“Is This Not the Fast I Have Chosen?”
April 14, 2013
True devotion to God expresses itself in compassion to others.
I. The Hypocritical Devotion of God’s People (Isaiah 58:1-5)
II. True Devotion (Isaiah 58:6-7)
III. God’s People Blessed (Isaiah 58:8-12)
Jesus was the most meek and gentle of men. Matthew quotes Isaiah 42, saying of Jesus: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; 20a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Listen, then, to this gentle man: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” 23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” 27“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” “33You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
Jesus wasn’t always gentle in his words. But as I look at his verbal confrontations, I find him focused on one subject: hypocrisy. And in this he stands solidly in the tradition of the prophets. Fortunately in 2000 years God’s church, the community of His people, has never fallen into the hypocrisy He hates. NOT! Sadly, we’ve often given the world cause to call us hypocrites, and our enemy takes every advantage of that. So in our text, Isaiah 58, God challenges us to examine ourselves for religious hypocrisy, and reminds us that true devotion expresses itself in compassion to others.
I’ve mentioned ‘unChristian’ before, a book resulting from a three year study of the convictions of unchurched people about the church. The details are fascinating, but to put it succinctly, 91 percent of unchurched people think the church is homophobic, 87 percent thing the church is judgmental, and 85 percent think we’re hypocrites. And we, the church, have probably given some people reasons to feel that way, though others probably judge us based only by what they’ve been told and heard in the media. And that can be so wrong: I read a long article about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which gave extended examples of the school’s staff meeting a particular person’s homosexual orientation with compassion and truth and actual help.
But I don’t think many will believe that: the Westboro Baptist churches of the world are seen as the norm to 91 percent of our population. And we have too often been guilty of judgmentalism and hypocrisy.
I. The Hypocritical Devotion of God’s People (Isaiah 58:1-5)
So we as a church need a chapter that begins by exposing the hypocritical devotion of God’s people.
Isaiah 58:1-5: 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. 2Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.3‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Last week Todd described some interesting elements of Isaiah, including the fact that the last 27 chapters are like the 27 books of the New Testament. Isaiah is looking forward to the redemption of the suffering servant, and then to life as redeemed people. In other words these last chapters of Isaiah look forward as much to our situation as they do to the circumstances of Isaiah’s own people. So Isaiah 55 was a clear call to our day, to follow Jesus, even though his name was not in that chapter. And in the same way the warnings of Isaiah 58 apply very directly to us, to God’s church in our day.
As one commentator says “God is moving toward the new heavens and the new earth. He has sent Christ his servant to bear human guilt and justify the ungodly, qualifying them for his new world. He pours out his Spirit upon those he has redeemed. What he wants now is his church to be the model home for the new neighborhood he has promised to build. What kind of church is persuasive in that role? What kind of church is preparing the way of the Lord? Isaiah tells us. His message is challenging, not because it's all that hard to understand but because it's just plain blunt.”
So this is a warning. God tells Isaiah to “Cry aloud;” and “declare to my people their transgression.” What do we expect to read next? What are these sinful people going to be like? To our surprise, Isaiah says “they seek me daily and delight to know my ways.” They “ask of me righteous judgments” and they “delight to draw near to me.” If you had to move to a new town and you found a church that sought God daily, delighted to know his ways and draw near to him, you'd join that church. But Isaiah might not. It's possible for a church to do all these good things while still having major problems in God’s eyes. Isaiah hears them saying “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
Isn't fasting and humbling ourselves evidence of taking sin seriously? Why are things still desperate? Why isn’t God responding? Because they think they can obligate God, pressure God, and when their fasting and praying don’t lead directly to God’s blessing, they resent him. What poisoned their souls toward God was not sins like thievery and murder; it was their own religion.
The key is in verse 2: they are doing these things “as if they were a nation that did righteousness." They were role-playing righteousness. God is warning his people that religious show, hypocritical sham is sin and leads to judgment. And this is where we have to begin to identify ourselves in this text. It’s easy to make a list of what our sub-culture, Evangelicalism, considers Christian and godly behavior. ‘Go to church on Sunday,’ ‘Attend a home group,’ ‘Read your Bible and pray.’ Even fasting can be on this list. On top of that we add things like ‘Keep your kids under control,’ ‘dress modestly,’ ‘don’t watch R rated movies,’ ‘don’t do porn or drugs,’ These are good things; important things. But the things described in this passage are good things too; God calls them a sham. So we have to ask ourselves if we’re hypocritical in pursuing these things while neglecting true heart change.
In verse 3 God begins to expose their true hearts: “in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.” The first phrase reveals a temptation we all face: we say we’re seeking God but we do only what we want, what brings us pleasure. Now I’m not saying serving God shouldn’t be joyful – he made us to delight in him. But it’s so tempting to cross the line and seek our own pleasure under the façade of devotion.
