Not So Fast

September 18, 2022

Book: Isaiah

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Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-7

Where do your religious or spiritual behaviors come from? 

Good morning, everybody. I know we just prayed a few minutes ago, but before we dig in this morning, let’s have a quick word of prayer again. Papa, we thank you for this morning. We thank you for this opportunity to worship you, to dig into the words, the scripture, these texts that you’ve preserved. Lord, I pray that you be with us today as we deal with challenging topics, as we deal with things that may be heavy or difficult, or that Your Grace, that your presence would be the support for us, your spirit would carry us and show us the things that we need to hear, Lord, that your truth and love would both be present in the midst of these things. I pray that your spirit would speak in spite of me, and that you would be with us in this time. Pray this in Jesus name. Amen.

On January 26, 2020, a helicopter lifted off in Orange County, California, and routes to Camarillo, California. Chances are you heard about this flight. Most people would refer to it as the flight. Kobe Bryant died on. And for most of us, that’s the only person on that flight we can name. If you happen to be a big Kobe Bryant fan, you might have been able to name his daughter Gianna as well. There’s another name on that manifest, though, that I had to Google. Ara Zobayan the pilot that day. It sounds like Ara was a very experienced pilot and was used to carrying around celebrities like Kobe on a number of his flights. There are even some stories suggesting that he and Kobe may have been friends. But on this flight Ara went ahead into a heavy fog near LA and while trying to gain altitude to get above the cloud layer, suddenly plummeted. The helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California. All nine people on board died that morning. There’s a cautionary tale in this tragic story. And there’s one in our passages for today as well. Isaiah 58:1 says “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.” Now, if you’re receiving a message from God, this is probably not what you want to hear. Verse Isiah 58:1 says “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.” So wait. The people being called out here are described as seeking God daily. Delighting to know his ways. Asking God for righteous judgments. And delighting to draw near to God. That’s quite a rap sheet. How in the world can someone doing these things and God says they do these things? How can they still be in the wrong. After all, these sound like really good and spiritual people, don’t they? After all, how many of us can say we seek God daily? That we delight to know his ways. That we ask God for righteous judgments. Or that we delight to draw near to God.

Perhaps many of us are still striving for these things. But not so fast. Before you make each of these your goal, let me ask you a question, and it’s going to sound like a silly question, but I really want you to consider it. Why? Why would you seek God daily? Why would you delight to know his ways? Why would you ask God for righteous judgments? And why would you delight to draw near to God? Furthermore, let’s ask why we perform any religious or spiritual action. Why do you [insert religious behavior here]? If the people were reading about this morning are actually in the wrong, then this question is essential to wrestle to the ground. Maybe you’re not entirely sure why you do some of the things you do. Maybe you’re just taught to do it that way. Maybe you weren’t taught it, but you just picked it up. You were just shown it somehow. If it’s neither of those, maybe you just invented it. You made it up for some reason. Maybe you answer the Why question reflexively with, I do it for God. Either way, before we wrestle, let’s dig a little bit. It’s important to note here that while the ESV translates the word judgment here twice, there are actually two different Hebrew words being used. The second word falls more in line with what we understand judgment to be. But the first one is this Hebrew word Mishpat, which actually goes much further. Mishpat is more than a judge on a bench passing judgment based on a bunch of recorded laws. The culture this was written to was often based less on individuals being ruled by laws, and more about them being ruled by a ruler. That ruler decreed what was right and wrong. They themselves were the standard. So in this case, think of it less as people dismissing God’s decisions, and more as them rejecting His divine order for existence.

