Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Isaiah 58:12

Isaiah was a faithful prophet, and the Old Testament book that bears his name is an elegant piece of work. It explores themes such as righteousness, justice, and forgiveness in the context of Judah’s exile by the Babylonian Empire. Within the Christian tradition, this book has been called the “fifth Gospel” due to its ubiquitous presence throughout the New Testament and its role in shaping Christian theology.

Today’s reading is found near the end of the book. It’s addressed to people who have come through the experience of exile, who have been restored in their city… and are finding that life in the holy city isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Things were supposed to be so perfect! That was the promise, anyhow, but that’s not how it’s working out.

Put yourself in their sandals. These people were born and raised in Babylon, in the seat of the great Empire of their day. They spent their whole lives hearing about the glories of Jerusalem under the shadows of the great buildings of Babylon.

Their storytellers were fathers and mothers and teachers and priests who were forcibly marched away from their own homes. Picture these scenes, candle-lit, as the tearful elders tell stories to awe-struck children seated at their feet.

Those stories, one might assume, grew a bit more glorious each year as they were burnished by nostalgia and grief. Old stories have a way of doing that.

These children had never seen Jerusalem, but now grown and given the opportunity to go home to a place that had never been home for them, they took it. That’s a brave choice. They left the only home they’d even known to strike out for the glorious city of the stories they’d been told.

Except… it wasn’t glorious at all. It was a caved-in pile of rubble. The Babylonians thoroughly looted the place, when they conquered it, after which anything else of value was slowly carted away by desperate people who were simply trying to survive.

So imagine if I spent 70 years telling you about the most magnificent burger in existence, one that was so juicy and tender and spilling over with cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and onions and bacon and anything else your heart desired.

Imagine that, at the end of 70 years, I said that you could finally have this burger you’d spent your whole life hearing about. You’ve never had a burger before, but the thought is exciting. Finally, you could have this near-magical experience!

Imagine, then, that I dump you off in the parking lot of a poorly staffed Burger King. Imagine that they get your order wrong, and you get a chicken sandwich instead. Imagine that the fries are cold. Imagine a paper crown sitting cooked on your head, like a joke.

These people did not get the glorious kingdom that they’d been promised. Rebuilding Jerusalem was hard work, and it didn’t pay well. They were becoming restive, maybe even resentful. They had made real sacrifices, put in real work, and it wasn’t being rewarded.

Isaiah 58 was written to answer their complaint. The author contends, here, that the reason that the new citizens of Jerusalem aren’t seeing the fabled glory of the city isn’t because it can’t exist, or because the citizens haven’t put in a lot of work.

It’s because they’re not living in covenant faithfulness.

Then, as now, people have this belief that if we work really hard, if we invest our labor smartly, if we keep our nose to the grindstone and our hands tugging on our bootstraps, then God will reward our labor.

Maybe, maybe not. Working hard offers better results than not working, for sure.

But when God lays out the precursors for divinely granted success, it’s never a matter of business acumen. You can win because you played the game well, but that’s not the same as being blessed.

Listen. Shelter the wanderer. Break every yoke. Respect the Sabbath.

If you get rid of unfair practices,

   quit blaming victims,

   quit gossiping about other people’s sins,

If you are generous with the hungry

   and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,

   your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

Those are the conditions for divinely granted success.

Go get your MBA, if you want. It’s not a bad thing to do. Learn the rules of investing. Learn how to break the rules in profitable ways. More power to you, especially if you plan to tithe on all that income.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of that. But: if you want to be blessed, start blessing. If you want God to give to you, then start giving it away.

The people of Jerusalem feel like they’re doing everything right. They’re following the fasts, praying for wisdom, eagerly seeking God’s face. They aren’t living justly, though- and while the historical prophet Isaiah was probably long dead at this point, one from the community he founded was called upon to call them out.

Three things in this story stand out to me. The first is the holiness of dissent.

We have this tendency, we humans, to see ourselves as split into two teams. There’s the good guys, which includes us of course, and then there’s the bad guys.

Criticism, then, becomes a zero-sum game. Any criticism of our team is evidence of disloyalty. It might cause us to fail. It’s encouraging and aiding the enemy team.

You can see this play out in national politics, in school board fights, in families and in executive boardrooms, and perhaps most disturbingly, in religious settings.

Yeah, sure, we may be flawed, but we’ll fix that once we’ve defeated the enemy. Until then, just keep that critique to yourself, okay?

Well, you know how she is- she gets angry sometimes. Everyone else understands that family matters, and just works around it. What’s wrong with you?

He’s a man of God, and he’s doing great work for God’s kingdom. How dare you criticize him?

