Text: Isaiah 58
[I have borrowed my title from a thought expressed by John Piper in one of his excellent messages on this passage]
God has no interest in anything I am about to say.
Nor does he much care whether you pay any attention or not.
If fact, God is not impressed by anything we have done our service this evening.
Or any other service, for that matter.
We might go to church twice every Sunday. We might listen to faithful sermons from which we take copious notes. We might offer heartfelt prayers in which we express our sincere desire to receive God’s guidance. We might sing with real feeling the best of ancient hymns and modern worship songs.
But everything we do in church on a Sunday is a monumental waste of time…..IF it makes no real difference to how we behave towards other people the rest of the week.
This, I believe, is the rather startling message of our Bible passage today. Let us therefore go with haste to Isaiah 58 to see if it is so.
Our chapter addresses the people of Israel at a time when they clearly felt a great need of God’s help and guidance. They would come together for days of prayer and fasting. These would have been grand, solemn, impressive occasions.
Looking at v2 we see
Their persistence – ‘day after day’
Their focus – ‘they seek God out’
Their eagerness to know God’s will – ‘they ask me for just decisions’
Their desire to experience God’s presence – ‘eager for God to come near them’
But they keep hitting a barrier. God doesn’t seem to be taking a blind bit of notice. V3 – ‘Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
The answer has already been hinted at in v2. For all their great efforts and fine intentions, God is not pleased with them. They are, in fact, a nation that has ‘forsaken the commands of its God’.
V3f On the very day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
V5 – ‘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?’
So here is God’s verdict: V4 – You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. You cannot expect to be heard by your Father who is in heaven, if you are deaf to the cries of the needy and the oppressed.
So, what should they do about it?
V6ff – If you loose the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free, break every yoke, share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, not turn away from your own flesh and blood, do away with the yoke of oppression, do away with the pointing finger, do away with malicious talk, spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry, satisfy the needs of the oppressed
- God wants us to lift people’s burdens, not add to them.
- He wants us to quit our malicious gossiping and our sneering contempt.
- He wants us to be sympathetic, kind, compassionate,
- He wants us to share our food with the hungry, give shelter the homeless, clothe the naked
Then comes this glorious set of promises.
V8ff – Then your light will break forth like the dawn, your healing will quickly appear, your righteousness will go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard, when you call, the Lord will answer, when you cry for help, he will say: Here am I, your light will rise in the darkness, your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always, he will satisfy your needs in a sunscorched land, he will strengthen your frame, you will be like a well-watered garden, you will be like a spring whose waters never fail, your people will rebuild the ancient ruins…
True fasting, as described in the preceding verses, will be accompanied by great blessing.
- God will give you a new beginning, a new dawn.
- He will heal age-old wounds
- He will surround you with his glorious presence
- Your path will be so bathed with light, that you will not stumble
- Even if you find yourself in a parched desert, God will satisfy your needs and give you strength
- You will experience the beautiful, fresh, vibrant, teeming life of a well-watered garden
- You will see devastated ruins repaired and rebuilt.
And as for prayer, v9 when you call, the Lord will answer. He will say, “Here am I”.
Religious observance itself will cease to be a burden, and become instead a joy and a delight, v13f.
Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘That sounds like legalism to me. Obviously, this is Old Testament teaching. That was law. But we are New Testament people, we know that we are not saved by anything we do. We are saved by grace. Surely, God doesn’t say to Christians, “If you do this, I will do that”?’
Well, you don’t need to tell Isaiah that we are saved by God’s grace, and not by works. Chapter 53 is absolutely clear about how we sinners can find acceptance with God. His righteous Servant, the Messiah, the Christ has stood in for us and paid that price, bore that penalty, won that victory.
Yes, of course we’re saved by God’s grace and not by any works of our own.
But the inspired prophet would have us know that the gospel of free grace has inescapable implications and entailments.
He would have us know that God has forged an unbreakable link between receiving mercy from God and expressing mercy towards others. And what God had joined together let not man put asunder.
Christ confirms this
The four Gospels focus very strongly on the cross-work of Jesus. So much so, that each of them has been well described as a ‘a passion narrative with an extended introduction’.
Nevertheless, the commitment of Jesus to justice and mercy is inescapable.
For Jesus, the first and greatest commandment is to love God. But the second, he said, is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Mt 22:36ff. You cannot love God and despise your neighbour at the same time. It is an impossible combination.
Very early on in his public ministry he went to him home town of Nazareth. The Scripture reading for the day was Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” And he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
According to Jesus, God values acts of mercy above those of religious observance. Mt 9:13 Go and learn what it means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Quoting Hos 6:6)
And his great heart burned with indignation against certain religious leaders. Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”
James 1:27 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.
History confirms this
Time and again, we find that as men and women have embraced the gospel of the free grace of God in Christ, so their faith has overflowed in acts of mercy and justice.
It is scarcely possible to over-estimate the influence of gospel-believing Christians on scientific discovery, the development of nursing & medicine, the rise of education, the establishment of a fair and even-handed legal and justice system, the abolition of slavery and child labour, the improvement of working conditions generally.
Who has not heard of the work of Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Fry and Dr Barnardo?
Historian David Bebbington states that in the 19th century, ¾ of all charitable organisations were Evangelical in character and ethos. ‘The sick in body and mind, the blind, the deaf, the infirm, the elderly, vagrants, navvies, soldiers, prostitutes, and above all the poor received attention according to their particular needs. Evangelical activism carried over into social concern as an end in itself.’
From Dr Barnardo to William Wilberforce, from orphanages to trades unions, from the RSPCA to the YMCA, gospel people have been at the forefront of social concern.
And in our own day there are a thousand unchronicled acts of mercy and kindness carried out by gospel people.
Am I suggesting that only gospel Christians can be merciful and just? Of course not. But I am saying that they have been, and must continue to be, in the forefront.
Isaiah teaches, then, that God has established an unbreakable link between our acts of justice and compassion on the one hand, and his God’s presence and blessing amongst his people on the other hand. And this is amply confirmed by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and by that of his followers right down the history of the Christian church.
So, what about us?
John Piper reminds us of a sermon that has been doing the rounds for a number of years. ‘It’s Friday – but Sunday’s coming!’ We’re experiencing the pain and sadness gloom of Good Friday – but Easter Sunday is coming, Jesus is alive!’
Piper suggests that we need a new sermon. ‘It’s Sunday, but Monday’s coming!’ It’s Sunday – we’ve come to church to sing God’s praises and offer our prayers and hear his word and encourage one another….But Monday’s coming.
Let us resolve never again to drive a wedge between the gospel of God’s grace and its social entailments, between our Sunday worship and our weekday behaviour.
Let us resolve for our acts of praise and worship to overflow with acts of mercy and justice this very week.
- As we have freely received, let us freely give
- As we have been forgiven, let us forgive
- As we have found mercy, let us show mercy.
- As our burdens have been lifted, so let us lift the burdens of others.
And then we will be ready to go back to church, and
V14 – “then you will find your joy in the LORD, and he will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”