True Worship

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 58:3-9

A lot of people are interested in “spirituality.” Many today are designing their own religion, made up of the things that interest them. Isaiah 58 is all about the kind of religion that interests God.

One morning as I sat in his chair getting a haircut, my barber asked me, “So what’s with this Ramadan thing, anyway?” I explained to him a little bit about the five pillars of Islam, the major religious acts that every devout Muslim is supposed to perform. One of these five basic requirements is to fast throughout the daylight hours every year during the month of Ramadan. But then we went on to talk about the way religion — any religion, not just Islam — so often can turn into a system of justifying oneself by means of one’s own performance of rituals or rules. Human beings seem to have a built-in tendency to want to earn their way to heaven, a bias towards works’ righteousness.

But an equally grave danger for religious individuals is to divorce their practice of religion from the ethical demands of the Law of God, so that they observe the former but ignore the latter. In other words, religious people can also go wrong by focusing primarily on acts of worship and piety, thinking these things are what keep them in good standing with God, while neglecting personal and public morality.

Think, for example, of the person who goes to church regularly but abuses his wife at home. Or the businessman who writes a check to the Red Cross for disaster victims while consistently mistreating and taking advantage of his own employees. Or the couple who sing duets together in church and in between songs talk about how much they love the Lord and how much he means to them, but they’re both having extra-marital affairs. The list could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

The problem when we separate the first part of the Great Commandment from the second. You remember what Jesus said when he was asked which was the most important command in all the Law of God. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Then he added, “and love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-33). Those two things have to go together. As the apostle John wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

When Religion Doesn’t Work

That’s exactly what Isaiah is talking about in the 58th chapter of his prophecy. Or perhaps I should say that’s what the Lord is talking about through his servant the prophet. Isaiah 58 is one of the most powerful and convicting chapters in all of scripture. It begins with the Lord giving instructions to Isaiah to issue a strong and solemn warning to the people of Judah; so strong, in fact, that the prophet is told to shout out his message with a voice like a trumpet. “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins” (v.1). So obviously, God has a pretty significant problem here with his people. Yet, interestingly, it isn’t the problem God normally addresses through the prophets.

As you know if you’re familiar at all with the Old Testament, the thing that constantly caused Israel trouble from the Exodus all the way to the Exile was their chronic temptation to the sin of idolatry. God’s people were continually turning away from him and prostituting themselves — this is exactly the analogy that the prophets used — by worshiping the idols of the surrounding pagan culture. Like a husband who is an inveterate womanizer, the people of Israel couldn’t stop looking at the gods and goddesses of their neighbors.

But the exile cured that problem once and for all. By the time we come to the final chapters of Isaiah things have changed for the people of Israel. These chapters were written for the time when the community of exiles in Babylon would be restored to their homeland in Zion (in Jerusalem). Losing their freedom, their city and their Temple, and then spending 70 years as captives in a foreign land, seems to have finally chastened the people of Israel. Finally the message got through to them: Don’t follow other gods. So after the exile the overt worship of idols would never again be a significant problem among the Jewish people.

So now the people are worshiping God regularly, even sacrificially. They have repented for their past disloyalty. They have even underscored the seriousness of their commitment to faithfully serve God by public fasting. But something was wrong. Their religion didn’t seem to be working for them. Their scrupulous rituals were not bringing God’s obvious blessing, the way the people thought they should. Isaiah quotes the people’s complaint against God in verse three: “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

I don’t know about you, but my immediate reaction to that complaint would have been to remind the people that we’re in no position to manipulate God. No one should think they can put God in their debt and obligate him to bless them simply by performing certain religious actions. As the apostle Paul stated, even if we had the zeal of martyrs and gave our bodies to be burned, without love such sacrifices are worth nothing and gain us nothing. That’s a paraphrase of the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13, a passage that suicide bombers would do well to study.

But Isaiah makes a different point here. He says that the fasting and spiritual exercises in which the people have been engaging are defective. They may have been improving their piety, but the people were still failing miserably socially and morally. Despite all the preaching of past prophets, people like Amos and Micah, Israel still didn’t get it. God’s people still didn’t understand that he was just as concerned — in fact, more concerned — about social justice than about ritual correctness or religious exercises.

So the Lord spells it out for them. Even while they are fasting and repenting, praying and seeking God, if they’re also exploiting the poor, fighting and quarreling among themselves (v. 4), gossiping and criticizing and insulting one another (v. 9), they haven’t figured out what God really wants. By focusing on their vertical relationship with the Lord but ignoring their horizontal relationships with each other, God’s people were making themselves guilty of the most basic (and deadly) sin of the religiously inclined — hypocrisy.

How to Fast Properly

After diagnosing the problem Isaiah goes on to offer a correction. In one of the most moving passages in all the Old Testament, God himself defines what proper fasting looks like from his point of view.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood. (vv. 6-7, NIV)

God’s demand from his people is what we might call relational holiness. A commitment to social justice and to mercy and compassion for all people must be the hallmark of those who claim to love and serve God. God expects nothing less from each of us! Religious rituals are no substitute for daily obedience. God is dishonored when his people are so self-absorbed that they are indifferent to human suffering or to social injustice. No wonder if we fail to experience God’s blessing or receive answers to our prayers, when that’s the way we’re living.

So let’s be clear. God holds us responsible for how we treat one another. This is just as important to God as the way we relate to him. Moreover, God is concerned about all sin of every kind. Most of us suffer from spiritual tunnel vision: we focus very clearly on certain kinds of sin (usually those we are not personally guilty of) while conveniently ignoring the others. So for people on the right it’s fairly easy to get worked up over pornography or abortion or drug abuse. For people on the left, it’s more likely to be social exploitation or genocide or racism.

But what about all sins? What about institutional and corporate evil? What about things in our society like greed, excess consumption, denial of human rights, and injustice? What about sins of omission toward the poor and underprivileged? What about issues such as homelessness and hunger and health care and education? Yes, and pornography and abortion and all the rest. Do we as Christians wrestle with all kinds of sin? These aren’t liberal or conservative questions. They’re not socialist or capitalist issues, or Democratic or Republican: they are biblical issues.

One last word. Just as Isaiah so beautifully describes the kind of “fasting” the Lord is interested in, so with equally moving language he outlines the blessings of obedience to his will and his way. If we will serve him in the way that he calls for, seeking justice and mercy for all people, God promises that

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.” . . . If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually . . . and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations . . . (vv. 8-12)

Amen. May it be so!