Now, don’t rush past this. If the ruler is the one who sets the standard for law, the benchmark for righteousness, then as long as that ruler is in place, the order of that kingdom stays in place. When a person or a group of people decides to reject that order and by extension, that rule is authority, conflict begins to brew. Sometimes this looks like outright rebellion, an explicit defiance. This is the version that’s easy to identify and respond to. You’re in or you’re out. I would argue, though, that another version is actually much more dangerous than this scenario. Again, our culture is much more comfortable with the idea of self-rule. But do you see how this gets messy? I take my preferred interpretation, consciously or not from the ruler, and begin following the rule rather than the ruler. I can tell myself I’m still following the ruler; after all, look at how well I’m keeping his rules. God is addressing a people. His people, who, despite seeming loyal and affectionate toward him, had, in effect, rejected him as their ruler. Well, then what standard do they expect him to make his righteous judgments by? To borrow an old expression, God’s people were hoping to have their cake and eat it, too. The advantage of avoiding that outright rebellion is that when you get into trouble, as Israel often did, you can come running back to your king for aid and support with minimal embarrassment. After all, you convince yourself you’re a loyal subject. A consistent cycle throughout Israel’s history was detailed last week by Pastor Kyle. Israel becomes oppressed by an outside force. They pray and they cry out to God. And God rescues them. And then Israel assumes credit for that rescue. They break their covenant with God, and then they are oppressed by an outside force. So they pray and they cry out to God. And Isiah 53:3a. The people ask God, “Why have we fasted and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it?” It’s like they’re saying, God, it’s your move. Help us out. Otherwise, why do we go through this ritual? Hey. At least they’re asking why. Let’s ask why as well. If these people had rejected God’s divine order for existence, why were they assuming that going without food, and looking pitiful would change their circumstances? Were they assuming that the rebellion didn’t matter, that because they were God’s people, God would feel pressured or obligated to change course? He’s rescued us before, so why wouldn’t he do it again? Were they imagining that fasting had some type of magical property, like a spiritual math equation that cranks out positive results? God tells them why they fast, starting in the second part of verse 3b forward: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and 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 the spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” To which most of us might say, yeah, that sounds like the right stuff to me. A day for a person to humble himself. How much of the Bible talks about the need for humility, to bow down your head like a reed? Again, an expression of humility or remorse, to spread sackcloth and ashes under him. And in this culture, this was a sign of mourning or repentance. It all sounds pretty good.

Part of me finds it disturbing that such seemingly pure and sincere acts can be performed religiously, if you’ll pardon the expression, by the same people who are regularly abusing and oppressing the people around them. When you look more closely at verse 4, though, those religious acts are exposed as just that. Acts. You fast only to quarrel and fight, and to hit with a wicked fist. This isn’t for God. This is purely for a sense of self-righteousness. On the other hand, this kind of self-serving religion isn’t surprising to us, is it? If I believe I’m somehow favored by God, it’s easy to try to justify my behavior and expect him to shrug off my misdeeds. If I experience any backlash or repercussion, I can just do whatever is needed to get me out of it. Anything to avoid consequence. I’ll go to God on my knees and surely he’ll see that and things will get better for me again. I’ll [insert religious behavior] so that God will work in my favor. If you’re like me, you’ve been here. Maybe this describes you today. ‘Behold, in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers.”

“Behold you fast only to quarrel and fight and to hit with a wicked fist.” Some faiths operate on a balanced scale view of justice. They see the divine order of the universe to operate on a bad deed, canceling out a good one; and a good deed, negating an evil one. Do you see the slippery slope here? Sure. God, I regularly do some things you wouldn’t approve of. But look how much I give. The Bible says you love a cheerful giver. Right? So that means you have to give me a pass. Put any actions on the sides of that equation and the result is the same. We begin to believe we can manipulate God. The folks were reading about today believed God should listen to their religious pleas and turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of others. Dr. John Oswald, an Old Testament scholar, sums up their mindset this way. If it’s okay to manipulate God, it’s okay to manipulate those around me. We asked the question earlier, what standard do they expect him to make his righteous judgments by? And by now it should be a pretty clear answer. Their own. They want their role in the universe, their own divine order, if you will, to reign supreme. And in this order, God is reduced to a genie or a trained pet. If you don’t know, take a quick read through the Book of Judges with the recurring theme, And those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. And all throughout that story, as each person tried to impose his rule over each other person, you see things get more and more dark. Perhaps, though, you don’t even have to look as far back as judges today to know how all of this living turns out.

