Manipulative Faith - Isaiah 58

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Copyright Sept. 11, 2022 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche
As you read through the New Testament you quickly pick up on the fact that the chief enemies of Christ were the religious establishment, the Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees. These would have been the religious “superstars” of their day. They were respected, they were pious, they presented themselves as people who walked close to God. Yet, these are the people Jesus condemned because of their hypocrisy. They professed faith but did not possess faith!
If there is one criticism that seems most popular among non-believers towards the church it is their feeling that Christians are hypocrites. (When they say, “I don’t belong to the church because it is full of hypocrites” I always quickly add, “there is always room for another one!”) No matter how snappy our comeback is, the truth is, the church IS largely filled with hypocrites. This is because we haven’t learned the lessons of Isaiah 58. We, like the Israelites of Isaiah’s day, often put on a good “show” but with little substance.
This is not a new theme in Isaiah. In the very first chapter of Isaiah the people are indicted for their hypocrisy. Isaiah wrote over a long period of time. He may be talking to a whole new generation of people near the end of his book. But even if he isn’t we repeat things because people aren’t listening. When your children don’t remember to do important things, do you stop after telling them what to do once? No, you keep repeating the instruction until they hear you. Sometimes with the repetition comes an increase in volume!
In this chapter the Lord takes Israel’s leaders to task for two of their religious practices: they were experts at fasting and careful in their observance of the Sabbath.
Manipulative Devotion (1-5)
1 “Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
2 Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.
3 ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
4 What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
5 You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
The Israelites were quite proud of their devotion. They had regular fast days. Fasting is a time when you go without food or drink for a period of time. Christian fasting is when you do this to draw closer to the Lord, to seek His will, and to listen to Him.
The problem with these leaders was they were fasting not out of love for the Lord and a desire for their lives to mesh with what God wanted them to be, they were doing it because they thought these disciplines would earn them favor with God. In other words, they did it because they thought this would lead God to bless their lives.
Look at what He says, they act pious, they seem delightedto learn about Him, they act like a righteous nation, they pretend to want to be near Him. But they wanted a reward for these actions. They are doing all this to earn points. They are like people at an amusement park who keep playing the carnival games in the hopes of getting enough tickets to trade in for a prize they desire.
Sadly, we often do the same thing. We do religious “stuff” because we figure it will get us a blessing from God. We believe if we have a daily quiet time, go to church every week, throw in a Bible Study, develop Christian friendships, and serve in some capacity at the church . . . God will surely be obligated to bless us! So, we do these things not out of love for the Lord but to get something from Him.
Let me give you an example of how prevalent this is. Several years ago the Prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:9) was incredibly popular. It was a best-selling book that advocated this prayer as a model for success as a believer. People began reciting these words believing it was the key to unlocking God’s blessing. In other words, they were praying as a means to a selfish end!
There are often well-meaning teachers who instruct us to
· pray the prayers of the Bible
· claim God’s promises as our own (often boldly and loudly)
· declare specifically and audibly what we want from God without wavering
· agree together for our particular blessing (get someone to agree you need a new car)
· adopt a particular posture for prayer
These things may be good suggestions, but if these things are used in order to get what WE want from God, they are condemned by God. The Lord views it as manipulative and self-serving. He is not fooled in the least.
The Effects of True Devotion
6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
9 Then when you call, the Lordwill answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
10 Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
12 Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
We are told true fasting impacts the lives of people who are hurting. The Lord tells His people, in other words, if you want to truly fast, stop focusing on getting a blessing and start looking to be a blessing to others! He says, “Take your eyes off of yourself and see the needs of those around you! It’s as if God said, “If you actually listened to me, this is what I would tell you!” Ray Ortlund writes,
Do you want God to answer your prayers? Be his answer to someone else’s prayers. Do you want God to come in his immediacy and say to you, “Here I am”? Get close to someone who needs you and say, “Here I am.” Here’s the paradox at the center of truth: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Almost nothing in our consumerist American culture encourages us to believe that, but it just happens to be the way life works. Why? Because God is a happy Giver, an intense Lover, a relevant Helper, and he wants us to share in his joy.[1]
God is not interested in religious deeds that bring no change in our hearts. He is not looking for those who serve as a way to appease God (get Him off our backs). He is looking for those who are willing to truly act with the self-sacrificing and giving heart of Christ. He wants people who are not looking to get stuff from God but instead people who looking for what they can give to others in His name. True fasting then is about finding the heart of God, not squeezing the heart of God for our own purposes.
A Sabbath that Misses the Point
13 “Keep the Sabbath day holy.
Don’t pursue your own interests on that day,
but enjoy the Sabbath
and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day.
Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day,
and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly.
