Not For Showby Ed de la Cour on October 15, 2013
Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, this afternoon I am going to get to be a spectator. Yes, for the first time in my life, I am going to a football game where I will watch the Patriots play the Saints. I am excited; I am stoked: I am wired; I am jazzed, and I am ready for some football! I’m going to be a spectator because there is no way on earth I could ever play professional football, or any other sport. I am a spectator because then I can watch, cheer, shout, and criticize – all without investing any real energy or effort, and also without the possibility of injury or personal cost. Except for food expenses, I am off the hook and scot free from any personal responsibility for the outcome of the game. I am a spectator and I’m proud of it.
Being a spectator watching a game of football is one thing. Not everyone can be on the field playing the game; but it’s not that way in a relationship with God. God never intended any of His children to be spectators. Spectating is simply not conducive to a real or thriving relationship with God. In fact, being a spectator Christian is deadly to spiritual health. The truth is most American churches are filled with people who are spectators. They come to church, show up when they want, and choose from the menu of programs offered, as they want. They can watch, cheer, shout, listen, and criticize anything that displeases them. They have opinions about whatever happens and about the outcome, although they have contributed precious little to the success or failure of the efforts made on their behalf. They are not personally invested. They refer to this place as “your” church, not “our” church. They don’t bear the brunt of the cost, or the burden of seeing lives change, nor do they share in the joy of victory, beyond the small vicarious thrill that comes – but it is all received at a distance.
Isaiah 58 seems to have been written intentionally for us. When the men read it on Tuesday evening, I was struck by the clarity of these words were, how pointed the descriptions, how easy and how accessible to our understanding were the words of this chapter. I am sure many of us have begun to wonder just who Isaiah meant when he used the personal pronoun, “you.” We’re hoping he meant ancient Judah! But, was he talking to you and me? Was he speaking to our church specifically or to our nation? I think you already know the answer to that question. The Spirit of God has this uncanny ability to speak through a man who lived roughly 700 years before Jesus Christ was born and still apply those distant words to my needy life. That power is not to be underestimated or ignored.
For our purposes, the chapter divides neatly into three parts. In part one, from verses 1 through 5, we hear God’s indictment against the sin of His people. The second part in verses 6 – 7, concerns what God wants us to do about the sin of our hypocrisy. The third and final section runs from verses 8 – 14, and contains the promises God makes to everyone who openly and wholeheartedly obeys God’s laws.
For many of us, our life ambitions are simply to live and let live, get free stuff, watch the world go by, and have a party. Politicians at the highest level of our government essentially agree and will not accept responsibility for wrongdoing, as there is always someone else to blame, always another person on whom to focus so we can avoid accountability. With that kind of spectator mentality encompassing almost everyone, Isaiah 58 comes as a rude shock. Who does God think He is?
The servants of God who are called to shout loudly and declare are those who hear His voice. They are tasked with communicating to the people of God. God says in the first verse we are called to declare boldly and loudly, like a trumpet, that God’s people, God’s church people, are living in flagrant sin. This is not a word I enjoy hearing, nor enjoy bringing. God calls this sin rebellion, a knowing and calculating behavior pattern that seeks its own way, with no regard for whatever the consequences or repercussions might be. God’s prophets are called to speak the hard words, to say what the people of God do not want to hear.
In verse 2, God says His people don’t see things that way, of course. We see it as us going to church as usual, putting in our hour each week. We see it as attending prayer meetings, for those few who actually take part in prayer meetings. We see it as fasting or other kinds of religious behavior in which we attempt to attract God’s attention to us, in which we try to make Him aware that we are well-behaved people, that we are worthy of His positive response to our prayer requests. We see our “spirituality” as representing a real relationship with God. That’s why God says twice in verse 2 that we “seem eager” to know God’s ways and we “seem eager” for God to draw near to us. On the surface, it all looks very nice indeed. God says it is “as if we were a nation that does what is right.” We pray God will grant “just decisions,” but there’s that glint in our eye and it betrays us. The way we define relationship with God is a far cry from God’s standard, from the plumb line of God’s Word.
We don’t understand why bad things happen to good people like ourselves. Why does it seem God isn’t listening to our prayers? Why is our nation falling further and further into the sewer? Like ancient Judah, we cry out, but we are praying, “God! Don’t You see that? Can’t You hear us?” We even have the audacity to tell God how we have humbled ourselves, how we have given and received humility awards!
God’s indictment continues to press forward through verse 5 with unrelenting zeal as He speaks to our behavior – not to our words or to our professions of faith. Our words are all correct. Our professions of faith are all precisely phrased and properly parsed. It’s the way we live that’s wrong. It’s the way we don’t walk the talk, the way we say one thing and do another. All the religious behavior Isaiah mentions –and you can fill in the blanks with your own favorite religious behavior if these don’t fit your bill – all of it is for show. It’s not serious. It’s skin deep. The American church is quick to crack the doctrinal whip but we’re still absorbed in bickering and fighting in the pews. We expect God to listen to us, to respond to our cries for His help, but our own lives don’t reflect the supposed presence of God that we claim to value highly. That is God’s diagnosis of Judah’s sin, of America’s sin, and of my own sin. I stand here, along with you, just as convinced and just as convicted.
