WE GOT RELIGION! FOR TODAY.
Good morning. It's a wonderful Wednesday! Tonight here at Madison United Methodist Church we will be serving beans, corn bread, fried potatoes, sour kraut and wieners and peanut butter bars. All this along with salad and drinks for only four dollars. Dinner is served from 5-6 each Wednesday with children and youth programs from 6-7:30. There is adult Bible study beginning at 6 o'clock. Tonight we will also begin Disciple I Bible study. This will be my tenth Disciple I Bible study and I look forward to it. We would love to have you with us.
Well, so much for the advertisements. One lady, who arrived for church fifteen minutes late every single Sunday, was asked by her pastor why she came to church so late each Sunday. She explained: "Well, preacher! I wait until all the commercials are over." So, the commercials are now over. LOL Today we return to the Book of Isaiah. The exiles have returned home with the opportunity to "get things right." I have heard people say that they, or someone, need to "get right with the Lord." This usually means "I/they need to get saved." What did it mean in Isaiah's time? Well, the people know what they have been guilty of (some of them do anyway), therefore, they will do the opposite.
"Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? We have humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' Yet on the day of fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists." (Is. 58: 3-4)
Question: Is fasting that is publicized actually fasting? Hmm...I don't know. I often, especially among preachers, hear people declare, "Today...(pause) is my day of fasting." I think to myself..."Oh, that is nice." Of course I understand that people also fast for a colon-ostomy. (My boys told me that when I turned 50 I was to get one. It's nice to know they are so concerned for me. Or they just thought it was funny telling me) Jesus, when it came to fasting, had something to say in Matthew chapter six. Here is a quick summary of what he said: "When you fast, keep it to yourself!" Well, the people in our passage above have fasted, but without the results they were looking for. Oh my!!! This is some tough stuff when you really consider what God is saying. "You can not fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only for a day for a man to humble himself?" (Is. 58:4b-5a) Ouch!!! Yes, they got religion! For that day at least. You know, I can't help but think about 9-11 (2001). I was in college on the morning the airplanes hit the towers. I watched in horror as televisions were turned on in about every classroom and then we quietly went home not knowing what it all meant. Then, folks gathered here and there and near and far to pray and hold vigils, etc. Beer joints (that's what I call them) had signs outside that read "Pray for America." Everyone, it seemed, got religion. How long did it last? Democrat and Republican stood side by side to proclaim they were one. We all stood together. But, how long did it last? Oh, we still commemorate the event on an annual basis, but then we go on about our business to wait until that one day next year when we will be asked to reflect on that dreadful day. What is God saying in this passage in Isaiah, and how could it possibly relate to us today? God basically says, "Don't give me your one day of fasting and say, "OK, Lord! I have fasted. Now Bless Me O Lord!" "Don't give your neighbor one good day and then forget him or her the next." Or, "Don't see the good you can do together one day, and then go it alone the next."
The people were fasting for material blessings. Isaiah makes it clear that God's primary concern is not that we have the Cadillac that we have always dreamed of. God tells the people what God expects: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and unite the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and to not turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Is. 58:6-7) Can you say, "Ouch!" Many people are so quick to say, "Well the Bible says...!" Yes, I bet the same people, if they knew what all the Bible said, wouldn't like what it really had to say. Listen, no matter how you want to paraphrase it, twist it, or turn it, the Bible does say what it says and I would suggest, it means every word. These words were echoed by Jesus Christ. If you recall Jesus said in Matthew's Gospel that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, then we also do the same unto him. (Matthew 25) The fast that God seems to want involves saving other people from oppression and satisfying their needs. No, the Gospel is not all about me. Now, does this mean that we can fast in hopes of an outpouring of God's Spirit to where a great revival takes place? I think the answer is Yes. After all, God wants all people to be drawn to him. This is a part of the deliverance from oppression, for sin is also oppression. Perhaps it would do the Church well to fast and pray for those oppressed by drugs across our nation. Perhaps we should do the same for our nation and world that God would move upon us all and we would all behold the glory of God in such a way we would forget our own differences and worship God. Just saying!
The people are made aware of their need to consider each other and each other's needs. Religion that ignores people in need is not religion at all. If you recall when Jesus walked this earth he ministered to all the needs of the people. In fact, when he fed the thousands...well he did just that...he fed them. No, they didn't have to listen to a long devotion or take a class on how to better manage your finances before he fed them. He simply fed them. Oh, I wonder how often the church gets in God's way of saving people. We need to remember that it is God who saves through his Son Jesus Christ.
"Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short too save, nor his ear to dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear..." (Is. 59:1-2) This simply says that salvation comes from God, but Israel's behavior may hinder that divine work. In fact, injustice is so rampant in the postexilic community that anyone who turns from evil encounters hostility. There is no one who is concerned with righteousness to help Israel. "He saw that there was no one...so his own arm brought him victory and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head..."(Is. 59: 16-17, NRSV) God has to take on the role of divine warrior. The Apostle Paul relates to this imagery when he writes Ephesians six in the chapter dealing with "The Armor Of God." This "divine warrior" will, alone, punish his enemies, redeem Zion, and save those who turn from their sins. So, there is hope! There is great hope! In fact, God gives a vision of Jerusalem's coming exaltation. (Is. 60:1-22) Jerusalem's light will shine so brightly that all nations will be drawn to that light.
Tomorrow, I will conclude our look at the Book of Isaiah. But, before I close today I want to just say something about Jerusalem. A few years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Israel. I shall always be grateful to those who made this possible and made sure I went. I had the opportunity to even travel with Bishop Ernest Lyght. For the first dew days we traveled in Northern Israel. Oh, it was breathtaking. Then, we made our way one afternoon toward Jerusalem. It was not a long trip, but long enough to take a nap. I was sleeping so soundly. My wife would say, "That is nothing! Rick can sleep through a hurricane." In fact, I have been known to fall asleep in movie theaters...during action movies. So, I slept, but then all of a sudden I began to wake up. As I did it was as though I knew I was waking up for a reason. The bus had been quiet. *I don't think I was the only one sleeping. I heard one of my favorite gospel singers, John Starnes, singing Jerusalem. Sure enough we were making our way up the Mount of Olives where we could look out over the city in the twilight of the evening. Oh my goodness! I will never forget the first time my eyes beheld Jerusalem. "Arise, shine: for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." (Is. 60:1) Amen!
Join me tomorrow as we continue our journey through the Bible. -Pastor Rick