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Isaiah 58: True Religion

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Isaiah, chapter 58, as we wrap up our series through Isaiah.

I love how Isaiah ends this beautiful book talking about the character of God, himself. We spend too little of our time in church, in prayer, and in our lives in general considering who God is. The apostle James says we’re like ships driven by the winds, the spirits of our age, and he’s right. We spend a lot of our lives driven here and there by the things and people around us in this world when it would be better for us to be moved and directed by the breath, the Spirit of God.

We saw two weeks ago that God is satisfying and good, like bread and wine and milk to the hungry, Isaiah says. And far from being angry, standoffish, or withholding, God is eager to forgive. He’s waiting for us to turn and come home, so we can be a family again. In Isaiah’s day, in our world, the word of God is active, never meaningless; God is speaking words that cause us to grow and change and be alive.

Last week we saw that our God isn’t just our God; he’s the God of all peoples—even of our enemies, even of people you don’t agree with. And our church isn’t meant to be just our church, God’s house is meant to be a house of prayer for all peoples, a place where truth and peace can coincide—truth that cuts, forgiveness that heals. We’re meant to be a people pursuing justice and righteousness together.

So we’ve seen what our God is like, what he says, what food he likes, and the people he really cares about and invites into his home to eat dinner with him and his family. Today we’re going to focus on what he likes his children to do. What pleases him, and what doesn’t.

Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 58, starting in v.1. [Isaiah 58:1-12] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

I was cool once, Ben. You missed the last sermon this came up in. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I was cool for a brief period in late high school, early college. I wore baseball caps—backwards. I wore an extra shirt on top of my shirt. I went to shows, like even out-of-town shows. I had an older girlfriend who was in college. I was into theater, but like cool theater. I knew the names of authors, and used the word existential when I talked about them—and I did talk about the authors I knew, often. I smoked American Spirits and frequented a grungy coffee shop chain called CK’s that went out of business almost immediately after Tennessee instituted an indoor smoking ban. I mean, it was like two weeks between when they passed the law and when this chain closed, there was really no other point in going there—the coffee was terrible, the servers all hated us, I’m sure, because we would sit there for hours and get coffee refills, tip like a dollar.

We would sit in our plastic booths talking about change, predicting what the future would hold, confidently talking about what our futures would hold. We all decided together to be nonconformists, and because we were so different from everyone else, we all wore the same clothes and listened to the same music. We watched movies other people didn’t get, man. We talked about God and church.

Yes, we were Christians, but we were cool Christians, and by that I mostly mean we were young and dumb and rebellious. We had doubts; we asked questions. In our suburban homes and our great schools our parents fought to get for us, we questioned why God would allow so much suffering in the world. You know, in other parts of the world. We criticized sermons and preachers. And we all but completely threw off what we called religion.

You see, we made a distinction between everything we had inherited—all of the traditions, doctrines, teachings, customs of our churches—and what we called “true religion,” a concept we kind of pulled from the book of James. James writes this: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

We objected when our church built a new building, because we, unintentionally quoting Judas instead of Jesus, said the money should be spent on the poor. We took communion using Hawaiian Punch. We rejected denominational labels. Some of these things were really healthy for me, and others I’m glad I grew out of. I no longer reject the Great Tradition of the church, and I even work for a denomination; my college self would be scandalized.

What I got for all of my questioning of my spiritual inheritance was a faith very much my own, and more mature, broader, less self-conscious than the faith I had as a child. This period in my life can be summed up well with GK Chesterton’s words: “I am the man who with utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before…I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touch to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

I’m no longer cool, and I have mixed feelings about that shift in my life. Like, I kind of still wish we went to shows all the time, but I also kind of want to go to bed by nine. But even though I’m no longer cool, I can still recognize when other people are cool. Lauren Daigle is cool, for instance, and I like her music. She’s on Jon Foreman’s new album; that’s cool. She has a fantastic voice. She wears scarves, but she wears them in her hair. And she’s from Louisiana—that’s super cool. She has a song called “Losing My Religion” that, when I was writing this, had 15.5 million plays on Spotify. The refrain of the song is a prayer to God, she prays, “I’m losing my religion…to find you.”

And there’s a reason beyond her voice 15 million people have listened to that song—it’s because we all know there’s some truth to what she’s saying. It’s a truth we receive in our passage today, as well, the truth that not everything we do in the name of religion is pleasing to God. I would wager, if we went around the room, ten out of ten people have probably gone through some sort of loss of religion at some point in their life. Either you had a period where you doubted God, or just kind of saw some flaws in the religious tradition or the denomination you grew up in. I know I’ve been kind of making fun of myself this morning for being young and dumb, but I’m glad I questioned so much and worked out what was true religion and what was really just an act; the Greek word for actor, after all, is hypocrite.

