The story is told of a trembling old man who was brought before a judge after a bitterly cold night for stealing a loaf of bread from a local grocery store. The man pleaded guilty, but added he stole the bread because his family was hungry.
The judge said, “The law makes no exception. I have to punish you, so I fine you $10.”The judge then reached into his pocket and gave the man $10 to pay his fine.
Then the judge said, “I am fining everyone in this courtroom $5 for living in a town where a man has to steal bread in order to eat.”The bailiff collected $200 and at the order of the judge gave the money to the defendant.
Did the judge rule correctly?
Was the judge acting justly?
If you were in the courtroom, would you have paid your $5 fine, or would you have protested?
Would Judge Judy be proud?
Was it really the town’s fault that the man had to steal bread to feed his family?
Was the man really poor, or had he wasted his money on drugs or alcohol or a lottery ticket?
Is poverty the responsibility of the individual, or is it the responsibility of society?
Today’s text, Isaiah 58:1-14, is part of the third and final section of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). This section of the great prophet is sometimes referred to as Third Isaiah.In this chapter God calls Isaiah to address the problem of fake religion.The prophet’s message is an admonishment against devotion to religious rituals while ignoring the real needs of people. AT FCC we like to say, “People over programs.”Isaiah was condemning God’s people for putting programs over people.
Jesus may have had Isaiah’s words in mind when He admonished the Pharisees, saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24). Jesus’s brother, James, possibly had Isaiah 58 in mind when he wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”(James 1:27).
This prophecy is for the exiles of the southern kingdom (Judah) on their return from Babylonian captivity. The essence of Isaiah’s prophecy is that the people’s worship had become worthless because their worship did not result in working for justice. They were keeping their faith inside the walls of the sanctuary instead of living out their faith in the streets of the city.
Here is today’s BIG IDEA: The outward expression of genuine worship is works of justice.
Isaiah’s message begins with a strong condemnation: “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet”(Isaiah 58:1a). The “trumpet”refers to a ram’s horn, called a shofar.A loud trumpet blast, like this one, was used to signal the beginning of the Day of Atonement—a time of repentance, followed by forgiveness—an appropriate description of Isaiah 58.
What is Isaiah to proclaim? Why do the people need to repent?
Isaiah continues, “Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.”(Isaiah 58:1b-2).
God’s people had sinned. They had rebelled. Yet, it sounds like they were doing all the right things. They were seeking God. They wanted to know God’s will. They saw themselves as a righteous nation. They believed they were obeying God’s commands. They were asking for God to be near them and to show them justice. Yet, again, after getting their attention through blowing the shofar, Isaiah says, “You have sinned. You have rebelled. And you are so deceived you don’t even know it!”
Their worship, while generous, wasn’t genuine. They were worshiping God for personal gain (“what’s in it for me?”), instead of public transformation. And the greatest of all deceptions, and the hardest to overcome, is self-deception steeped in religion.
Isaiah continues, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’”(Isaiah 58:3a). Have you ever heard people say, “If you do your part, God will do His part?”Well, that’s just not true! Especially if the only reason you are doing your part is so God will do His part. God is under no obligation to do anything for you. If the only reason you do anything for God is so He will answer your prayers and bless your mess, you will be sorely disappointed. The people to which Isaiah was prophesying were worshiping God but their hearts were far from God. They were doing something for God SO THATGod would do something for them. They thought God was a transactionalGod—“If I do this, God will do that”—when God is a relational, reconciling, transformationalGod.
In this passage Isaiah uses two religious practices—fasting (vv. 3-7) and Sabbath observance (vv. 13-14)—to illustrate His point. If Isaiah were writing to us today, he probably would use tithing and church attendance as his examples. Both are worthless if our hearts and attitudes are not right!
God’s condemnation continues. Isaiah writes, “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers”(Isaiah 58:3b). In context, the type of fasting the people were practicing was a sign of repentance. Yet, after repenting, they continued to do whatever they wanted to do. There was no real life change! To put it in modern vernacular, “They go to church every Sunday but live like the devil Monday through Saturday.”