Maybe you see the effects of it all around you. Maybe it’s personally impacted your community. Maybe it’s affected your family. Maybe you see this in operation within you. One of the biggest consequences that comes from rejecting God’s mishpat, his divine order for existence, the way he’s designed and structured things to operate within his kingdom is that, though we become convinced otherwise, we have no means of successfully navigating life without Him. Ara, the helicopter pilot from before, reportedly developed a case of the leans, a type of spatial disorientation specific to aviation in which a pilot believes he’s flying straight and level when actually he’s in a banked turn. Without visibility in the fog and without an equipped terrain awareness and warning system, all he had to go on was his instincts, feelings, and his expert level experience. Wasn’t enough. When you choose to forsake the divine order of God, you’re choosing to fly into that heavy fog. You may believe your instincts, feelings and experience are enough. But our story only involved one pilot. Each and every person who chooses their own way over God’s order, direction and awareness is up in that fog with you. When their way collides with yours watch out. If your life currently feels like flying in the fog and you’re not even sure which way is up anymore, there is good news today. You might have noticed Isaiah is quite a long book. If you back up to Isaiah 28:16-17, you hear a couple of verses that may have a familiar ring to you: “Therefore, thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone of a sure foundation: ‘whoever believes will not be in haste’. And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters will overwhelm the shelter.” In Acts, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the stone and foundation, the standard of justice and righteousness. At the start of his ministry, Jesus gave his mission statement of sorts by quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He’s anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, the set of liberty, those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I pretty frequently hear the claim that the God of the New Testament is incompatible or different from God as He’s depicted in the Old Testament. In general, the Old Testament version is often painted as a bloodthirsty warlord, requiring absolute obedience and submission, and frequently wiping out the disobedient. The New Testament version, on the other hand, is often characterized as a much more lenient, more tame, more caring, compassionate and forgiving entity. Now, of course, both of these are portraits painted with very specific lighting and backdrops. And any attempt we make to completely portray God will end up as a biased misrepresentation at best. But for those holding fast to the unfeeling, vengeful perspective of God in the Old Testament, you might be surprised that God’s call for true fasting. “Is not this the fast that I choose, to loosen 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?” God is showing us what a fast acceptable to the Lord really looks like. But honestly, if I were to dig up all the verses I can find on fasting and try to make a checklist of everything needed to do it right, what I would come up with would probably look a lot more like the first description than this one. Why does God put such an emphasis on this kind of fasting? Over my 21 years of following Jesus, I’ve noticed a trend in myself. I hear God’s command and convicted of do something in obedience to him. Over time, the action becomes regular, which seems like a good thing, maybe even a spiritual discipline. And then this thing sets in when I start to measure my spiritual success or failure based on whether I’m performing that action. Almost as though I’m earning my righteousness or failure for that day. Pastor Kyle talked about that temptation toward performance-based faith last week. This actually came up for me with fasting at one point. What started off as an attempt to listen for the Lord and align myself with Him in prayer quickly devolved into a holiness show for myself when I keep the ritual. I find myself feeling quite proud for being such a devoted follower of Jesus. I’m sure I could have easily delivered the Pharisees prayer from Luke 18:11-12, in which the Pharisee standing prayed, and it could even be translated, prayed to himself thus, God, I thank you. I’m not like other men, extortionists, unjust adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get. It is a dangerous thing when religion becomes preoccupied with personal performance. We can so easily get to a point where we believe we are pretty darn righteous. We believe we’re flying straight and level and it becomes far too easy to look with self-righteous judgment upon those with more visible shortcomings. To be honest, the wording in verse 2 of today’s passage really bothers me. It’s almost as though the biggest hindrance to their closeness with God is their perceived closeness to Him. Just look at these mentions of righteousness here. It’s as if they were a nation that did righteousness.

