Monday, February 07, 2011

Sermon on Isaiah 58:1-14, 5th Sunday after Epiphany, "True or False"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. In the Gospel reading Jesus talks about how our witness as Christians is like salt or light—and that our witness is voided or lost when we don’t have salt in ourselves, or if our light is hidden or obscured. The reading from Isaiah 58 shows examples of how that happens, and how our witness can be undermined or voided. Since the reading only included verses 3-9a, I’m going to read to you the whole chapter of Isaiah 58. The chapter talks about how the Israelites were expecting God’s blessing in return for their fasting. Fasting is when you refrain from eating for a period of time to give greater attention to God and His Word. Listen how God describes the hypocritical and self-centered kind of fasting that they were doing, with the sincere and self-giving kind of fast that He desired, that turned outward in concern for others.

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Outward they appeared devoted to God, but it was just that—an appearance. Their heart wasn’t in their worship or fasting. They weren’t honoring God by their fasts, but instead were only looking for recognition and a reward. And their actions proved their words false. They complained that God wasn’t paying attention and blessing them when they fasted. He wasn’t hearing their prayers. Rather than creating true humility and attention to God—their fasting only made them quarrelsome and violent with each other. Despite their supposed humility and repentance, they continued to oppress. They put on sackcloth and ashes so that everyone would think that they were humble, but they were caught accusing and pointing the finger at each other, and speaking evil. They used the Sabbath day for their own pleasure, instead of worshipping and honoring God on the day of rest and worship. For all these things, God decried their so-called fast to be a sham and a fraud.

Likewise, the quickest way for Christians to discredit their witness, is by their life’s example. What if we claim to follow Christ, and do all the outward acts of devotion—go to church, be a volunteer, put on a humble face—but when we leave, we lose our temper and explode with a string of profanities at the person who cut us off on the road, or we go to our job and we’re abusive to our employees or colleagues, or we’re dishonest in our personal lives and betray the trust of others. Or we go around pointing our finger at everyone, finding fault in everyone but ourselves. Or, instead of honoring the day of worship, we use it to serve our own pleasure instead. Believe me, non-Christians watch and take notice. They’ll be quick to point out when you “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.”

Being a Christian isn’t about “putting on a face.” That’s literally what the word hypocrisy meant in New Testament times. It originated from actors putting on a mask to pretend to be someone else. People will see through that. Our faith must be genuine, and so while we still struggle and wrestle with sin, we don’t try to pretend once a week that we are holy and better than the rest—but instead we come to confess our sins, laying down the guilt of the past week and asking Christ to forgive it. We can afford to be transparent and humble and vulnerable before God because He’s faithful and just to forgive our sins. In fact, we can’t afford not to be transparent, humble and repentant before God! Because He sees and knows all our heart and actions. There’s a far more powerful witness for a Christian to give when an unbeliever sees our human struggles and how we turn to God for forgiveness and strength, than for us to pretend that we’re without sin, and want only to look good in the eyes of others.

Another way of putting it is that we should be watchful that we don’t “unsay with [our] lives [what we] say with [our tongues]” (Richard Baxter). Our actions can quickly unravel the witness that we’ve built up with our words. One man told of how he’d lost the little faith he had while he was in college, because he saw a bishop of the church who couldn’t take a beating in a game of tennis like a good sport. He admits this was a poor reason for him to lose faith, but then again, if one of the chief models of Christianity behaved so poorly over losing a game, what hope was there for a guy like him? (H.R.L. Sheppard). Do you see a similar example in your own life? A time when your witness was undermined, and your actions betrayed your words? Was it just a moment of weakness, where frustration boiled over? Or is it a regular habit? It might not make a difference to the person who takes offense at your actions and wanders away thinking “their religion is good for nothing.”

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “That’s me.” I’m saying it too. The truth is that we so often fail to give the same witness with our lives that we do with our mouths, and so undermine our witness to Christ. We may even have our fellow church members convinced of our holiness, knowledge, and honesty—yet the rest of the week it’s a totally different story. But we can’t live two lives, because even if it fools men, it can’t fool God. The sinful identity, the old nature has got to go. The Bible has one prescription for this—death to the old sinful nature. We put the old sinful identity to death through constant repentance of our sins and returning to our baptism, where we died with Christ and the new nature is raised with Him.

