A sermon on Isaiah 58:9b-14
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
August 25, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The case was called by CBS News as “the poster child for frivolous lawsuits.” In some circles, it has become known as “Stella’s Law.” You may remember it. It received extensive media coverage in the United States and internationally as well. It also became the butt of jokes and fodder for many late night comedy routines…
On February27, 1992, 79 year old Stella Liebeck went through the drive-thru at her local McDonald’s in Albuquerque, NM. She ordered a 59¢ cup of coffee. After she received her coffee, she asked her grandson to pull over to the side of the road, so that she could add cream and sugar to her drink. The 1989 Ford Probe that he was driving did not have any cup holders. So she placed the cup between her knees and proceeded to take off the lid. As she did, the cup tipped over. The hot coffee spilled all over her lap.
Although the coffee temperature was within industry standards—actually, Starbuck’s serves their coffee at a higher temperature than McDonald’s—it burned her thighs. To make matters worse, the sweatpants that she was wearing absorbed the scalding coffee and held it in place, making her burn injuries that much more severe. Her grandson immediately rushed her to the hospital emergency room where she was diagnosed with third degree burns on her legs, her thighs and her groin area. She required skin grafts, spent weeks in the hospital, and then three months at home recuperating from the injuries that she had sustained from the accident.
When she was well enough, Ms. Liebeck contacted McDonald’s, explained what had happened to her, blamed her injuries on the excessive temperature of her coffee, and offered to settle the matter for $20,000. This was about the amount of her medical bills, plus the lost wages that her daughter incurred while taking off from work to care for her at home. McDonald’s rejected her request. Instead, they offered her $800. So Ms. Liebeck retained a lawyer and sued McDonald’s.
Two years later, she won the court case. The jury sided with her and awarded her $2.86 million dollars under a product liability statute. The presiding judge later reduced the award to $640,000. Before the inevitable appeal process had begun, though, it was reported that the case was settled for an undisclosed amount of money.1 It is one of those stories that proves the old saying that sometimes truth REALLY is stranger than fiction…
1 (Accessed August 22, 2019)
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So it begs the question? Who really was to blame for Ms. Lieback’s injuries? Was it McDonald’s—as she and her lawyers insisted—for serving coffee that was hot enough to be a health hazard? Was it the Ford Motor Company for manufacturing a car that was not equipped with cup holders? (That possibility was not mentioned in any of the articles I read about the case, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it had…) Or was she herself to blame for trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee in an unsafe matter? Seems like there was plenty of blame to go around…
This case is a symbol for what has become our reality. It seems to me that finger pointing at others when tragedy strikes is a national pastime. Perhaps it is because bad news is always in front of us due to the 24-hour news cycle. Perhaps it is because the instinct for political survival has become too strong in our elected officials. Accordingly, our elected officials are no longer interested in doing what is right or what is in the nation’s best interests. Instead they are only interested in what is convenient and what benefits them. Whatever the cause, avoiding being blamed for anything seems to be critically important among our nation’s leaders.
Another week, another series of heartbreaking, terrible events—the latest mass shooting, economic worries, racial tensions, natural disasters, wars and rumors of wars. And when these terrible things happen, have you noticed that no one wants to take responsibility for any of it? Democrats blame Republicans. Republicans blame Democrats. The White House blames both Democrats and Republicans. Gun control advocates blame lax gun laws and the availability of assault rifles. Gun rights advocates blame deficiencies in the nation’s mental health care system. And on and on it goes—until the next crisis occurs. When things go south on the national stage, all our politicians seem to want to do is to play “The Blame Game”…
The situation in which we find ourselves today has some startling similarities to the situation in which the people of Israel found themselves in Isaiah 58. Things had gone terribly wrong in their nation. And the people were asking questions, looking for someone to blame…
This section of the book of Isaiah was written during the waning days of the Persian Empire’s influence over the land of Israel. You may recall that the nation had been completely conquered by the Persians in the 6th Century BC. In the wake of that terrible time of death, destruction and humiliation, many of Israel’s brightest and best had been carted off to serve their captors in foreign lands. For all intents and purposes, the people had been enslaved once again—just as they had been in Egypt hundreds of years earlier.