I’ve had several conversations and chances to study about righteousness in preparation for today. And I’ve been challenged by the outcomes. On one hand, righteousness seems like a checklist issue. If I’ve kept all the rules and terms and conditions, then I’m righteous. This is why religion in isolation becomes problematic. It looks like all of your bases are covered, but sooner or later, you hear another helicopter entering that fog. If there is any group in Jesus’s time who consider themselves to be righteous or to be expert pilots, it would be the Pharisees. This is their full-time job. Be righteous and teach others how to be righteous in their culture. Yet we see Jesus kind of blast the Pharisees, don’t we? Matthew 520 Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Now, I don’t doubt that many of the Pharisees were very sincere in their faith. We heard last week about the zeal of Saul before he became Paul. It’s been suggested that the Pharisees believe that absolute adherence to Torah, their law, is what would bring about the coming of the Messiah, so that Rome would be overthrown like Egypt, and Israel would have its own nation again. Every year that Messiah didn’t come meant there must have been some moral failure on the part of the people. So all the Pharisees get to say ‘wasn’t me’. So how frustrated must they have been with this new Jewish rabbi who seems so lax with their regulations and standards associating with sinners, Not washing his hands the right way, not telling his followers the facts. Ironically, they probably would have said to Jesus, ‘Don’t you know you’re preventing Messiah from coming to save us?’ As a Jewish rabbi. Jesus was approached one day by a lawyer, Pharisee, who wanted to test Jesus. Of course, any good lawyer never asks the question he doesn’t know the answer to. And traditional rabbis had a stock answer for the question this lawyer was about to lay before Jesus: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law’? And Jesus answered with the stock answer, and he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” But before the lawyer had a chance to make his next move. Jesus was quick to notice second command that is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. They go together and try to do one without the other, leaves out something vital. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to claim on these two commandments depend on all the law and the prophets. For a long time. I saw verse 40 as an amazing summary of the 39 documents making up the Old Testament. But the significance here is what is added rather than what is reduced. By the logic of the lawyer, the law could be kept by adhering to the first law alone. And that’s where it is so easy to start following the rule over the ruler. During Jesus’s ministry, he and the Pharisees kept butting heads over one issue in particular: Sabbath. So open your Bibles to Luke 6:6. When Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, a man with a withered hand is spotted by the Pharisees. You can imagine the tension in the room rising. “And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath so that they might find a reason to accuse him. They see a man struggling, crippled, perhaps even prevented from earning a living due to his inability to use his hand. But they were still expecting Jesus to withhold help from Him in the name of keeping their rule. Let’s ask the question why? Why? Does your devotion to God permit you to devalue and mistreat other people? Again, it might sound silly, but here are a few questions we can ask ourselves. I know I frequently need a heart check. If God were to ask me to speak into someone’s life, would I? If I were to show love to this person, what would that look like? And do I believe I’m really too busy with [insert religious behavior here] right now to help that person. If you’re like me and you find these challenging, then I would suggest God’s challenge and invitation and Isaiah 58 is for you too. Jesus asks the question this way in Luke 6:9: “And Jesus said to them, I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” If I am setting up my life priorities with myself as the ruler, I will end up destroying life each and every time someone enters my airspace. The fast God seems to be calling us into is a fast from that role. And it’s not just the fast of hours or days, it’s a lifetime of intentional repentance and humbling ourselves, by losing the bonds of wickedness, by undoing the straps of the yoke, by letting the oppressed go free, by breaking every yoke. The structure of Isiah 58:6 is interesting to me. It’s fairly common in the Old Testament writings to see twofold statements used to emphasize a point. You can go to Proverbs and find many examples there. Here you see a twofold statement used to emphasize a point, and a progressive nature added to emphasize it even further. It’s almost like adding two exclamation points after a statement instead of just one, and then underline it twice as well. And look at the progression between ‘losing the bonds of wickedness’ to ‘letting the oppressed go free’, and between ‘undoing the straps of the yoke’ to ‘breaking every yoke’. All of this exists in the context of your abusing your workers context, but you don’t have to have employees to oppress the people around you.

