Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) Commentary
God expects our lifestyle to reflect our worship. That is to say, God’s not pleased when God’s children act one way on Sunday, but quite a different way during the rest of the week.
Isaiah 58 oozes frustration. Clearly Israel is frustrated. After all, she assumes that she takes God very seriously. Israel claims to “seek out” the Lord, because she believes she’s eager to know “his ways.” Israel even insists that she asks God for direction and answers. In fact, she complains to God, she takes God so seriously that she worships God exactly as God commanded, with fasting.
Fasting was an integral part of Israel’s worship on the Day of Atonement. However, passages from Zechariah show that Israelites also fasted on other days, particularly after they returned from exile. Such regular fasting, Israel maintained, showed that she took God and God’s will very seriously.
While relatively few of us fast for religious purposes, Israel’s claims have implications for God’s 21st century sons and daughters. After all, you and I too generally claim to take God seriously. We too believe we seek out the Lord because we want to know God’s ways for our lives. You and I also try to faithfully worship the Lord in ways that God commands.
Israel’s is frustrated because God seems to take no notice of how faithfully she worships the Lord. “Why have we fasted,” she asks the Lord in verse 3, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
That suggests that Israel believes that if she just does the right “religious” things, God should help her. She believes that if she just worships the Lord in the right way, God should take notice and act accordingly. However, Israel complains, God seems to completely ignore her humble obedience.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach may feel the same way. Look, God, we may at least want to say, “I go to church almost every Sunday. I put money in the collection plate every week. I even teach and preach in church. So why don’t you notice me? Why don’t you help me out more?
I’m glad I’m not like those adulterers and swindlers, those gossips and terrorists. But it’s not easy. I must, after all, resist much pressure to disobey you, Lord. So shouldn’t that be worth my while? Why don’t you seem to care that I’m such a nice person I am, Lord? Why don’t you somehow reward me for being such a good person?”
God doesn’t tell Israel, “You should just fast anyway, no matter what the result, because it pleases me.” In fact, later God seems to suggest that God graciously rewards righteous living. Instead of challenging this “reward” system, God shows God’s frustration by challenging Israel’s morality.
After all, while verse 2 suggests she thinks she’s “a nation that does what is right,” actually, God declares in verse 1, Israel is rebellious. While Israel claims to follow God’s commands, in reality, God insists in verse 1, Israel sins against God.
So while Israel claims to worship God by fasting, God insists she’s actually just going through the religious motions. In other words, as J. Clinton Mc Gann writes, Israel’s “liturgy and lifestyle do not cohere.” Her worship and witness don’t match. In fact, they actually conflict with each other.
For Israel has combined worship with her own rather than God’s pleasure. How does she show that? Isaiah’s answer is long and, to thoughtful Christians, not a little troubling. The prophet reports that even on the very days they worship God by fasting, Israelites exploit their employees and quarrel with each other. They believe they can worship God and then turn right around to be selfish toward each other.
As Isaiah 58’s preachers and teachers consider the modern implications of verses 3a and 4, they might ask their hearers and themselves how we go home from our own worship services. Do we somehow contradict what we’ve just sung, prayed and heard? As Nick Wolterstorff has written, we sing and talk about God’s holiness in church. But do we reflect that holiness out there?
How often, for instance, do argue with each other or criticize someone right after we leave church? How quickly do we spend at least part of Sunday pointing fingers at rather than building up people? What does that say about our hearts that were just turned toward God but now so quickly turn on people?
Verses 6 and following remind us that God most pleased with lives that mirror our worship. So, as one scholar notes, Isaiah parades a variety of vulnerable people before us in our text. He shows us the disenfranchised, those who are down and out, slaves, the hungry, the homeless and the cold.
Isaiah reminds us that those who “fast” in ways that are acceptable to the Lord don’t turn our backs on these vulnerable people. We don’t ignore what the prophet refers to in verse 7 as “our own flesh and blood.” Instead we actively oppose injustice where we see it and work to free people from oppressive systems. Christians work to ensure that everyone has adequate housing and proper clothing.
That’s why we thank God for opportunities to minister in our communities and neighborhoods. That’s also why we thank God for opportunities to work for reconciliation in our workplaces and around the world. Yet verse 7 also reminds us that we perhaps especially “fast” by sharing our food with the hungry. You and I, in Isaiah’s words in verse 10, fast by spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry.
In some ways, of course, it would be easier to “fast” by just giving up food for a day or two. World hunger is, after all, staggering. Bread for the World says that 840 million people, that is, about three times the number of North Americans, are malnourished. So how can we fast by sharing our food with that many hungry people?
As of January 2002, more than a billion people had no access to sanitary drinking water. Roughly 25,000 people, about the equivalent of a population of a mid-sized American city, died each day of from hunger or causes related to hunger. How, then, can we fast by spending ourselves on behalf of that many thirsty and starving people?
There are even a stunning number of malnourished people in wealthy North America. Bread for the World says that an average of 31 million Americans, 12 million of whom are children, live daily without enough food. Some Americans work full-time at low-skill jobs, but don’t make enough money to provide enough food, medical access and clothing for their families. How, then, can we really spend ourselves on behalf of that many hungry North Americans, most of whom we never see?
When you and I share our food, we do more than to just feed hungry people. For Isaiah, in verse 10, insists that our “light will [then] rise in the darkness.” When we spend ourselves on behalf of hungry people, our night, according to the prophet in verse 11, “will become like noonday.”
Once you and I walked in the spiritual darkness that is rebellion against God. Now, however, by God Word and Spirit, God has shone God light in our hearts and lives. The Lord has graciously brought us to himself, giving us the gift of faith by which we receive God’s amazing grace.
Now God wants you and me to respond by reflecting God’s light in the spiritually dark world around us. In verses 9 and 10 Isaiah insists that when we do things like fight world hunger, we not only feed people, but we also point them to God.
That’s vitally important because the Lord not only wants to feed them physically, but also spiritually. God doesn’t want to just feed hungry people Wonder Bread, but also Jesus, the Bread of life. For God knows that when people receive Jesus with their faith, they’ll never really hunger again.
Those who preach and teach on Isaiah 58 will want to look for examples of God’s people’s work of feeding the hungry through their own denomination or an organization with which they’re familiar. One example of such work is that being done by the Christian Reformed Church’s World Renew ministry in places like Mozambique.
Mozambique’s population is growing at an annual rate of about 2.5%. That places a huge strain on the country’s resources that can’t meet that increase in demand. So World Renew is partnering with the Canadian government to share existing and appropriate agricultural technologies that increase food production. They’re also working to improve water use.
Says Sofia Zoconi, “We started the community garden in August 2016 with 10 members—six men and four women. Our main motivation was to see how much we could achieve working together as a group sharing experience and knowledge.
Now we are able to work bigger fields in less time, increasing the amount of time we can use to take care of our families and improve our family nutrition. We are also making some economic gains, which are used mostly to invest in the savings groups and start other small businesses.
This project has made our work as women much easier, since crop irrigating is considered a women’s activity. With the treadle [water] pumps we managed to increase the land area under irrigation; we reduced work time (as well as work strain) in comparison with bucket irrigation; and our fully irrigated fields yielded improved crop quality.”
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