“The Heart Set on Compassion”
August 9, 2009
God’s grace flows when your heart is set on compassion.
I. The heart set on conformity
II. The heart set on compassion
III. The gracious gifts of a compassionate God
Dr. Seuss wrote many books, but two of them reflect profound Christian truth, at least to my reading. Both of them involve an elephant named Horton, who in one book ‘Hatches an Egg’ and in the other ‘Hears a Who.’ Horton Hears a Who has been made into a 3D animated movie that starts like this:
Horton’s right: there are people on that speck, people who want to live. But even before he was sure of this, Horton responded to the speck with what we can only call compassion. His heart was pre-disposed to care about people and situations he didn’t even fully understand.
This morning we continue our series “Faith Works,” on the expectations of the Christian life. In the first weeks we learned that we don’t do good works from our own strength but from the grace God gives us in Jesus. Since then we’ve looked at a number of expectations of the Christian life: that we would be transformed; that we would bear fruit; that we would pray and praise; that we would learn and obey God’s word. Today we’re going to add a significant expectation to our list, but one we may not usually think of: compassion. Christians are called to compassionate caring for those in need.
Our text is one of the classic neon texts of the Old Testament, a place where God’s desire to express his gracious love through his people is abundantly clear. It’s Isaiah 58:1-12, and as we study it we’ll learn that God’s grace flows when your heart is set on compassion. We’ll see as we did in children’s corner that there are two settings to our hearts: when we have them set on conformity, no grace flows. But when we have them set on compassion God’s grace flows, and it becomes a huge blessing to us and to others.
I. The heart set on conformity
So where are our hearts focused? Compassion or conformity? The first few verses help us to examine ourselves for conformity. Isaiah 58:1-5 "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2For 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. 3'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?'
"Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4Your 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. 5Is 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?
The issue in these verses is fasting, a popular spiritual discipline in ancient Israel, though in fact Scripture only calls for one day of fasting a year, the Day of Atonement. But fasting in repentance is reported in several places in the Old Testament, and the Jews had made it a normal part of devotional life.
Even Jesus presumed that people would fast, and cautioned them to make it a heart discipline rather than just skipping a couple of meals and looking miserable. He said “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.” Jesus was always concerned about the heart, and that was God’s concern as well as he spoke through Isaiah:
In verse 1 God instructs his prophet: "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.” God wants the prophet to expose the fact that so much of what seems like true devotion really isn’t. It is self-centered, conformity to certain practices in the hope of avoiding punishment or getting blessing.
The appearance is wonderful. Wouldn’t you like this to be God’s description of us? “Day by day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways; and not to forsake the commands of God. They pray for God to act righteously on their behalf; they are eager for God to come near them.” We’d like to be what these people claim to be. Unfortunately it’s all spin, not reality but appearance. The reality in no way matched their apparent conformity to God’s ways. It was only as if they were a nation that sought God.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m in no position to condemn these people. If I know anything about my own heart, it is that it will do anything to present the appearance of conformity, while avoiding the reality of devotion. Elsewhere in Isaiah God accuses his people saying “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.
He knows us better than we know ourselves. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Fasting and humility are linked in Scripture – we never find a fast that is not also intended to put us in our proper place before God.
But even fasting and apparent humility can be selfish: “Don’t forget, if we do this, good stuff is supposed to happen. You’re supposed to bless and provide.” God responds: “Get real. Take a look at your devotion. On the day of your fasting, you do as you please: you seek pleasure; go after your desires. On the surface you’re doing what you should, but your hearts are far from me.”
Verse 4: “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.” Did you ever notice that fasting itself often leads to irritation and even unkindness? Hunger will do that if it becomes the focus of our fast. But the sad truth is that any outward conformity not accompanied by inward reality leads us to be hardened, and will soon show up in our relationships. Church attendance against our will, Bible Study that is mere duty, giving under compulsion, hospitality with affection, all these add stress to our relationships, and in the worst cases can lead to physical violence and abuse.
So God says: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” External forms without internal reality does not please God. These people had “A day for a man to humble himself. To bow one’s head like a reed and to lie on sackcloth and ashes.” It sounds great, but that’s what conformity does: tries to fool us into thinking we can buy God’s favor by our behavior. We need to examine ourselves. Maybe it will help if I isolate from the text four symptoms of conformity. I find these in my life as well.
Symptom 1: spiritual pride. An underlying current of smugness runs through these five verses. We hear the same thing in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, where the Pharisee says: “I thank you Lord that I am not like other men, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” To the extent our religious behavior makes us feel better than “them”, we are conforming rather than experiencing. When what I do causes me to make a list of what I do that somebody else doesn’t I’ve fallen into spiritual pride.
Symptom 2: Putting up with known sin. It’s as if they had done what was right, and obeyed the commands of their God. They weren’t behaving righteously, they just wanted to be treated as if they had. But known sin kills devotion like heat kills yeast so bread won’t rise. If we hide anger, lust, greed, family violence, bitterness, or cynicism, fellowship with God will stunted, stifled, and false. Sin is the great deceiver that destroys the internal reality of faith.
Symptom 3: Personal benefit. What can I get out of it? “We’ve fasted and you’ve not seen it, We’ve humbled ourselves and you’ve not noticed it.” If we find ourselves looking for the benefits of religious activity, then our conformity is offensive to God. The obvious example is the health and wealth gospel, which teaches that all believers by right get worldly benefits from God.