I wasn’t conscious that I was playing a hypocritical role, but I was playing it all the same. Like the Truman show. I was playing the role of a good kid, an obedient child, and my religious actions were partly bound up in that.

There’s no part of me that wants to play-act my faith, to be all talk, and hide my real thoughts, feelings, sins, and mistakes. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I want to be done with that, but even saying that I know I’m not done losing my religion. I’ll probably struggle against the roles people expect me to play until I meet our God. I can’t tell you how many expectations people bring to the role and title of pastor. Anything that’s not true religion in me, I want to leave behind, to find God. I want my religion to be pure and undefiled, and I want to pull other people off the stage, too, take off the affected emotions and the costumes and do something real in the world. Have real conversations. Worship God for real.

This is a difficult passage. I read this as a Christian and come away as a pastor with some fear of the Lord, wanting to take stock of my life and ask if I’m living genuinely as a Christian, or if I’m just acting. I read this text and have a desire to have God and other people in the church “search me and know my heart, to see if there is any grievous way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” Because by all accounts, the people Isaiah is describing here are deeply devoted. Today, we would call them good church people, core members, leaders, good Christians. V.2 Isaiah says, they seek God daily. They’re waking up and doing to quiet time, they know the word. V.2, they delight to know the ways of God. They’re fasting in sackcloth and ashes, they seek out the judgements of God and want to be close to him.

Reading this, I’m thinking, they’re better Christians than I am. And they’re confused, v.3, about why they still feel so far from God. Why he hasn’t just abundantly blessed them in their lives because of all of their righteousness. They ask God why he isn’t responding to all of their activity?

And God answers, essentially, if I can sum up the first part of our passage it’s this: your righteousness is not meant for you. Your righteousness isn’t meant for you, it’s meant for the people around you. You’re not supposed to just take in the word, take in teaching, take in communion and truth and spiritual discipline so that you can be righteous for your sake. God asks, v.2, why do you want to know my ways if you aren’t going to do the same things I do? Why do you want to hear about the life of Christ if you’re not going to live like him? There are no understudy roles in the Christian life, you’re not just learning lines and actions just in case you might need them one day, so you can show up when someone else gets sick. Understudy is a role that exists in acting, not in religion.

God accuses them, in essence, of hypocrisy, but this is hypocrisy in a different sense from what we usually think of. We usually think of hypocrites who know they’re acting, like some holy roller having some secret affair with a congregant, and covering it up. But here, this is people trying earnestly, and with great effort, to please God, and they’re missing it. They’re putting all of their effort into doing things he doesn’t really like, and at the core of this kind of hypocrisy is a subtle kind of self-centeredness.

This kind of misdirected effort is really common in romantic relationships. You try to love in the way you most feel loved, not the way your partner does.

I’ll tell you a story, briefly, just as an example from my own marriage. What you have to know about me for this story is that I don’t really care about stuff and things. If I need a thing, I’ll buy it, but having things I don’t need doesn’t even really make sense to me. I hate clutter with a complete hatred. I have five shirts, about that many pairs of shoes, all of them for different practical purposes. I have one drawer in our bathroom. Before I got married I had one pot, one pan, two sets of dishes, my school things, and that’s it. I moved once in a sedan. Anne-Elise’s side of the family loves stuff and things. She saves Mardi Gras beads. She owns gadgets. She has purchased kitchen utensils which have a single function.

Early on in our relationship, we tried really hard to show each other we loved each other, but we tried in all the wrong ways. I remember our first Christmas, I’m sitting quietly reading a book—which is me, relaxing—and she kept pulling me into whatever conversation she was having with her parents—which is her, relaxing. I spent days cooking four elaborate recipes that no one really liked or cared about, all the while Anne-Elise is getting frustrated because I’m not spending my time with her family. And when Christmas morning comes, I probably received about $500 worth of items, which I cared nothing about and probably never used. We were both trying so hard to love each other well, and failing, because subtly, we were focused more on what we liked and wanted than on what the other person liked and wanted.

Jesus tells a haunting story very similar to our passage in the sermon on the mount in Matthew. He starts out by saying, not everyone who calls me Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do God’s will. Jesus says, people can pray, prophesy, cast out demons—all kinds of things—“mighty works,” he calls them, and then he says, “I’ll declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” So it’s vitally important that we know what it is God likes, what his will is, because it’s possible to wear ourselves out with religion, burn ourselves out, in church, in our personal lives, trying to be righteous, trying to live up to what we think we need to give to God, and just completely miss what God actually wanted from us.