What follows in verses 6 -7 is the prescription God provides. Should the people of God desire to deal properly with their sin sickness, this is what we can do.
Real fasting has less to do with not eating and more to do with setting captives free. It is more concerned with helping a person in need. It has more to do with releasing people from being held hostage by our grudges. For centuries sackcloth and ashes comprised the fasting uniform of the day. That was how people knew you were faithfully engaged in some serious religious activity. The question is: how serious are you? If you and I are for real, if our faith is not for show purposes only, then God prescribes what we might want to consider.
It is true: God makes us figure a lot out on our own. We like to have all the answers set forth clearly, so we can check off each one as we do it. We are the ones who want every TV show to resolve within an hour’s time. The prescription indicates we have to come before God to ask Him who is it He intends us to release? Who is being mistreated by a mortgage company or a landlord? Who has cords that need us to untie them? Who do you know who is hungry? Who is losing their home? Who is sick and needs someone to make a meal for her family? Spectating is not now, nor has it ever been, the godly response to life. That is God’s message to the church.
Did you know, since Jesus died, some 43 million Christians have become martyrs? Right now in our world, 200 million Christians are facing persecution and 60% of those are children. Every day, 300 are killed for their faith in Jesus. They are not spectators. They live in Nigeria, in the Muslim nations, in China and Southeast Asia. In at least sixty countries, Christians are losing their livelihood, seeing their homes confiscated, their churches firebombed and bulldozed, their wives and their daughters raped.
We’re just a small church in a small town in a small state, but we live what we consider the greatest nation in the world. We don’t believe in a small god. We believe in and we trust in the God who spoke, and by His Word galaxies and stars and whole worlds came into being. The God we believe in gave His only Son to die on the cross for us and then He raised Jesus to victorious and everlasting life. Don’t ever say and don’t ever think we don’t matter. We matter to God and the way we live our lives matters to God. God’s sons and daughters, people who are oppressed and in bondage all over this world, matter to Him. Let their plight work on your heart until you see these verses as speaking directly to you.
You may well say many of those people live far away from me. At a minimum then, let’s offer ourselves to people who are struggling with life and who are already in this building!
Do you want God to answer your prayers? Do you desire a life that is close to God’s heart? Do you want the blessing of God on your life? The last part of the chapter, beginning in verse 8, speaks honestly and forthrightly about how that will come to pass for you and me.
Some of the promises God makes in His Word are outright grace declarations. God is going to fulfill His Word no matter what happens on our part. Those promises are unconditional. They do not depend on us. Their fulfillment depends entirely on the character of the God who made the promise. If God can be trusted, then these promises are as sure as gold. Other promises, though, are conditional promises. Promises that are conditional are usually set forth in language that says, if you will do this, then I will perform that for you. The fulfillment of those promises depends entirely on our response to God, upon our obedience to His Word, and on the way we choose to behave in this life. In verses 8 – 14, God makes further promises, conditional promises, to those who would choose to obey Him, who are living their lives for real and not just for show.
Look through those verses and see the promises God makes to you. There are promises of victory, quick healing, roadblocks shoved aside by the power of God in our lives, the protection of God from the enemy’s strategy of ambush, clarity of thought and direction provided in the midst of dark times, the provision of God when drought and failure surrounds us. There is the real sense of divinely inspired satisfaction and plenteous provision given to those who are living for God and not for show.
These are not promises of fast cars and a bulging stock portfolio. The person whose heart is seeking to spend himself on behalf of the broken is simply not going to be motivated by grandiose visions of gold bullion. Networks of multi-level marketers make those kinds of promises, not God.
And there’s more. At a certain point in life, one begins to think about one’s legacy. What will you leave behind? For what will you be remembered? Not only will your life take on a whole new sense of meaning and fruitfulness, but there is also the promise of legacy in verse 12. You could become God’s handyman! You could be one who is known for repairing lives and putting families back together. The power of your example will extend to repaired marriages and healed relationships within families. Homes will be blessed because you obeyed God, because you stepped up to the plate, because you lived your life on purpose and not for show.
Lastly, there is that troublesome idea of Sabbath once again. The born-again Christian hypocrite who just declared how much Jesus is Lord of his life might well say, “Nobody is going to tell me how I spend my time.” Yet, God takes our obedience seriously, doesn’t He? Even in providing rest for His children, God is seeking hearts that welcome His presence. The presence of God and the rest of God are found as we obey Him.
If you have ever done anything not because you had to, but simply because you wanted to honor God, then you already know the sense of blessing that follows obedience, even costly obedience. There seems to be a rich connection, a spiritual bond, between the man or woman whose life is being lived in the presence and power of God and the result, the outcome of that life. Life is not meant to be lived for show. Live is not meant to be lived with an eye as to how we can manipulate God into answering our prayers.
If we want to know the joy of the Lord, if we want to experience the presence of God, if we want to see our legacy in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, then we will do some serious thinking and praying – and applying of God’s Word found here in Isaiah 58.--
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