I read this week about Vaughn Reeves, who is serving 54 years for investor fraud. At his trial, witnesses said his Biblically based, church focused company, Alanar, was started with the best and most godly intentions. But as millions of dollars flowed through his fingers, Reeves began to take more and more for himself, ultimately siphoning six million dollars into airplanes and homes, while losing hundreds of millions of dollars invested by innocent and often retired church people. I don’t think even Reeves could tell you when his heart shifted from devotion to personal satisfaction, but it did. I think in many cases of sexual scandal in the church, the pastor or priest started out wanting only to be compassionate or friendly, but then sexual pleasure began to be a subtle focus, and then it burst forth into full blown sin.
The second phrase, ‘you oppress your workers’ is a bit further removed from us, though some of you here do control other people’s schedules and salaries; some of you can hire or fire; and these responsibilities must be done not in spite of devotion to God’s ways, but in light of devotion to God’s ways.
And all of us need to be sensitive his ways in every area of our lives. That’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees “you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Shouldn’t I be asking whether my devotion to God is leading me to desire justice for the wronged, and to show compassion to the struggling, and to be faithful even in difficulties.
Isaiah gets even more personal in verse 4: “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.” So here you are, fasting and praying, asking God for something, probably something good. But at the same time you are pursuing known grievous sin of your own. In two weeks we’ll start a series applying verses like these to family situations. And for us it is in families, mostly, that people pound their loved ones with Bible verses while pounding them verbally or physically. Don’t get me wrong, I believe physical discipline is a legitimate tool in child training, and Scripture is as well. But they must be applied in compassion. This fist, this violence, this quarreling and fighting comes from anger, wounded pride, selfishness and fear, and is one of the most damaging hypocrisies. God longs to get hold of you at the fundamental level of controlling your voice, your words, your anger and especially controlling your physical behavior. Doesn’t he?
In verse 5 Isaiah returns to the worthlessness of mere devotion. He describes a really good fast: a day for a person to humble himself, to bow his head, to spread sackcloth and ashes. And then he says “you think this is fasting? You think these Christian and godly behaviors are going to be pleasing to the Lord?” Not if there is a disconnect from your heart.
II. True Devotion (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Verses 6-7 show the true evidence of heart devotion: Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
The Bible is clear: your heart, your mouth and your hands are deeply connected. Jesus wanted followers who would have heart religion, not external show. He was speaking directly to this when he said “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” The angry words and angry fists and self-seeking pleasures Isaiah has been exposing are evidence of the true state of our hearts.
And compassion and justice are evidence as well. Thus true fasting is to loose the bonds of wickedness and to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke. There are all kinds of bondage in the world.
In recent months we’ve mentioned human trafficking and the statistics are shocking: over 2.4 million victims, 80 percent sold into sexual slavery, and the remainder into forced labor, like the boys of Lake Volta in Ghana. It’s a 32 billion dollar industry, with the average cost of a human being 90 dollars.
But there are many kinds of oppression. The Old Testament speaks about excess interest as a form of bondage. So I looked up the statistics on Rent-a-Center, which I’ve always felt was exploitive. The interest rate on a rent-to-own TV is 160 percent annually. You get a $550 TV for $1406 dollars, and at the end of two years, if you miss no payments, it’s worthless. This is exploitation.
So verse 6 calls us to involvement in those things – to add practical compassion to the top of our list of spiritual disciplines. For example, some folks from Trinity are involved in Mosaic Road, which is a group of people gathering to sell crafts and art in order to support the fight against human trafficking. But there are thousands of other ways that God might call your heart to help – and this practical compassion is where he wants your heart to be.
Verse 7 is even more practical: share bread with the hungry; bring the homeless into your home; cloth the naked and do not turn away from those in need. You can live this out. On the simple end, the blessing bags I showed the kids this morning can bless. I know some will resent it, but given in love, with prayer, simple things can make a difference. At the radical end are things like bringing a needy child into your home through adoption, which many here have done. Taken to another level, Tom and Amy Morrow moved to Africa, to care for the neediest group of people in the world: poverty stricken orphans whose parents died of AIDS. Somewhere in the middle are things like Family Promise, which provides meaningful help to the homeless in our area, and which is effective because it is the work of many hands.
But we can’t let this become merely mechanical; the idea is to be pouring yourself out for the hungry, hurting and oppressed. If your heart isn’t in it, if this just becomes another mechanical devotion, then God won’t be any happier with than he would with mechanical fasting or mechanical praying. But the beauty of practical compassion is that unlike fasting or praying or any of our individual disciplines, this fulfill both halves of the great commandment: this is loving God by loving others. True devotion to God expresses itself in compassion toward others. And God promises sweet blessings.
III. God’s People Blessed (Isaiah 58:8-12)
The last five verses mix more warning, more description of what God really wants, and a lot of blessing. Verses 8-12 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.
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10if 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. 11And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Verse 8 is the first clear word of blessing in the passage. “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily.” When God’s people reach out with justice and compassion to the poor and the needy and the oppressed and the hurting within their midst, it’s like turning on a light, it’s like rising up in health. We were made to be the light of the world; we were redeemed so that we could offer people the bread of life and the living water – to offer people Jesus in sincerity and integrity. And when we do this, the light and healing that flow through us bless us as well as others.