V.6, God responds to the people who are fasting, trying to draw close to him, he says “you fast only to quarrel and to fight,” basically the only reason you’re fasting is to win the argument. In my experience of church and life, the argument is always changing, but there’s always an argument, and people on both sides are always trying to feel superior, like they’re on the high road, the high moral ground. They start criticizing not whatever argument the other side is making, but the people on the other side, usually finding some reason to say they’re immoral, detestable, and then working very hard to make sure to set themselves apart from the people on the other side in that regard.

For example, I remember one of the arguments when I was in high school was over the DaVinci code. The book had just come out, it was super-popular, and people are first hearing about the Jesus seminar, the gospel of Judas, and Thomas, and other non-canonical books about the life and teachings of Christ. Talk exploded about textual criticism, and whether or not the Bible we have is true to the original text.

I remember my church doing a whole sermon series preaching against the DaVinci Code, like a six-week series, and I’m sure anyone in town who had the book hid it in their closet or threw it out. A lot of people had copies because they thought it was an entertaining fiction, but regardless of what they believed about it, once it was made an issue, they didn’t want to associate with the other side. I remember people avoiding any talk of textual criticism, and a lot of people went King James only so as to avoid accidentally using a Bible that had been altered. One Sunday school teacher around that time told me the New Living Translation was heretical, Presbyterian propaganda.

Then I got to seminary and was surprised that we were studying textual criticism and talking about different textual variants like it was obvious, necessary to the task of the pastor. New Orleans seminary has a whole text criticism center and museum we could all go to tomorrow if we wanted. When I learned Greek and Hebrew and was able to translate for myself, seeing in the text how difficult it is to pull an idea across one language into the other without changing some small aspect of the meaning, and being grateful for the variety of translations we have in English that all catch some small aspect of the meaning.

I realized I and my whole town with me had spent a whole lot of effort on something that’s really kind of useless, trying to be righteous, but in the end we were so focused on the argument and trying to land on the high moral ground that we forgot true religion, the things that actually delight God. We forgot that our righteousness isn’t meant for us, to win us a high moral ground. We are meant to be righteous, yes, and to labor towards that end—and our righteousness is meant to draw us down into the valley to lift up the lowly, the unrighteous, the poor in spirit, or as we see in our text, the materially poor.

V.6, Isaiah says, “this is the fast that I choose;” so here we see the things that do please God, things that deserve our efforts “to loose the bonds of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.” Yoke, here, is a symbol of slavery, outfitting a person like a beast of burden, treating people as though they are less than human and forcing them to work.

God says the fast I want is not just for you to not eat to try to be more righteous; he says, if you’re fasting, that food you would have eaten? Share it with the hungry, v.7, “and bring the homeless poor into your house.” He says, if you’re going to put on sackcloth and ashes, give your clothes to a person who doesn’t have clothes. If you’re going to learn my ways, do them. If you’re asking for my judgements, confess your sins. That I would like.

I told one story this morning about how my church growing up missed it—here’s one where they were on it. There was one Bible study group at my church growing up that got together for breakfast once a week and studied the Bible, and after a while, someone had the idea that once a month they would skip breakfast, get together to pray instead of eat and talk, and take the money they would have spent on breakfast and give it to the church to use for benevolence. That to me sounds like a fast God would like.

Again, they were seeking righteousness together, and that righteousness they sought in their small group drove them to action. It’s about finding ways to share your righteousness, or your blessedness, with the people around you. Don’t despise or reject it, but bring others into it. Your righteousness is not for you. If you know the Bible well, don’t show off or try to win the argument, be respected: teach someone else, let them surpass you, eagerly desire their righteousness and knowledge to exceed your own. If you have time, don’t spend it all on yourself, use it to serve or care for someone, or to work and support your community financially. If you have money or power, use it wisely. Support the church, give generously toward meeting the needs of the people in your community. If you have a house, invite people into it, build community, house an orphan, or just someone who needs a home.

There’s a spiritual and a social aspect at work here in the passage. He’s talking about actually working toward freeing slaves, which was a serious social ill Isaiah’s original audience was currently experiencing, but also this societal illness has wickedness at its root. Wickedness, which Isaiah uses here as the opposite of righteousness.

You can’t be spiritually healthy if you’re content with the wickedness around you. Instead of trying to be righteous for your own sake, be righteous for the sake of the people around you. Peter says it this way: “As each of you has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

And that’s really the way to avoid hypocrisy in the end: to God be the glory, and all the power. Forever and ever, amen. Let him be our guide, our king, our Father.

My invitation to you this morning is to invite God to “search you and know your heart, to see if there is any grievous way in you and lead you in the way everlasting.” If there is any part of you still acting, lay it down. If there is any part of your life in which you are pursuing righteousness for your own sake, find some way to give it away for the good of the people around you. “…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”