light of Christ onto the world, the darkness is dispelled. As John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” But that light also lets us see blood on the walls.
Isaiah saw blood on the walls when he shone the light of God on the practices of Israel. “You serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel, and fight, and strike with a wicked fist.”
He goes on to speak on behalf of the Lord – “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustices, and to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread and bring the homeless into your house?”
Isaiah is prophesying against a nation filled with false pretenses. Those in positions of power and influence were outwardly pious, but on the inside committed shameful acts; acts that were committed in the dark resulting in injustice, oppression, hunger, and homelessness. These acts resulted in the abuse and possibly death of people on the margins, or people who were different. These acts were done in a way that upheld the existing power structure to such an extent that most people couldn't see how bad the system was. But God saw.
The light of God shone in dark places and brought into view cracks, mold, mildew, and blood that was normally hidden.
The Bible is not static. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit of the living God. It is more than simply a record of past events and deeds in that God still speaks to us through it. As we read and study the Bible we are looking for insight into God and to seek out contemporary relevance from those ancient texts. Sometimes that is hard work; other times it is painfully easy.
February is Black History Month. We are asked for one month out of the year to acknowledge and bring to mind people of color who have sacrificed and given to this country. We are asked, for one month out of the year, to pay attention to and learn about the accomplishments of black people in this country. For one month out of the year we are asked to name those who have for so long been nameless.
Yet there is resistance to doing this, or to acknowledging black people at all. Some states have pulled curricula that teaches about slavery, Jim Crow, and racism – both overt and covert. Florida in particular is working to block schools from having programs on diversity, equity, inclusion, and systemic racism.
Our history as a country includes blocking black veterans from accessing the GI Bill, vastly different loan rates based on skin color, redlining of neighborhoods and the creation of HOA's to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods, funneling funds to better (read “white”) school districts while ignoring funding for schools with a majority of black students, and other systems designed to privilege whites over people of color.
Today black people are killed by police at a higher rate than other ethnicities. The Tyre Nichols case from Memphis shows yet again that the lives of black people, and black men in particular, are in a much more precarious and dangerous place than others. Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than other ethnicities. Freeways were built through black neighborhoods, doing immense damage. And the list goes on. As we begin Black History Month, these are things of which we need to be aware and pay attention to.
As we begin Black History Month, the voice of Isaiah is speaking as much to our country as it was speaking to the Israelites. As we move through this Epiphany season of manifestation and revealing, the voice of Isaiah is speaking as much to us as it was speaking to the Israelites.
You serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress your workers. You fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Will you call this a fast day acceptable to the Lord? No, these are not acceptable to the Lord.
The fast God chooses for us is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into our homes, and to clothe the naked.
Lent is coming quickly and we are called to fast from things which separate us from God. We fast from excess, from ill speech, or from harmful activities, and we replace what we have stopped with things more favorable to God. We hope that this short-term change leads to a long-term change. Isaiah (and God) is calling us to fast from participating in oppression, injustice, and systems that perpetuate hunger and homelessness. We do this by working for justice and freedom, by working to help feed and clothe, and to find shelter for those in need. In doing these things, we are shining the light of God onto the world.
It's a big job, I get it; but it's a job God is calling us to do. Isaiah is calling us to change how we do things. Black History Month is calling us to recognize the legitimacy of people who for too long have been seen as illegitimate. Epiphany is calling us to make manifest and reveal the light of Christ.
When our light breaks through the darkness, healing shall spring up. When the light of justice and equality shines through the darkness of injustice, inequality, oppression, and affliction, we will then be able to clean the blood from our walls and repair the breach that has separated us from God.
It's a big job, and no one person can accomplish it all. But the journey to justice and equality begins with a single step. With all of the opportunities to shine the light of Christ on the world, where will your journey begin?