When we put that old sinful nature to death by repentance, and turning away from our sins, we don’t put up a fa├žade in its place, to act as though we’re righteous and holy on our own. Instead, be honest and humble about our sinfulness. This leaves us open for God to show us a totally different kind of fasting. The true, sincere fasting that He wants. Instead of trying to make a false show of humility through religious acts, God wants us to stop wickedness and break oppression. To help the mistreated and vulnerable. That our “fast” would turn us outside of ourselves to the needs of the hungry, the homeless and the poor. To do for the least of these as though we were doing it for Christ.

God says this “fast,” not a false one, will bear fruit and blessing. For those who worship and honor God’s name not merely in word, but also in deed. He desires to hear and answer their prayers, to bless them and protect them. We’re soon coming into the season of Lent, a season of repentance and humility, and considering our sins. Lent takes us to the cross and resurrection of Jesus on Good Friday and Easter. Many Christians fast during Lent. But as this passage shows, and as Jesus also taught, it’s really important how we carry out that fast. Will we do it for show or attention, so that other people take notice? Or will we practice a fast like God describes in Isaiah? The true fast that God desires is different in this way—to give up something so that it can be given to others, not just for themselves. Like giving your bread away to the hungry and sharing your home with the poor. Giving clothing to the naked. Not just giving up something for yourself, but giving it away to someone else.

Another prophet of the Old Testament, Joel, wrote in a similar way about true and false fasting. In a time when they were facing God’s judgment for their sin, God called to them, saying “’return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:12-13). Rend your hearts and not your garments. Traditionally, people who were in deep mourning over sin, would tear their garments as they fasted. But here God says rend your hearts, not your garments. In other words, don’t tear your clothes to show your repentance—tear your hearts. What does that mean? It means that we should present a broken and humble heart to God—sorrowful over our sin. He will not turn away from a broken and humble heart.

But why does God want us to do that? Who wants a “torn” or broken heart? Because repentance is our return to the Lord, and he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He wants our repentance so that He can heal the broken heart. That He can fill us with an overflowing love and mercy that will heal the wounded and strengthen the despairing. So that our heart overflows with love instead of anger and malice, with humility instead of pride, with generosity and kindness instead of selfishness and quarrelling.

For a Christian whose fast is to humbly do good and to practice love and charity to those who are around him in need, God will surround them with light and He’ll hear their prayer and cry for help. He’ll guide them with light in times of darkness. Not because we deserve it, or because we fast so that God will hear us and take notice of us. But because God is gracious and merciful, and shows compassion to the humble. Reflect for a moment on those words from Isaiah 58:6-7. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

If there’s even a small, insignificant way in which we’ve partially done those things, we have to admit that we’ve fallen far short of that incredible and admirable standard. But there’s One who has perfectly kept that fast. Jesus Christ. He loosed the bonds of wickedness and lifted the yoke of the oppressed when He broke the power of sin over us by His cross. He took the heavy yoke of our sins and guilt so that the weak and weary might be comforted by the Lord of strength, who carried our sins on His cross. He preached the Gospel that set the captives free. He fed crowds of thousands with fish and bread, and while He had no home to lay His head, He has gone to heaven to prepare a heavenly mansion to house all those who believe in Him and so die and go to their eternal home. On this earth He still gives and provides a home for us in the church, even when we have no other place to turn. And He clothes us with the priceless clothes of His innocence, with which we can stand before God, forgiven of sin and clean in His eyes. Surely Jesus kept the true fast for us, and by His forgiveness and cleansing we have a new heart that overflows in love and service to others. And through Jesus’ interceding with the Father, we can call out to the Lord in prayer, and be confident that He will answer, “Here I am.” Brought near to God in Christ, let our lives always shine with His light and give a pleasing flavor of salt to the world, as we carry our witness of Christ before others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Read Isaiah 58, the whole chapter. What were the examples of hypocrisy in the Israelites’ fasting? Cf. Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18. What selfish reason did they have for fasting? What should be our reason for fasting or acts of charity, service to the church or community?

2. How does a hypocritical life discredit a Christian’s witness to Christ? What examples of hypocrisy are there in our own lives? How do we “take off the mask” and return to God?

3. How can we “unsay with our lives what we say with our tongues?” How do we get rid of the old, guilty habits of our sinful nature? Romans 6

4. What is the true fast that God desires? Isaiah 58:6-7; Joel 2:12-13; Micah 6:6-8. What difference does leading this kind of life give to our Christian witness? Matt. 24:34-39

5. How does God receive a torn and broken heart? What does He do with it? Psalm 51:10-17; Ezekiel 36:26; Heb. 10:22

6. How has Jesus perfectly kept the true fast for us, which we could not do? Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:16-30

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