Isaiah 58:1-12 • Psalm 112:1-9 • I Cor. 2:1-12 • Matthew 5:13-20
The theme this week is our generosity to others brings glory to God. The Psalmist points out the blessings of being generous and gracious to others; it helps us grow stronger in our relationship with God. The prophet Isaiah uses the illustration of fasting to remind us the reason we fast (humble ourselves) is not for our glory, but to grow closer to God and see opportunity to love and serve others. Matthew reminds us this is why we are the salt of the earth, and a light on a hill, so others see our good works and give glory to God. Paul tells the church in Corinth that manifestations of the Spirit—spiritual gifts—are given for the common good, to be a blessing to others.
Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness
Matthew 5:13-16, Isaiah 58:1-12
Start the sermon by sharing a random act of kindness someone did for you, or you were inspired to do for someone else. Ask the members to share when they’ve experienced a random act of kindness.
Random Acts of Kindness Day is February 17th in the US, and its origins are said to have been at a California restaurant in 1982. Writer Anne Herbert supposedly wrote the sentence “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a restaurant place mat in 1982. Later, Herbert wrote a children’s book titled Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty, which was published posthumously in 2016.
The nonprofit foundation Random Acts of Kindness was established in 1995 through a private endowment with the mission to inspire others to make spreading kindness a priority. They fulfill their mission by offering free online resources to encourage and educate about the power of kindness to change our world. The foundation coined the term “RAKtivist,” which means “a Random Acts of Kindness activist,” and from the stories shared at the beginning, some of you may have experienced the work of a RAKtivist.
Research has documented that when we show kindness, it sets off positive physical reactions in our bodies. The love hormone oxytocin and natural painkillers endorphins are released, and people have more confidence and energy. The stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure are reduced, and those who show kindness have less depression and anxiety. They may even live longer.
Having a day to recognize the power of kindness is great, but if showing kindness can produce so many positive benefits, why are we thinking about it only one day out of the year? Could it be that God knew the benefits of acts of kindness? Could it be that we’ve looked at some of his words and seen rules, when he was really giving us means to living better lives?
For example, when we read Matthew 5, what comes to mind, burden or blessing? In other words, is righteous living simply a requirement for Christians, or does it have another purpose?
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16 NRSV)
Note the reason we let our light shine: So others can see our good works and praise God for them. They see that our works are not to bring glory to the self, but to help them have a clearer picture of who God is. Our good works illuminate God’s goodness.
When Paul tells the church at Corinth about spiritual gifts, he makes it clear why we are given these gifts. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NRSV). God gives us gifts so we can be a blessing to others.
It’s easy for believers to think of kindness as a lesser gift, or to give kindness a lower priority than other spiritual practices, like prayer, Bible study, or church attendance. In this, we’re not alone. Even the ancient people of Judah struggled to understand what constitutes righteousness. Let’s look at Isaiah 58, verses 1-12.
Read the passage or select verses from passage.
Notice that the people of Judah were fasting from food, but then they were fighting with each other. The prophet reminds them the purpose of fasting–to show kindness and relieve the burdens that others carry. The passage from Isaiah also shows that kindness positively impacts you, those you are kind to, and the world, much like the scientific research about kindness has revealed.
What can we learn about righteous living from today’s passages?
- Righteous living isn’t about bringing attention to ourselves, it is to bring attention to the goodness of God. Many suffer from misguided and misinformed views of who God is. Many see God as a stern judge who is looking for reasons to condemn and sentence. Righteous living gives a different view of God. We show that we love him because he first loved us. Our lives demonstrate peace that surpasses understanding. We follow the new commandment of loving others as he loves us.
- Righteous living has more to do with how we love others than how holy or moral we are. It’s not that God is opposed to fasting or humbling oneself or any other spiritual disciplines. It’s just that loving others by showing kindness at every opportunity has a far greater reach in changing the world for the better. We could invest all our energies in a personal, self-improvement project, or we could watch for opportunities to show kindness to others and find ourselves changed for the better in the process. Since God is all about relationships, it makes sense that the most growth would happen in the context of relationship.
- Real righteous living satisfies others’ needs as well as our own. When we are attentive to opportunities to show kindness to others, we end up nourishing our own health and well-being. Rather than feeling like we can grow spiritually only with activities requiring solitude, we begin to see that community and solitude are both necessary components of a balanced life.
- Ask God to help you see opportunities to share love and kindness with others. Sometimes we get so busy with life, we don’t see the needs right in front of us. It’s good to ask God to help us see others as he sees them, and then to help us love them just as they are. Show kindness, even when it is least expected.
- Build a margin of time into your life. Far too often, we time our lives down to the minute as we move through our daily activities, and when we do that, we don’t have time to help anyone. Worse yet, as we are so busy we don’t even notice opportunities to help. By building in a few extra minutes whenever we are going someplace, we have the time to work random acts of kindness into our daily routine.
- Make sure your kindness helps another retain his or her dignity. While sometimes giving money or buying something for someone is appropriate, it could also diminish their self-respect, so it’s important to be sensitive to that. In one story shared on the Random Acts of Kindness website, one person shared that as an elementary school student, her family was poor, and while the school offered a free lunch program, they didn’t handle it very tactfully. When the teacher was collecting the lunch money for the day, anyone who couldn’t pay had to call out “Free.” This embarrassed her, so she would skip lunch. The bus driver must have heard about her situation, but instead of simply giving her money, he told her he needed help opening the doors when kids got on the bus in the morning and making sure all the kids got off the bus once they arrived at school. She was the last person off the bus, after she made sure all the other kids had exited, and the bus driver paid her a quarter each day. She never had to skip lunch again after that.
Challenge yourself to watch for not-so-random acts of kindness, and make kindness the language of love you speak to your family and to the world! In so doing, you bring glory to God.
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Small Group Discussion Questions
- Reading this selection from Isaiah, it sounds like God is responding harshly to those who focus on their personal holiness to the exclusion of their relationships with others. While contemplative practices like prayer, Bible study, and meditation are important and discussed in other parts of Scripture, why do you think the passage highlights the way the people of Judah were interacting with others? In other words, how should spiritual disciplines like prayer, study, and meditation influence our relationships?
- Isaiah 58 is often read as part of the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, an annual day of fasting. Hebrew scholars notice that the passage uses puns or wordplay to contradict a personal fast with the practice of feeding the hungry or wearing sackcloth (as a gesture of humility) with the practice of clothing those who are naked. By using literary techniques contrasting the limitations of personal practice with the far-reaching impact of replacing others’ affliction by a personal response, readers can see that the passage is helping readers move beyond legalistic ideas and toward greater understanding of community.
- How can our own experiences of hunger, disappointment, grief, and loss make us more compassionate toward those in our community?
- How do these experiences help us become more aware of others’ suffering?
- Random Acts of Kindness Day is February 17th each year in the US. Does anyone have a story about how someone showed you kindness on Feb. 17th or another day of the year?
- Showing kindness to others does not always mean a financial donation. What are ways we can be kind to others that don’t cost anything?