And we are blessed with the presence of God: “then your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ God promises his presence: those who are extending compassion and opposing oppression will experience it his ‘I am here.’ He is never far from us when we are doing his work with the right heart attitude.
The rest of the verse begins a second quick cycle: hypocrisy, alternative, blessing: “If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness.” This is hypocrisy: we must not lay burdens and yokes on others we know we are not keeping ourselves. The recent history of the church is sadly full of key evangelical leaders who have publically spoken on morality, especially sexual morality, and then been caught in disgusting moral failures. It makes me mad at the same time it makes me cautious, because while I’m a key leader, I have spoken truth about sexual things and I do not want to bring disgrace on the name of my Lord by hypocrisy.
The verse also condemns the pointing of fingers. God is not pleased when we point to accuse or point to gossip; speaking wickedness about others; judging. Now again, don’t get me wrong; God’s people need to identify and address evil and sin among us. But that does not excuse judgmentalism, distancing ourselves or belittling others because of their perceived personal faults.
We are judgmental when we distance ourselves from someone without any heart knowledge of that person. We are judgmental when hidden fear of our own moral weakness, or our kids moral weakness causes us to put up barriers to other believers who don’t seem like us. We are judgmental when we speak to others of a third person’s sin. The Pharisees were judgmental about everything from what the disciples ate to who Jesus ate with. And Jesus launched his strongest words at them. The study I mentioned earlier showed that the church is seen as homophobic, hypocritical and judgmental, and no matter how local or isolated these things are, we have no business being the ones who offer our enemy real homophobia or hypocrisy or judgmentalism.
Instead, God says again in verse 10 “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.” Are you pouring yourself out for the hungry? For the hungry on the street corner? For the hungry around the world? Every year nine million people die of hunger related causes. That’s the entire population of Houston; plus San Antonio, plus Dallas; plus Austin, plus Fort Worth; plus eight other Texas cities. Imagine that devastation. And what about the spiritually hungry who need to hear the good news of a Savior who is both the bread and the water of life? Are you pouring yourself out for them in any practical way? God remarkably blesses those who do.
Verse 11 “And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” This is just simple blessing – but notice that he’s blessing you in a scorched place, and he’s guiding you because you need guidance. This is blessing in the midst of a journey or even a trial. Your bones will be strong, and – don’t miss this - you will be a source of blessing; you will be a watered garden providing food, and you will be a spring of unfailing water to those around you. Cool.
I read about a study this week on what makes people live long and/or happy lives. The authors seemed surprised that what makes for happiness also makes for long life. But the key conclusions was the importance of relationships: “…connecting with and helping others is more important to longevity than even a rigorous exercise program.” It wasn’t getting help from others that conferred long life. It was giving help. Science is just getting hints about what the Bible has been teaching for years: helping others brings blessing.
Finally, verse 12: “And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”
I love that verse. Do you want to do something for your world, your nation, your church, your family? Show practical compassion to the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the widows, the orphans, the hungry, the sick. God says, “you shall raise the foundations of many generations.” This is a family blessing: if you take hold of true devotion to God, expressed in care for others, forsaking violence, anger, oppression and mistreatment, you will raise a generational family, blessing not just your children, but your grandchildren and beyond.
There is a study, famous among preachers, that compared the Max Jukes family and the Jonathan Edwards family. Both men lived about the same time and had numerous descendants. But many of the descendants of Max Jukes, a hard drinking and probably irreligious man, were criminals and vagrants and prostitutes and on the state dole. Jonathan Edwards was one of the most godly and intelligent men America has ever produced, and almost none of his descendants were criminals or even everyday farmers or workers. They were pastors, lawyers, judges, college presidents, professors, physicians, public officials, governors, congressmen, senators, officers, authors and editors. Jonathan Edwards raised up the foundation of many generations.
People who behave this way – and remember, ‘this way’ is showing compassion to the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and the homeless – will find that loving on others is good for you, and you will be both blessed and honored for it – the repairer of the breach in the walls, and the restorer of streets to dwell in.
So what have we said? Fear hypocrisy, and let practical compassion be a spiritual discipline for you. Now hypocrisy is a notoriously difficult thing to self- identify and root out. If you are too hard on yourself you’re immobilized, if you are too soft on yourself you harm others. So you need to pray for a realistic assessment of whether through violence, anger, judgementalism, or hidden sin you are un-blessing your world, your nation, your church, your family. Such self-examination is hard but necessary work.
But let me leave you with something a little bit easier: add practical compassion to your list of spiritual disciplines. Find a way to fight injustice, even while searching your heart for injustice toward others. Find a way to feed the hungry, while being sensitive to the spiritual hunger all around you. Find a way to help the hurting, while not neglecting the spiritual hurts of those closest to you. Pour yourself out for the needs of others, and God promises that he will pour himself into you, and out through you.