Isaiah 58:3-9a

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over the last several weeks we have been listening to the prophet Isaiah as he's been speaking to the people of Israel, and to us today. This morning, Isaiah has very hard words. They were hard words to the people of his day, words of condemnation for false worship. And to be honest, they were hard words for me this week as well. I’ll tell you about that in just a moment. But as you hear these words, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they are hard words for you as well. 

The discussion starts with a talk about Israelite fasting which sounds completely foreign to us. The ancient Israelites—the people of Isaiah’s day—were worshiping God the way that they thought He wanted to be worshiped. But God was not responding the way they expected Him to. And so they cry out to God at the beginning of today’s text, “why have we fasted and you don't see; why have we humbled ourselves and you don’t know it.” It's hard not to hear a bit of a whine in the Israelites question. “God, we're doing what You want but You’re not doing what we want. You must be both blind and stupid.” The Israelites are going through the motions, but they weren't getting what they wanted. So they complained. 

Now at this point, Isaiah could have said something like, “well that's not how God works,” because that's not how God works. God is not a vending machine that you put in enough money, punch the right code, and you get what you want from Him. God does not dangle earthly rewards in front of us as if He refuses to bless you unless you're super-holy or extra-righteous. In fact, as we take a look at the lives of Christians throughout time and space, we see that those who are faithful to Him, more often than not, are treated as second-class citizens. They are beaten, arrested, tortured. Some are even murdered because they believe in and hold to Jesus. Worshiping God the way that He wants does not necessarily gain you earthly rewards. 

But that's not what Isaiah focuses on. Because if it were, then the Israelites would still be secure in their own self-righteous acts. You see, their main problem wasn't with their thinking, “if I do this, then God will bless me.” Their main problem is that they were simply going through the motions of worship. Their way of fasting, their way of worshipping God, was by abstaining from certain things. They had their normal dietary laws, but on certain days would go further, not eating or drinking at all as a show of faith. But it was only a show. Isaiah says they fasted only to go about fighting with the fist. They did what they felt was pious and holy, all the while disregarding what God calls pious and holy. “Behold, on the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.” But this is not just Isaiah talking to the people, God Himself speaks to them. He says that if your worship is only made up of inner humility and a show of sorrow, then it's worthless. As God sees it and wants it, true fasting, true worship, should both glorify God, and serve one's neighbor. Your fasting, your worship should spur you on into your community where you can serve your neighbor. Your love for God will lead you to love your neighbor. 

These are hard words for the Israelites. They're hard words for me. How do I worship? What does my life look like? I certainly seem to have the right words; I can talk the talk, but I don't always walk the walk. I’ve been thinking and reflecting on this passage all week long. And on Friday night, Anna and I went out for dinner in Grand Rapids to celebrate Valentine's day a week early. As we left the restaurant, we turned to walk to the car, and ahead on our left, a homeless man steps out from a doorway. As we get closer, he’s on my left, asking for money; Anna’s on my right, wanting us to stop to help; this text is in my head, the text I’ve been working on and thinking about and praying through all week—true worship will lead you to serve your neighbor—and my feet keep moving forward. My worship is not enough. Isaiah has hard words for the Israelites hard words for me. Perhaps they are hard words for you too.

But that's not all. Not only does God condemn the Israelites for their false worship, He goes on to tell them what true worship should look like. True fasting means “to loose the bonds of wickedness and to free all those who are oppressed, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to clothe the naked.” He calls the Israelites—and us—to live out our faith, for our worship to change who we are, so that we would be God's hands and feet in this world. So that in our act of kindness, and mercy, and justice, God would be at work, performing His mercy, His kindness, and His justice. 

As we hear and listen to and reflect on what true  worship looks like, it may strike you that the list is a little familiar to us. We might even say that it's Messianic. I mean, who do we know that did all of these things and more, “to loose bonds of wickedness to free all the oppressed to feed the hungry to house the homeless and to clothe the naked.” In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke’s gospel, Jesis cites part of these verses to describe His very mission, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus is the One who fulfills God’s true act of worship. Jesus alone fits the bill. He alone perfectly keeps God’s desire for true worship. 

And so as Isaiah describes what will happen as a result, we see that these words can apply to no one but Jesus only. “His light breaks forth like the dawn. He has brought healing to His people. He fulfilled all righteousness. He is God’s glory in human form.” You, me, the Israelites, we are bogged down in our sin and our so-called worship, which is not much more than self-righteousness. No matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we reflect, no matter how much we go through the motions, you and I will never be good enough. We will never be righteous or holy or just enough to fulfill God's demands. But Jesus does. He fulfills the law perfectly. And here he perfectly fasts, he perfectly worships on our behalf. And in Christ, our worship is transformed. It is made whole and complete and acceptable to God. Isaiah has hard words today. They are hard words for the Israelites, for myself, and maybe you too. But they are also hard words for Christ, hard words because He took our place; He takes our place. They are hard words for Him so that He might justify you and me. We may still struggle to live out our faith, for our worship to be more than a show, to do more than just go through the motions. But Jesus offers you his grace and forgiveness, all the while fulfilling the Law on your behalf. In Him, you are forgiven and set free to serve Him, however imperfectly. Amen.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Lobe den Herrn

B. A. Woell