But it was now fifty years later since those terrible days when the world seemed to crash down around their ears. The Jewish people began to return home. Ironically it was not a time of joy for many. A generation or two had passed since the carnage had taken place. Those who were old enough to still remember how it once was were appalled at the desolation that greeted their eyes. The city of Jerusalem’s walls lay in ruins. The Temple—the same magnificent building that King Solomon had built during Israel’s glory days—was gone. All that was left of that Temple was a large pile of unsightly rubble and debris. The people were shocked. They began to ask themselves, “Why did this happen? How did
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this come to be?” In their search for answers, they began to cry out to God. Like many of us, they were driven in desperation to turn to the Lord as a last resort. And again like many of us, it should have been the first place that they sought…
In the opening verses of this passage, God says to the people. “Cry out to me and I will be there. If you do what you are supposed to do, if you treat people justly and fairly, if you take care of those among you who are afflicted, then I will make you to prosper. I will guide your steps; I will help you to rebuild your land; and I will make you to be the kind of people that you deeply desire to be.” It is one of the major themes of the entire Old Testament communicated in this text. God says that, if you obey me, then you will prosper. If you disobey me, then you will suffer…
What caught my interest in this passage is verse 9. In that verse, God tells the people to remove the yoke from their own kin—that is, stop taking advantage of—stop exploiting—one another. Stop abusing one another for your own ends. Stop treating others like possessions instead of people. And he also tells them to stop “the pointing of the finger” and “the speaking of evil.” The Hebrew word used for the phrase “pointing of the finger” is sä-lach’, a word that is translated in other places as “send away.” While it is not as vulgar or crude as some hand gestures that we may be used to seeing, it still is a dismissive sign—a gesture of contempt toward others.
As far as I have been able to tell, this is the only place in the Bible where the idea of pointing the finger at someone else is discussed. And it is not a happy picture.
The people were wondering how such a catastrophe as the Babylonian captivity could have befallen Israel. How could their life been suddenly uprooted? How could have so many of them been carried away in slavery? And most of all—who was to blame? The clear picture in verse nine is that they were looking for a scapegoat—someone to hold responsible for their misfortune. They were blaming one another for what had happened. No one was taking any personal responsibility for their part in causing the tragedy that had happened. Each pointing the finger at the other. And in this passage, God tells the people that it has got to stop…
The teaching of the scriptures—both the Old Testament and the New—is that everyone is responsible for their own sins. Everyone is responsible for their own mistakes. One’s choices DO affect the outcome of what happens in our lives and in larger contexts as well. Trying to assign blame to someone else when troubles come your way is a losing proposition…
For example, through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks these words,
What do you people mean by quoting this proverb in the land of Israel: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die. (Jeremiah 18:1-4)
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Jeremiah says that when trouble occurs in one’s life, it is not because of some sin that the parents committed somewhere down the line. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. No one else is to be blamed…
And our Lord Jesus taught the very same thing. In the opening verses of John 9, Jesus and his disciples are walking down the road when they encounter a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples turn to Jesus and ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
That strikes me as a rather odd question. How is it that the man could have been born blind due to his own sin? Was it possible for him to sin while he was still in his mother’s body? It does not seem very likely to me…I do know that when our older son Will was a few weeks away from entering this world, it was obvious that he was twisting and turning around inside of Miriam’s body. Maybe even doing cartwheels before he was born. Together we watched him do it on a number of occasions. It was a bit of inexpensive entertainment for first-time parents-to-be. Don’t know if the discomfort Will caused Miriam during those times would count as “sin” or not…probably not…
But back to the disciples’ question about the man being born blind…In response to the disciples’ question, Jesus said, ‘”Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Again, the man’s blindness was not the result of someone else’s sin. His condition actually had nothing at all to do with sin. There was no one to blame…
Here is the main take-away from the sermon this morning: Blaming others is not a spiritual virtue. Each one of us is responsible for our own spiritual standing before God.
The lesson from Isaiah 58 is, if you want to have the relationship with God that you desire, then it involves both negative and positive actions. We are to stop doing the things that hinder our relationship to God. We are to avoid the sin that is not worthy of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In Isaiah 58, the prophet lists some of them: the people were to stop treating others as if they were not their neighbors. They were to stop blaming others for their own mistakes and misfortunes and for the troubles in their nation. They were to stop speaking evil of one another—to their faces and behind their backs.
In addition to no longer doing those things, Isaiah says that God’s people are also to do the things that build a sense of community with others. He says to feed and take care of those who need help. He says that we are to nurture our relationship to God through taking seriously to worship with the believers when the community gathers each week to praise, pray and recommit ourselves to the Lord. He says that, when you do those things, then you will be able to take delight in the Lord and that you will find resources in your life that you did not have before.
Hear again the words of the Lord in verse nine: “You shall call and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.” What will you answer? How will you respond? Let us pray:
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O God of mercy and compassion–
As we ourselves have been welcomed with grace from You, help us to further extend grace to others. Help us to own up to our inadequacies, realizing that you alone are sufficient for our needs. Send us out from this place to serve all of God’s people, meeting them where they are. Aid us as we stand with those who are uncertain about life, with those who have stumbled in their journey. May we be nourished by Your dreams for us, as we touch the world we encounter with the healing and the hope that only comes from You. Make us worthy of Your call, O Lord…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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