Loosening the Chains of the Spiritually Poor
Bible Reading: Isaiah 1:13-20
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
In the last of our Lenten Series on Loosening the Chains we are looking at how we can help the spiritually poor. What does it mean for a person to be spiritually poor and how does the upcoming Easter message speak to this. A powerful ending for our series on injustice and a great way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
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Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent, next Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. On the very first week of Lent I encouraged us to use this time to simplify our lives, to make time or space for God and for spiritual reflection and encouraged three traditional spiritual practices of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
And this Lent as a focus we have used two verses from Isaiah 58 where God said:
6 “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. 7 Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.
That was summed up in the quote from West Indian social advocate Leela Ramdeen, “Lent and Easter remind us that our baptism must mean something; it should transform our lives and lead us to hunger and thirst for justice and peace; it should lead us to commit to live by every value for which Jesus stood. As an Easter people, let us overcome indifference and recognise that we are God’s instruments to build a better world.”
I also on week 1 admitted that I have gotten the idea for this flow from a sermon by Pope Francis – where he spoken about poverty in three ways…
- Material poverty … ie people don’t have what they need
- Moral poverty … people or society making immoral decisions which impact others.
- Spiritual poverty … which is what we are looking at today.
I need to just pause and help define this term, because in some religious traditions, the term “spiritual poverty” refers to the vow of spiritual poverty – deciding to become material poor so that you can focus more on God and being spiritually rich.
That is not the definition that I am focusing on today but rather if materially poor is not having what is needed to physically live, spiritually poor is not having what is needed to spiritually live – to have life in all its fullness! (John 10:10). Spiritual poverty is when we turn away from God and reject God’s love. If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, it is that point we find ourselves spiritually poor.
Actually, Ray DeGraw was able to explain it even better in an article entitled “thoughts on Spiritual Poverty”. He was jotting down some idea on being poor and wrote these dot points:
- Material Poverty is the lack of things truly needed to live
- Material Poverty implies an awareness that there is more that is beyond their ability to obtain (i.e a person realises may not realise they are poor until they see others with more that they cannot have)
- Material Poverty can impact relationships and affect people’s self worth (not having enough is more than the pain of hunger or cold … it is the stress and shame of not being able to provide and can destroy a person and their relationships)
- Material Poverty forces people to prioritise – often in an unhelpful way (i.e a mother might have to decide between eating herself or buying medicine for a child)
As he pondered this list, he realised that if he just changed one word – inserting spiritual instead of material – the list could almost be read exactly the same…
- Spiritual Poverty is the lack of things truly needed to live
- Spiritual Poverty implies an awareness that there is more that is beyond their ability to obtain (or does it? I will come back to this in a moment)
- Spiritual Poverty can impact relationships and affect people’s self worth (absolutely … when we are struggling to connect with God, that can play out in our relationships and our own self worth)
- Spiritual Poverty forces people to prioritise – often in an
unhelpful way (actually with this one Ray thought that sometimes when people are really spiritually struggling, they may start to prioritise things that help them spiritually – such as prayer, worship, reconnecting with other Christians etc )
But can you see what Ray was trying to do? Does this help with our definition of Spiritual poverty? Although the Bible doesn’t use this term too much, it does talk a lot about this concept of the richness that comes through our relationship with God and conversely, this feeling of lacking, or missing something, when our relationship with God is not as good.
Sometimes this spiritual poverty is our own fault … Romans 3:23 admits that we all have spiritually lacking. Colossians 1:21 says that we were far away from God because of the things we did and thought. But sometimes this spiritual poverty can just happen without us really even noticing. Check out this verse from Proverbs 6:10-11 from the Living Bible:
“Let me sleep a little longer!” Sure, just a little more! 11 And as you sleep, poverty creeps upon you like a robber and destroys you…
The context in Proverbs is clearly talking about material poverty but you could say the same about spiritual poverty.
While we were spiritually napping we don’t realise that our relationship with God is now not quite the same and are now feeling the poorer for it.
