Isaiah 58:1-9a
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 5, 2023

With the man’s permission, Pastor Erwin Lutz shares the confession that a conscience-stricken man, raised in Nazi Germany, made to Lutz behind closed doors.

The man’s Christian family regularly attended church.  Its members had heard the stories of what was happening to the Jews; but, fearing the responsibility which facing the facts would place upon them, they pushed all thoughts of it out of their heads.

A railroad track ran behind the Sanctuary, and every Sunday worship folks would hear the whistle of a train approaching and then its railcars rolling past.  They grew agitated as they noticed human cries from the train.  They knew it was Jews being transported like cattle to Hitler’s death camps; but no one said a word.  Though they each Sunday kept hearing the cries of the oppressed, they did not repent of their suppressing the truth before them.  Instead, they timed their hymn singing to coincide with the train’s arrival and sang at the top of their voices to drown out those cries – and thereby God’s call.

We can use religion to hide from the God who draws near to us and demands that we enact His righteousness.  We can pervert our faith practices into devious means by which we avert our eyes from seeing what God wants us to see and divert our ears from hearing what God wants us to hear.  We can replace true religion with one that enables us to evade our duty.

It can be a little hard to follow today’s scripture, because, in just 9 verses, the conversational direction switches four times.  First, God talks to Isaiah; then the people talk to God; then God talks back to the people; and finally Isaiah talks to the people for God.

In verses 1 and 2, God commands Isaiah to “shout out”, to “lift up your voice like a trumpet”, in confrontation of the people’s “rebellion”, a rebellion disguised under the pretense of piety.  They “ask of” God righteous judgments, but only to satisfy their curiosity and not to embody His values in concrete action.  They “seek” God but only to prop up their self-flattering delusion of being folks who “delight” to know and follow God’s ways.

In the first part of verse 3, those folks complain to God – complain that, for all their religious activity, they don’t see God or hear back from Him as they should.  But with the second part of verse 3 and for the next four verses, God complains to them – complains that, for all their religious activity, He doesn’t see or hear them responding as they should.  For example, by their fasting they “serve [their] own interest” and neglect what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law”:  that is, living true to God’s call to the work of love and justice, and thus to “let the oppressed go free” and to “share their bread with the hungry.”

What does God want us to see and hear?  This scripture speaks of three things: what matters supremely to God, what’s going on around us, and what’s given to us to do about it – that is, God’s priorities, our neighbors’ difficulties and our responsibilities.

First, God wants us to see and hear His priorities.  Because God loves everyone equally, equality of opportunity matters to God, and thus should to us.  To have the same chance at a good life, for example, every youth needs to be trained in life skills and good mental processing; but going to school, for all it helps, may not suffice to make that happen for everyone.  That’s why this church, through its after-school program and through its long-term relational support of students, supplements what the schools do.  It’s central to our fulfilling our call from God to “loose the bonds of injustice” and to “undo the thongs of the yoke” of disadvantage.

True religion is to see and hear God’s priorities.  It is also to see and hear our neighbors’ difficulties.  We all know our fair city has its share of the poor.  But have we listened well enough to hear, and studied the situation well enough to see, how hard poverty is on a person?  It’s not just being deprived of basic material needs such as food and shelter.  It’s also being invisible; being deemed shiftless, worthless or hopeless; being viewed as helpless or a shameful disgrace.  Yes, the poor need physical stuff, but they also need relationships with people who can be a part of God’s freeing them from a sense of despair or inferiority.  They need respectful, caring Christians who will walk alongside them in friendship.

True religion is to see and hear God’s priorities and our neighbors’ difficulties.  Finally, it is to see and hear our responsibilities.  We may wonder why God allows injustice and hunger when He could do something about it; but God is wondering the same thing about us!  God delegates to and thus depends on us.  Without God, we cannot; but without us, God will not.  But, because He so desires us to join Him in His work of love, He offers us the incentive of a reward for doing so.  In the last two verses of this scripture, Isaiah speaks for God to His people and delivers this promise to those who will practice true religion: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Harriet Tubman experienced that reward.  At the age of 26, she escaped from slavery.  But, having a soul formed by Bible stories and truths, Tubman – though safe and secure in Pennsylvania – could still see the oppression and hear the cries of her neighbors back home.  So for eight years, risking her own freedom to give them theirs, she led scores of slaves along the underground railroad to freedom.  During those trips, she prayed and relied on God to guide and protect her.  She not once lost a runaway.  As Tubman put it, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”

She gave all the credit to God saying that her success belonged to Him and not to her.  She testified, “I always told God, ‘I trust you.  I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me,’ and He always did.”  She practiced true religion and was rewarded with a vividly real and deeply empowering closeness with God.  One abolitionist Thomas Garrett exclaimed that he’d never met anyone so aware of God’s constant presence and so attuned to God’s voice.

May we enjoy that reward as we see and hear and enact God’s righteousness in the practice of true religion!

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