Yet we can’t point the finger: there are times when we too make God simply someone who is under contract to meet our needs. I want to feel good in worship. I want peace in my heart. I want answered prayer. I want blessings. But the blessing God delights to give is himself, as we’ll see, and if that isn’t enough for us, we may have a case of form rather than substance.
Symptom 4: Impaired relationships - “your fasting ends in quarreling and strife.” If the things we do as believers cause us to be irritable and judgmental, maybe the focus of those behaviors isn’t on God. The classic mental litany is: “If only so-and-so:’ If only so and so would do this I could worship; If only so and so would stop doing this I could pray; If only all these things would change then I could focus on God. If you have to makes excuses for why your conformity isn’t working, maybe your heart isn’t truly set on God.
The kangaroo in Horton is a caricature of what we become if our hearts are set on conformity - an embittered conformist:
Our text turns a sharp corner at verse 6 and opens the door to a whole new setting for our hearts: not a heart set on conformity for the sake of selfish blessing, but a heart set on compassion that experiences God’s grace.
II. The heart set on compassion
Verses 6 and 7; these, by the way, are the verses I’ve been trying to memorize. You might want to mark them. "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? 7Is 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?
This is where you change your heart from conformity to compassion. In verse 6, God wants us to care from the heart for real people in real need. The picture is of someone bound in chains and under a heavy yoke: a human being used as a beast of burden. You come to that person and you break the chains of injustice. Then you untie the cords of the yoke and set the oppressed free by removing it from their neck. Finally you break the yoke so they cannot be re-enslaved.
It’s a great picture, and I believe Isaiah meant it both literally and metaphorically. We can’t allow ourselves to get away from the literal meaning of bringing justice to downtrodden people, because that meaning is clearly part of where God’s heart is. Compassion needs to express itself physically.
This is just as true in our culture as it was in ancient Israel. The rampant abuse in our culture, verbal, physical and sexual, of those supposed to be loved ones is ample evidence that deliverance is needed. And you don’t have to be a slave to be racially oppressed. It may be over-emphasized by some, but there is racism and prejudice around us, and no doubt at some level in us as well.
Furthermore, there is a whole category of oppression that Satan seeks to impose on all of people: slavery to sin. This is slavery to drugs and lust and pride and hatred and to hurting. People are bound and oppressed and made miserable by their own sins and through the sins of others, and this spiritual oppression also needs the freeing power of God’s grace through God’s people.
Friends, we need to come alongside and help others, as shown in verse 7. Again the literal application can’t be downplayed. If you see someone hungry, you feed them; If you see someone without shelter, you house them; if you see someone without clothes, you cover them. You don’t let your own flesh and blood – or brothers and sisters in Christ – go out on the street. We’ve seen the power of this ‘physically doing the will of God’ as we’ve been involved in Ike relief and other kinds of caring. We’re called to be a people who care - who show compassion, towards literally all kinds of other people.
Shoudn’t you and I be like Jesus? He had a gut wrenching fullness of compassion in his daily circumstances. Matthew 9:36 “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 14:14 “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Matthew 15:32 “Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry.”
Even in his parables Jesus held up compassion: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s the Samaritan who has the comparison. In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the father who welcomes his wayward son with compassion. If you and I are going to be like Jesus we’re going to have compassion: his heart was set on compassion, quite opposed to conformity.
I don’t want to push the analogy too hard, but I see the same compassion in Horton. Here’s the scene where he first utters the famous line:
The unborn? The orphan? The abused? A person’s a person, no matter how small.
III. The gracious gifts of a compassionate God
The rest of our text wonderfully shows how God’s heart flows to bless his people when their hearts flow with compassion. Verses 8 to 12: Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
"If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12Your 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.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: when we have our hearts set on compassion, they are aligned with the compassionate heart of God, and his graces naturally flow to us and through us. Don’t miss the fact that the blessing God gives here is the blessing of his presence. His righteousness will go before you and his glory will come after, and when you call for help the Lord himself will answer. What will he say? “Here am I.” This is a core promise of Scripture: I will be with your and be your God. Friends, God’s care for us is much more real when we’re caring for others. When our hearts are set on compassion we can be ultra-sensitized to the compassion God has for us.
This is why Isaiah repeats the compassion side of this equation. Verse 9: "If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” God’s grace is poured out: darkness becomes light for us and through us when we live compassionately.
Verse 11: “The LORD will guide you always, he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land, and will strengthen your frame.” We often pray for strength – here’s a promise that God will supply the strength we need when our hearts are set on the compassion setting. “You’ll be a watered garden, a spring whose waters never fail.” The waters that sustain life will flow through you.
Verse 12: “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.” I like this verse: it implies that by compassion we can make a real difference in people’s lives, the kind of difference we really want to make, where people and families mature in the ageless truths of the Gospel despite the brokenness and the downhill slide of our culture. Maybe once we thought we were going to make a difference with political activism or only with evangelistic zeal, but I think Isaiah is telling us that God’s grace shows up in people’s lives when we also have a zeal for compassion.
In fact throughout the history of the church Christians have been characterized by this extraordinary compassion for the needs of those around them. An emperor of Rome once tried to restore the image of his pagan religions, telling the priests, go out there and be as compassionate as those Christians. St Francis of Assisi is admired by Protestants and Catholics alike, because he gave away all he had, and served the poorest of the poor. John Wesley focused his Methodist societies on the needs of the poor: ‘the ignorant were instructed, the wretched relieved, and the abandoned reclaimed.’
God makes a difference when we set our hearts on compassion. That’s the message of Isaiah. It’s also the message of Horton Hears a Who:
God’s grace flows to us and to others when we set our hearts on compassion.