Is there someone you’re keeping chained with your relational, financial, professional or even physical power over them? Loosen the bonds. Undo the straps. But don’t stop there. Let them go free. And, so that you’re not tempted to rein them back in, break every yoke. Why? Is this for salvation? Is this for my righteousness? Do it out of love for the one who broke the yoke which was over you, and out of love for the ones suffering as you once did. That same reasoning and mindset remains as we move on to Isaiah 58:7: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?” Do you see someone who is hungry? What do you do? It almost sounds like a trick question. Is it too easy yet? How often do we need to be reminded? James puts it rather bluntly in saying, ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food’, and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warm and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body? What good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. And the rest of Isaiah 58:7, “Bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh”.

It’s easy to look out at humanity and see that it’s broken. That brokenness happens to us and comes from us. Mankind has been wrecking one another’s helicopters ever since Eden. We saw near the beginning how wrong things go when man tries to sit on God’s throne. When God rescues us from that brokenness and we accept that His is the only righteousness we can hope for, a temptation can rise up in us to disconnect from the rest of humanity and focus completely on our vertical, if you will, relationship with God. You may think you’re flying straight and level. What these passages and the failure of the Pharisees point to is that attempts to live a sterilized life with just you and God end up allowing hypocrisy to fester unchecked. Seeking to love others and allowing God to direct us, shows us the parts of ourselves that need to be submitted to that one true ruler. Now I want to pause here because it’s easy to start feeling some pushback when hearing a message like this. There’s a part of me that wants my faith to be all about acts for God. If I do nice things for other people, that’s kind of a bonus. Are we focusing too much on ‘Love your neighbor’ and not enough on ‘Love the Lord’? I want to direct you to the passage John read earlier from Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus was talking about the ones who did or didn’t give him food, water, shelter and care. Verses 40 and 45, starting with 40, “And the king will answer them”. Notice that at this point there’s no longer any question who the true ruler is. “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me. In verse 45 says, “Then he will answer them, saying, Truly, I say to you as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”. It’s as though Jesus is saying here that our love shown to others is actually love being shown to Him, and that disregard shown to others is actually disregard being shown to him. But I passed that person by because I really wanted to make sure I [insert religious behavior here] it’s as if they were a nation that did righteousness. Those liens really do a number on us. Brothers and sisters do not be fooled into believing your spiritual acts count for something with God while you mistreat the people He has given you to love. Our mission statement here at Calvary is to glorify God by making disciples of Jesus who live out passion for Christ and compassion for people. If we just stopped that mission statement with passion for Christ, we might be tempted to find ways to shut people out. So how do we apply all of this? You know, it’s a lot. This morning. First, identify who is on the throne of your life. Are you living according to God’s divine order? Are you still determined to fly into the fog on your own? Second, observe your religious actions and behaviors. Ask why for each one? What’s your heart motivation behind each one? Are you trying to earn God’s favor by what you do? Or are you resting completely in God’s grace? Third, demonstrate your love for others through your love for God by demonstrating love for others. Take a look at your relationships to make sure you aren’t putting a yoke on the people around you. Now maybe you’re thinking, gosh, I don’t want to do any of that. I can handle my own life. I can treat people how I want. And if I have an accident in the fog sometime, so be it. And that’s fair enough. All I can do is offer these things to you today. But if I can leave you with two things to consider. First Ara Zobayan was not the only person in that helicopter. Is there a chance your choices are possibly affecting more than just you? And second, after an investigation into that flight, the classification of the incident was changed from accident to crash because, according to NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, an accident is unforeseen, unpredictable, if you will. Unfortunately, this wasn’t. When someone decides to fly blind into the fog, there are foreseen and predictable outcomes. The same is true for those who decide to live without God’s rule, reigning in their hearts and guiding their way. May God’s Spirit empower us to live these things out in the right ways. To His glory.

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