An even more confronting passage is from Revelation chapter 3:14-18 – God’s words to the church of Laodicea. God is complaining that their spirituality has gone lukewarm. But listen to God’s words on why… verse 17
17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
When we were looking at Ray’s list and asked the question whether people who are spiritually poor have an awareness of it … sometimes I think they do, but sometimes no. As God said to the church in Laodicea, you do not realise how spiritually poor you are. Jesus criticised the Pharisees numerous times for this … highlighting it one time when he said that the blind man could see more clearly than they could!
So … how are you going in your relationship with God? Are we even aware of our spiritual state? Or maybe we are and have that feeling that something is lacking? Has spiritual poverty crept into your life while you were distracted? What is the solution to being spiritually poor?
Well this is where our bible reading comes in for today. Isaiah chapter 1 starts with God going off at the people of God for turning their backs on God’s way. God had showed them a way of interacting with each other and with God that would lead to life and blessings and fulfillment – but instead they had walked away and now find themselves in a place of desolation – a place of spiritual poverty.
And so in our reading we see that in an effort to “please God” they bring sacrifices and meaningless offerings to God, they go through the motions in worship but not really mean it. God says “just stop … learn to do what is right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed and the fatherless and the widow, but just stop with the meaningless dribble”. Actually, God uses an analogy that is quite confronting. In verse 15 God is saying that they spread out their hands in prayer, but God is not seeing them, God is not listening because their hands are full of blood. Wow. Talk about a fracture in the relationship. It is describing a total spiritual bankruptcy.
But then in verse 18, God does something unexpected.
In a world where justice demands consequences for behaviour.
In a situation where these people were undeniably guilty
To a people who have caused this relationship breakdown,
this spiritual poverty… God … offers … Grace.
Listen to verse 18 – really listen to these words…
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, (or your hand be full of blood)
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
In a series where we have been stressing the importance of doing what is right, of being just … God turns everything on its head. God … offers … Grace. (Just like in cam’s talk)
It is the same in the Revelation 3 passage. God is saying to the church that they are lukewarm, but then in verse 20 gives this image that God is still standing at the door knocking and if they let God in, he will eat with them and they with him. God … offers… Grace. All we have to do is let God in.
Isn’t that what we are just about to acknowledge over the next two weeks when we hear the story of Easter again? This extraordinary idea that despite the fact that we have not earnt it or deserve it … God out of love offers us forgiveness and Grace.
Romans 3:23 sums it up perfectly (in the message translation)
Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity God put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. God got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And God did it by means of Jesus Christ.
I love that version for that phrase “we are utterly incapable”.
It doesn’t mean we are a lost cause, it is just admitting that to get right we God we are total dependency on God’s grace. We are totally dependent on God’s strength and guidance to even attempt to live lives of justice, grace and love.
Which leads me to my last point – I cannot preach on Spiritual poverty without mentioning the line of Jesus from the Beatitudes – Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I have just spent a whole sermon saying that spiritually poor is not a good thing, something that we should address, and Jesus pops up to say that those who are poor in spirit are … blessed?
The answer lies in the Greek – The word poor in this verse is not the word used to describe the “Material Poor” (penechros) such as the poor widow … but rather the Greek word is ptochos which literally means “”to crouch or cower as one helpless.” –– those who are totally dependent on others to help them in their situation. Jesus is actually backing up the point I just made. That when we realise our spiritual poverty can only be solved at feet of one person – Jesus – we are blessed and the kingdom of heaven is open to us. Amen?
I should finish the sermon there – but this gift of Grace demands a response. Because God has done in Jesus, we need to stand in solidarity with that love and grace and show that same love and grace to others. It would be an injustice if we didn’t.
We are almost at the end of our Lenten journey – Holy Week starts next Sunday. And while lent is a journey of towards death we need to remember that it ultimately is about life.
In the Easter Story or in our lives, in the points where we experience undeniable heaviness, in the times when we are feeling the separation or dryness of being spiritually poor – the good news is God … shows … us … Grace. At the cross of Jesus, we find love and forgiveness and restoration. As Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 8:9, We now know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – because though Jesus was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that through his poverty – through Jesus giving all of himself on the cross – we might become spiritually rich. Amen.