14 Then the Lord will be your delight.
I will give you great honor
and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
One of the Ten Commandments was to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy. The command was designed to bring us back to the heart of God one day out seven. It was a day to be set aside to worship Him and realign our lives with Him. But that is not what was happening.
Instead, the Sabbath became simply a day off during the week. It was a day for pursing their own interests. They said they “observed the Sabbath” but they were missing the point of the Sabbath entirely.
In the lifetime of many of us we can still remember stores being closed on Sundays. No extracurricular events were scheduled on Sunday. It was a day set apart for worship. It was a time for family. However, as people looked to use their “day off” to shop, or go out to eat, more stores opened. School events and other extracurricular activities began to swallow up this day designed to re-center us. It turned into one more day of running. For many of us, it is the day devoted to the NFL.
The Sabbath was intended by God to restore us physically and spiritually. It was designed to stave off the work and busyness obsessions. Sunday for most people now is simply another day filled with demands and obligations. God gave us the Sabbath to remind us that our anchor is the Lord alone. He is our life, our hope, our enjoyment. We need that weekly re-boot to our lives that will help restore balance and purpose to what we are doing the rest of the week.
When we let our schedules crowd out time for God, we are demonstrating our idolatry. When we our lives are dictated by our children’s schedules, we are teaching our children that some things are obviously more important than God! Our actions speak much louder than our words.
Ray Ortlund again writes, “We think we’re freeing ourselves from a religious imposition, but in fact we’re enslaving ourselves to destructive workaholism, unintentional but real exploitation of our employees, the obliteration of unstructured family intimacy, and, above all, a lost sense of the sacred.”
Please understand, this is about much more than superficial attendance figures. This is about the rhythm of our lives and the attitudes of our hearts. I know we are sometimes out of town. I also know that people often go to church when they are on the road or they sit down and watch our livestream. I get that. But we need to hear what is being said. This is about the very soul of our being! People are running themselves ragged trying to find what they can only find by stopping and resting and realigning with the Lord. This is a mental and spiritual health issue! If we did what God said, we would add 7 ½ weeks of vacation to our year . . . 7 ½ weeks of focusing on the Lord.
The promise of God is simple,
14 Then the Lord will be your delight.
I will give you great honor
and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
These blessings are promised not for a superficial appearance of devotion, they are promised to those who understand the heart of God. It is not what CAN we do on the Sabbath without getting into trouble. The question is, who are we spending the day with? Where is our heart directed? Are we willing to give God priority in our calendars?
Admittedly, this is a difficult text. It’s not difficult because it is hard to understand. It is difficult because it calls us to a depth of devotion unlike anything we have put into practice in our lives. Let me pull it together with three principles from this text.
First, Serving God in the hopes of getting a blessing from Him, is not really serving Him – it is serving self. There are no gimmicks to God’s blessing. We will never . . . ever . . . put Him in our debt. We will never put Him in a position where He is obligated to bless us. He calls us to pursue Christian practices to know and enjoy Him. Not to gain a reward.
Sometimes we act like little children. We believe that because we did some good things it should result in us receiving good things. For example, “I cleaned my room, so now I should be able to have some ice cream.” It is like a spouse saying, “OK, I spent an hour with you, now I should be able to go and have fun with my friends.” Would that make you feel loved and cherished . . . I think not. Why would we think God would feel honored when we say these things to Him?
Second, Christian activity without a change of character is of little true value. If God is really working in us, it will inevitably change the way we relate to the people around us. The real test of the Holy Spirit at work in us is whether we have a real heart for people who are hurting. It is a willingness to give of yourself to make things better for others.
A child who pulls all their toys close to them so no one else will play with them is not learning how to share or to love. They are being selfish. When we do things only for what they will bring to us, we show that we have never really grown beyond that childlike state. We are yet infants and not mature.
Third, God does not call us to be like others, He calls us to stand apart from others. He says we should be a “peculiar people.” We should march by the beat of a different drum than the rest of the world. We should not conform to the world but transform it! We should off the world’s treadmill of activity and orient our lives around Him.
If you really want to be led by God’s Spirit, you need to be prepared to do hard things, rock the boat, and swim against the stream of contemporary society. We may need to say “No” to some extracurricular activities and dare to roll up our sleeves and get involved. We need to put God first in our calendars and our hearts. If we are willing, He will give us the strength we need. It will mean tough choices. But tough choices are necessary to be strong followers. It is not only about us, our families depend on us setting the right course.
If you are like me, this is a much more convicting passage than I anticipated when I went into it. I was prepared for a pep talk, not a total reorganization of life and priorities. I have been convicted for two weeks and thought I should share that experience with you! We have grown soft. We have slowly embraced the ways of the world around us and in so doing have moved away from the heart of God. As such, we are moving in the wrong direction. And that, my friends, may explain, how we, as a world, have gotten into the mess we now are in.
[1] Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. and R. Kent Hughes, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 390.
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