Isaiah 58:1-11
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching

The practice of religion can be helpful to the development of a God-pleasing life.
But it can also be detrimental!

Religion consists of certain rituals like attending worship, joining in fellowship activities and praying together. God prescribes them, not for His sake, but for ours. For when we do them right, they draw our hearts close to His, and allow what is on God’s heart to get into our hearts and move us to do what God most wants us to do: be good to others.

Religion is designed to develop in us a life of justice and compassion, a life in which we treat others fairly, give them their due, and take care of those in need.

The proof of authentic religion is whether it inspires us to take such action.

The sign of a false religion is whether it gives just enough contact with God to inoculate people against contracting God’s passion to see justice done and compassion given. If our religion leaves us indifferent and inactive in the face of human need, that is a religion of which we need to repent! It will delude us into thinking we’re living close to God when in fact our actions – or lack thereof – are showing we’re living far from God.

That was the religion of too many people in Isaiah’s day. Though they relished and studied God’s words, they didn’t let God’s words grip their hearts and compel them to just and compassionate conduct. God hated their merely going through the motions of the real life of religion, lamenting, “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God”. They were, God says here, actually engaged in a “rebellion” against Him, and had so put Him at arm’s length that they could no longer make out His “answers” when they called upon Him or hear Him say, “Here I am”, when they cried for His help.

Do you remember when Jesus, in Matthew 23:23, criticized the religious leaders of His day, saying, “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” Jesus affirmed there the practice of tithing, but decried their way of tithing. They got so caught up in working out its details, apply it even to their holdings in precious spices, that they never got around to its more substantial concern to change the evil economic systems and the prospects for those denied a fair chance.

I think something like that was going on in Isaiah’s context. The Lord approved the practice of fasting, but wanted His people to do it in the fullest sense. To do it in the fullest sense is to move beyond the exercise of self-denial for the sake of nurturing one’s own spirituality and to practice self-denial for the sake of providing nourishment for the hungry and freedom for the oppressed. God says here, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice … to share your bread with the poor?”

Lent is a good time to examine ourselves and to reflect on whether the practice of our spiritual disciplines – tithing, fasting, praying, attending worship, and the like – are firing up our devotion to the “the weightier matters” of justice and compassion.

However, since none of can do everything, we must evaluate ourselves in light of what God is expecting us in particular to do.

It is helpful for developing our understanding of our specific call to begin by asking ourselves this question: “What must be done by me, or won’t get done at all?” Thinking about that will give us a start on discerning the individual part we are to play in God’s big overall plans.

Often, within our family or our closest circle of friends, we are uniquely positioned to bless someone in a way no one else can. For example, though hired people are assisting my sickly 97-year-old mother, there are gifts of God’s grace that only I am able to give her. Likewise, there are things that only I can do for Adele and for certain others because of our shared history and special connection.

Of course, God keeps us pushing outward into larger and larger circles of caring, and often into service of people with whom we have no previous history or prior connection – and that is when it can get quite hard to figure out what exactly is ours to do.

The two prime ways I know to figure it out are, first, praying and then listening to the Spirit, and, second, talking it out with others who listen to the Spirit and then listening to them.
Even after doing all that, there may still be no choice but to attempt things we think might be what we’re supposed to do and then learn what is ours to do by trial and error. After all, only a moving car, and never a parked one, can be steered. So God, I think, like us to try various ministries on for size to see what our particular call might be. Other things being equal, God’s call is that we do what brings us a sense of both enjoyment and effectiveness.

Whatever we end up doing to try to bless others, we end up being blessed in the process. This scripture promises that, if we pursue justice and compassion, God’s light will rise upon us, and we will become like a “watered garden…whose waters never fail”.
Doing good sure sounds good to me!  Let us pray.

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