Preached on February 6, 2011 at First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, MO
Empty Stomachs, Empty Worship
If you’ve ever seen a Charlie Brown cartoon on TV, you are familiar with Charlie’s teacher, Mrs. Donovan. Whenever she talks in the cartoon all you hear is the “Waa –wa – waa – waa” sound of a trombone. Only by the responses of Charlie Brown and his beloved pals do we have any clue as to what the teacher is saying. I think of Charlie Brown’s teacher whenever I read this Isaiah passage and also when I think of 1 Corinthians 13:1 which reads, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Or a stuttering trombone. Our talk, our prayers, our worship minus love just sound like “waa – wa- waa –waa” to God.
Or maybe that is too tame. Too humorous. Too soft on ourselves. Perhaps our words and our pleas, when absent of true worship, sound more like a movie so saturated with offensive language that we have to physically get up and leave the theatre.
What if our singing and prayers, so empty and self-serving, so devoid of love and justice, caused God to get up and leave this morning?
Our partners from South Dakota, Gary and Lori McAfee, were suppose to be with us today but due to circumstances out of their control, they had to cancel for now. I was really looking forward to sharing the platform with them today. I wanted them to share their heart with you as freely as they have shared it with me when I’ve been with them on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Their heart for the Native people. Their love for God. Their frustration with Christians. But honestly, had they shared exactly what they have shared with me, I wonder if we would have been able to receive it.
You see, imagine yourself in their shoes. For the last 15 years, you have toiled night and day in a forgotten land with a forgotten people. You have huddled with Lakota friends against the bitter winds of injustice and racism, poverty and addictions. You have buried one Lakota child after another as he or she has taken his or her own life out of despair and hopelessness. You have placed food on the empty tables of God’s hungry children. You have no answers for their repeated question, “where are the others that called themselves Christians”.
Where are they? Where are we?
When the prophet spoke our text today, he was facing a serious spiritual crisis in the community of faith. From chapters 56 – 66, three things seem clear about the Israelites.
First, there is a problem with the people’s commitment to maintain justice – to guard and provide for the basic needs, requirements, or even rights of people living together in community.
Second, the people were tired and impatient for better days. They had returned from 70 years of exile in Babylon. They had expected God to come and establish his dominion over all the earth. But times were hard and the future was anything but bright. By the time of Isaiah 58, nearly 20 years had passed and still no new kingdom. No golden age. Apathy and discouragement had dimmed their vision of the future.
Third, they were now moving beyond disappointment and apathy to cynicism. They had heard the promises all their lives, and no longer believed them. The people were going through the motions of religion expecting God to reward their external piety, their fasting. The Israelites were at the most one generation out from seeing some mighty miracles of God. And they were forgetting. They heard the stories, they practiced the rituals that were testimonies to God’s faithfulness – but they didn’t really believe them anymore.
I get this. I live this. Does it sound familiar? Some of us may have testimonies of God’s miraculous works in our lives. Maybe even in the lives of some of our family or closest friends. But for some of us, we are living on stories. We practice the rituals and come to the table without truly believing that what we are here to remember really matters anymore.
But we keep coming. For whatever reason. Perhaps because we still have some hope. Perhaps because this is what we Christians do. We go to church. We give our tithe. We dot our “I”s and cross our “t”s. We eat the bread and we drink the cup. But we’re still hungry and frustrated by what appears to be no response from God.
Are you watching, God? Have you seen our faithfulness to the tasks? Are you taking note of how religious we are? Day after day we seek you. Why are you so hard to find? Why aren’t you answering us? Why are you not pleased with our sacrifices?”
How can the Israelites, people who seem so intent on serving God, be considered so rebellious and sinful? Because they were not really serving God at all. They were serving themselves in the guise of serving God.
In verse 3, God responds.
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”
God rejects their worship. God will not be manipulated by public displays of piety and a lack of humility. God will not listen to our voice when our devotion is to our own interest rather than the interests of God. Before we move on to hear what God is interested in, we need to spend some time here. Time here in the rebuke and the judgment that we’ve earned for the church today could very easily be the audience for God’s proclamation through the prophet. Before we can move forward, we need to take an honest and difficult look at where we are. What does our worship consist of? What are our pleas to God? When we gather together and when we come to the table what charges can be brought against us?