We have to get them on board with the new strategic plan. Until then, nothing else matters.

Spoiler alert: that then never comes. It’ll never be okay to dissent.

Isaiah, and the prophets that follow in his tradition, face that claim down. They engage in the thing that our teams tell us can’t happen: faithful dissent. They offer criticism, not because they desire to tear their team down, but because they want so much to see it rebuilt and glorious.

Note how fervently the gospel of silence is preached, Friends, by those who most profit from the silence. And note that Jesus faithfully dissented his way to the cross, and that his choice was vindicated in the resurrection.

See if that doesn’t make you want to make some noise. See if that doesn’t make you want to faithfully dissent.

Here’s the second thing that stands out to me: keeping the Sabbath is a matter of justice. It’s not a polite suggestion. It’s a commandment and a prerequisite for blessing.

I’m going to work against my own interests, here, and remind you that keeping the Sabbath isn’t the same as showing up for church.

Look, every member of a community like this matters, and when you aren’t here, your absence is felt deeply. I hope you’ll be here next week, and the week after that- but that’s not what keeping the Sabbath is about.

Sabbath-keeping is about taking a break from work. It’s about unwinding. It’s about recreation, and re-creation. It’s about quitting the hustle, intentionally setting aside time for rest and renewal.

This isn’t optional, Friends. You can’t sacrifice your need for rest and then call yourself a martyr when the inevitable suffering sets in. And, in the interests of fairness, you also can’t demand that anyone else work themselves to the bone, either.

This looks different for different people, obviously. My dad’s a dairy farmer, and he’s never been able to convince the cows not to need milked on Sundays. I work on Sundays, too, so I can empathize with his plight. And we need nurses and police officers and firefighters every day of the week.

That can’t be helped. Nevertheless, what can be helped is our tendency to glorify a 24/7 lifestyle. What can be helped is our tendency to denigrate restfulness as laziness, to compute the worth of human beings in terms of productivity.

So, let me say this again: keeping the Sabbath is a matter of justice. It’s not a nice add-on to faithful living, because we are not merely the sum of what we produce. Prioritizing rest and renewal is an important part of living faithfully in the kingdom of God.

What are you going to remember, anyhow, when it’s all said and done? The hours spent hustling, or the hours spent on the back porch? Jesus said that the Sabbath is made for us, so it’s in our best interests to make use of it.

So. Number one: dissent is an essential aspect of faithfulness. Number two: rest is also an essential aspect of faithfulness.

Number three: God really will bless the justly lived life. Moreover, God will be present and will guide those who are living faithfully. This is what it says:

The Lord will guide you always;

he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land

and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a well-watered garden,

like a spring whose waters never fail.

The guidance of God will always be with you. This is a bold claim to make, you know. So let me be clear: I don’t mean to say that if you complain all the time and put your feet up on Sundays, your bank account is going to start growing exponentially. I’m not a TV preacher, and this isn’t a made-for-TV promise.

But this is the promise that we’re given, if we live justly and honor the Sabbath:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Repairer of Broken Walls- that has a nice ring to it. Have you ever lived in a house with unsound walls? Are you familiar with streets that need to be restored? Then you’re aware of the work that sits before us.

We’re offered, here, a blueprint for how this work can be done. It’s not a mission statement, not a strategic plan, not an operational outline. It’s a call to kingdom living:

Do what is fair and just to your neighbor.

Be merciful and loyal in your love.

And walk humbly with your God.

That’s what the kingdom looks like, from the beginning to the end of the Bible. That’s what the kingdom looks like in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. That’s what the kingdom looks like in Leviticus, the hopeful outline of God’s utopian people. That’s what the kingdom looks like in the Prophetic writings, which goad us toward faithfulness.

That’s what the kingdom looks like in the teachings of Jesus. That’s what the kingdom looks like in Acts, telling the stories of the early church. That’s what the kingdom looks like in John’s epistles, which extol the virtues of love.

And that’s what the kingdom looks like in Revelation, where all tears are wiped away and war is no more and all God’s children say Amen.

Act with justice.

Set your heart on mercy.

Walk with humility, and with God.

Picture these people back in Jerusalem, raised in exile on stories of glory, struggling amid rubble and ruin. What an audacious thing it would be, for them to put their trust in the kingdom of God, to love one another and provide for the poor and follow the natural order of work and rest. That’s a Gospel kind of freedom.

And so it is for us, Friends. It takes courage. May we set the oppressed free, put clothes on the shivering, do away with malicious talk, and call the Sabbath a delight. And in that, may we be blessed: may we find our blessed place in the kingdom of God.