Look after yourself!?!
Isaiah 58:6-12

We have a saying in our society that is used quite regularly as we part company with one another, you may know it, “Look after yourself.”  I have often thought that this was a bit of an odd thing to say to a friend or loved one.  On the one hand it could mean that we hope that they do take care of themselves, so that at some stage in the future we can meet again in happy circumstances.  But it could also be taken to mean look after yourself because no-one else will.

Our society has on the whole become focussed on looking after ourselves and our own best interests hasn’t it?  We are usually most concerned about how a decision made or about to be made will affect us directly.  For example when the country’s or state’s budgets are handed down, if we are pensioners we look specifically at what has been (or what hasn’t been given) for pensioners, if we are student’s what’s in there for us, for families with school children, likewise.  It is the way we are programmed; we look out for number one.

Our first reading today, a passage from the prophet Isaiah encourages a slightly different perspective.  This is a call to care for others, to hold a personal fast that has benefits for other people more than us.  This was Isaiah trying to shift the focus of God’s people off of themselves and onto those who were less fortunate than themselves.

Each of our readings today were in fact chosen to match with the special day of thanksgiving for Australian Lutheran World Service’s sixty years of service.  They reflect a focus and encouragement to seek out those in need and care for them, precisely what ALWS has been up to on our behalf.  They have been providing food to the hungry, shelter for the wanderer, clothing to the naked, loosening the chains of injustice for sixty years.  As we see in the quote on the front of the envelope in the News today, “The Lutheran is the only people I see in my 77 years who has come to help us.” 

As supporters of ALWS we have enabled that connection for Men Lam and countless others who might otherwise not have been helped.  I’m not going to go into lots of detail about how, when and where ALWS does its work, that is something that is widely communicated and we hear about often.  What I do want to say is that not only are the people who are helped appreciative of the help they receive, but we in turn are blessed by the giving that we do.

As you may have noticed Isaiah explaining, “if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will be like the noonday.”  This is being blessed through blessing others.  Now we do have to beware of a theology of glory or even prosperity theology here.  The emphasis is not on doing in order that you might receive, or doing in order that you will be recognised for your great generosity.  I think the meaning and result here is far more subtle.

The metaphor used is that of being like a well watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  Imagine a beautiful garden in spring, new flowers opening their petals in the warm sun, moist soil feeding and nurturing them, or a fresh mountain spring, pure, bubbling down a rock into a pool, fresh and available to give sustenance and support to others.  There is nothing grandiose, arrogant, or pious about it, just simple warmth and beauty.  A redirection from the potentially ugly self centred life to one of kind-natured, loving care of our fellow human beings who are in need of some sort of assistance.

When we don’t say “Look after yourself”, but instead take the time and effort to care for them, we are both blessed.  As we heard in James 2, “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”  When we have been given gifts by God to serve others it seems right and fair that we should then share them with others.

It is important of course to note that our salvation isn’t dependent on whether or not we give to others or do good works to them, but we can’t go past readings like ours today and not realise the importance of being loving and gracious toward others.

The roles of the readings are a bit reversed today, our Gospel reading seems to be based on the Law, a time of judgement on whether or not we’ve seen the needs of others and responded.  “What you do for the least of these, you do to me”.  It’s hard to see past the judgement when it comes second in the reading; the good response was mentioned before the not so good.

We know however that when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead he will do so in the light of his giving himself as the firstfruits offering.  We have been given the gift of eternal life and forgiveness of sins by him, he sees us through the cross, not for what we have or haven’t done.

Our faith though does enable us to live in response to the gift he’s given us and share of the firstfruits of our labour with him and those who are in need.

So rather than overlooking the needs of others or offering the standard, “Look after yourself”, wouldn’t it be great to give thanks to God for what he has given us and in response give to others so that they too can receive and be blessed?  What’s the worst that can happen?  That we are a little bit short for ourselves but living in the light like the noonday, or like a well watered garden?  I can think of far worse situations to be in!

Let’s give thanks for the work of Australian Lutheran World Service and the way that they care for others on our behalf, we don’t even have to get our hands dirty, they will organise it for us.  Mind you if you do want to get your hands dirty I’m sure they would be keen to hear from you!

Live in the grace that God has given you, give in response to that grace, love with the love that the Lord has given you and be blessed by the one who came to give you life and love beyond our understanding.

Amen.