Look, you serve your own interest while serving my church and ignoring the hurting. Look, you petition me with prayers to make your life more comfortable and easy while turning a deaf ear to the hardships of others. You complain to me that your wants are not met while turning a blind eye to the needs of others. You remind me not only of the moral sacrifices you make but how others fail to make them. And you do all of this with a self-righteous attitude and indignant expectation that I owe you something. Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
God owes us nothing. God owed the Israelites nothing. God was wise to Israel’s superficiality. On the surface, they may have looked godly. But they hadn’t changed their underlying behavior. God is never satisfied with rituals and liturgies when the hearts of His people remain corrupt. So He suggested in this passage something that ought to stun our own beliefs about prayer – that because of their hypocrisy, He would not even listen to their prayers! We take it as foundational that God will always listen to our prayers, but this passage suggests that we should not expect God to listen to prayers offered by insincere hearts.
So what does please God? What does God choose as an acceptable fast or authentic worship? God acquaints authentic worship with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and bringing justice to the poor with an attitude of humility and love.
v. 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 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 them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine and author and speaker on issues of biblical justice, attended seminary in Chicago. One day, he and some of his classmates decided to do a little experiment. They went through all sixty-six books of the Bible and underlined every passage and verse that dealt with poverty, wealth, justice and oppression. Then one of Jim’s fellow classmates took a pair of scissors and physically cut out every one of those verses out of the Bible. The result was a volume in tatters that barely held together. Beginning with the Mosaic books, through the books of history, the Psalms and Proverbs, and the Major and Minor Prophets, to the four Gospels, the book of Acts, the Epistles and into Revelation, so central were these themes to Scripture that the resulting Bible was in shambles. [i] According to The Poverty and Justice Bible, there are almost two thousand verses in Scripture that deal with poverty and justice.[ii] When Jim would speak on these issues, he would hold his ragged book in the air and proclaim, “Brothers and sisters, this is our American Bible; it is full of holes. Each one of us might as well take a Bible, a pair of scissors, and begin cutting out all the scriptures we pay no attention to, all the biblical texts that we just ignore.” Jim’s Bible was literally full of holes.
Would God say this about us? Would God hold up His Word and say, “Your Bible is full of holes. It is empty of what truly pleases me and full of what pleases you.”
A young couple from the hills of Arkansas got involved in a church where there was a lot of shouting and clapping and running for Jesus. They were trying to convince Grandma that she should attend. “You should have seen it,” the young man said to Grandma. “The Holy Spirit was really there!” Grandma kept rocking and didn’t say a word. “And, Grandma,” said the young woman, “you should have seen the preacher. He really got with it. He was screaming at the top of his voice and the people were popping up like popcorn to praise the Lord. It was unbelievable!” Again, Grandma kept right on rocking.
Finally, the young man said,” Grandma, don’t you think you would like our church?” Grandma finally spoke: “Honey, let me just put it this way. I don’t care how loud they shout, and I don’t care how high they jump. It’s what they do when they come back down that counts.”[iii]
God agrees with Grandma. We can make a lot of noise with our worship, lots of noisy gongs and clanging of cymbals, lots of stuttering trombones. But the only way our worship is authentic and pleasing to God is if our worship makes a difference in our relationship with others. If we are to be part of this coming kingdom, God expects our lives – our churches and faith communities too – to be characterized by these authentic signs of our own transformation: Compassion, mercy, justice, and love – demonstrated tangibly. Only then will our light break forth like the dawn, our healing quickly appear, and our cries for help be answered with a divine HERE AM I. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “It is in the process of being truly worshipped, authentically worshipped, that God communicates with men.”
As we prepare to come to the table this morning, I want us to hear the words of Isaiah 58 spoken by some of the children from the Amazing Grace Children’s Home in Northern Uganda.[iv] Children who truly were the poor, the oppressed, and the hungry until a community of Christians provided for their needs and advocated for their rights. Let’s allow God to speak through their voices this morning as we hear once again what truly pleases God.