Even worse, their religious practices harmed other people! Isaiah says their fasting took advantage of their employees (“exploit all your workers”). Historical context is needed to understand what Isaiah was saying. This is a warning against the wealthy. If a person was fasting, everyone in his family, and all his servants, would be required to fast. One of two things was taking place. First, the person fasting was making his servants work while not allowing them to eat during the fast. Or second, the workers were not allowed to work during the fast, but then the next day they were required to work twice as hard and twice as long to make up for the previous day’s fast. Both were unfair to the worker.
But that wasn’t all, Isaiah continues, “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high”(Isaiah 58:4). Simply put: If your worship of God makes you less loving and less kind, you are doing it wrong.
Next, through Isaiah, God asks a serious of rhetorical questions: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”(Isaiah 58:5). The obvious answer to all these questions is, “NO!”
What does true worship look like?
“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?”(Isaiah 58:6-7). Read those verses again and let them sink deep into your soul. And as you read, remember: The outward expression of genuine worship is works of justice.
These words of Isaiah sound a lot like Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, do they not? God help us! God forgive us! We are busy practicing our religion while people around us are being oppressed, imprisoned, starving, and homeless. Yet, we have a church on every corner and a nicely landscaped park in every neighborhood, and we brag about being one of the most desirable cities in the entire United States. We are so deceived we don’t even realize we are living in sin and rebellion.
Remember, blowing the shofar signals repentance and forgiveness. Isaiah has shown us are need for repentance. Beginning in verse 8, he tells us what will happen if we do repent and receive forgiveness. A key word in the following verses is the word, “then.”If we repented and started living out verses six and seven, then God promises several things.
First, God promises healing. “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear”(Isaiah 58:8a). I believe this refers to physical healing, spiritual healing, and emotional healing. The idea is that you will be made whole again, which is the very meaning of the word salvation.
Second, God promises protection. “Thenyour righteousness will go before you and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard”(Isaiah 58:8b). Another word for “righteousness”is “justice.”When we worship God and work for justice, that same justice goes ahead of us, bringing glory to God, and protects us from being flanked by the enemy.
Third, God promises answers.“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I”(Isaiah 58:9a). Remember, God is under no obligation to answer your prayers, and if the reason you practice certain religious disciplines (even fighting for justice) is to get God to answer your prayers, you have missed the point. But out of His love, grace, and mercy, when we take care of the people around us, God hears us and answers our prayers.
In the second half of verse nine, Isaiah returns to the thoughts expressed in verses six and seven, saying, “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed”(Isaiah 58:9b-10a). If you do those things, God promises a new beginning.“Then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday”(Isaiah 58:10b). Each day is another chance to do the right thing. Every day brings with it a chance to begin again. It is never too late to have a new beginning.
Fifth, God promises guidance.Isaiah writes, “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame”(Isaiah 58:11a). Attached to this verse, and the sixth promise, is provision.“You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail”(Isaiah 58:11b).
Beginning in verse twelve, Isaiah takes another break from the promises and prophesies, “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings”(Isaiah 58:12). This is an extremely important verse. We have individualized faith so much that we think all God wants to do is save souls. In reality, God desires His people to redeem culture. God desires to save both souls AND society. It’s called the kingdom of God!It’s showing the world there is another, better way to live. Our purpose, as God’s people, is not to “condemn the world, but to save the world through him”(John 3:17). How do we do that? By worshiping God and working for justice.As we do so, according to God through His prophet Isaiah, we rebuild cities, repair what was broken, and provide people with places to live.
Before making the final promise, God shows us the proper way to keep His Sabbath. But I warn you, it is convicting! Isaiah continues, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD,and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.’ The mouth of the LORD has spoken”(Isaiah 58:14). In these verses, God promisesjoy.Joy is not found in circumstances. Rather, joy is found in the proper worship of God that expresses itself outwardly through works of justice.
As I was reflecting on this passage this week, studying and praying through it, I tweeted the following thought: We worship God in the sanctuary so we can work for justice in the street.A person who follows me and who disagrees with 95% of what I say, said that sounded too combative for him. Well, the gospel is combative. Calling people (and societies and structures) to repentance is combative. Calling sin, sin, is combative. And calling God’s people to shake off their deceptiveness and become the church again, is very combative. The best we can do is speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. He has told us to love God and love others. In other words, The outward expression of genuine worship is works of justice.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah,“The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:14c).
NOTE: If you would like to listen to this sermon, click here for the video.