Why are we Here?

by Ed de la Cour on October 4, 2016

                                   Isaiah 58: 1 – 9                                       


by Ed de la Cour


       It wasn’t long after I became the pastor of my first church that an offer arrived in the mail from a nearby bank.  They wanted to purchase our church building and the surrounding property.  Our church was located on the corner lot on US Route 202 and was considered a prime commercial property.  The bank wanted to raze the church and build a local branch office.  Our church members were horrified at the idea.  Our church was gathered in the early 1780s and they felt the building was too important to lose.  They were devoted to this historic building no matter how difficult it was to maintain and heat.  The church had been at that location for many years and they were firm in their decision not to sell.


       I have often wondered what might have happened if we had accepted their proposal and sold the property.  We could have seen that offer as God’s provision for His church and used the proceeds to buy another piece of land.  We could have erected an easy to maintain, multi-purpose worship space.  We could have used the leverage of a new church in a new location to reach our whole community for Christ.  But – and it’s a big but – the church had forgotten why they were there.  They lacked a Kingdom vision.  They had no sense of mission.  Their sense of purpose was inadequate and their awareness of God’s calling was defective.  And, even worse than that, the focus of the church was entirely inward.  Seasonal bazaars, rummage sales, and church suppers defined our priorities, and therefore our understanding of our church’s mission.  Evangelism, discipleship, and ministry to the community were not on the radar.


       Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, the church closed its doors.  Three years ago, the town took the property by eminent domain and sold it to Dunkin’ Donuts.  A new Dunkin’ Donuts was opened not long after the church was torn down.


In the end, the greatest fear of the remaining church members was, “What will become of the tower clock?”  When the Narragansett Historical Society said they would take custody of the clock, there were satisfied smiles all around.


What had happened to that church?  As I said, they forgot why they were here.  They forgot why God called them.  They forgot there was a specific purpose for which they had been saved.  They had lost their Kingdom vision many years ago, and so the hand of God wrote “Ichabod” over that church.  The glory had departed.  Finally the church just gave up and shut its doors.  It is a tragedy of Biblical proportions when people who believe they are Christians lose their outward focus and think only about their own comfort and their own desires.


Let’s think about the ministry of your church.  Do you know why you are here?  Is your church becoming more and more inwardly focused?  Is your most major concern simply paying the bills?  Or are you consciously seeking to develop and maintain the sharp edge of an external focus?  Let’s agree that it is not at all easy to put the emphasis of your ministry outside of yourself.  Left to our own devices, people will move increasingly and inexorably toward satisfying our own wants and desires.  An external focus requires hearts and souls that are tenderized by the Word of God and the Spirit of God.  A Christian and a church must make that conscious choice to aim our lives toward other people, friends and neighbors who do not yet know the love of God for them.


Isaiah 58 has to be one of my least favorite chapters in the Bible, and as a result I usually try to avoid it and hardly ever preach from it.  When I read Isaiah 58, the Holy Spirit invariably convicts me of my own inward focus, of my selfish motives, and of my desire to take care of “home base” first.  In this chapter, God spoils that ambition of mine to live a life that is free and uncomplicated, free of all those kinds of messy personal responsibilities.


While I am selfish, I am also a spiritual man.  Israel was a spiritual nation as well.  God used the first four verses of the chapter to speak to the religious fervor of His people.  Many studies have shown that America is a religious nation.  Those same studies demonstrate that this religious nature and all those personal spiritual convictions do not profoundly affect the lives of those who believe.  In other words, although religion in America is quite wide, it’s not very deep.  Yes, Israel certainly appeared to be committed to God.  They seemed to be devoted to God.  They did all the right stuff at all the right times.  Yet, in the early verses of the chapter, God pointedly directed them to be aware of their failure.


How this passage speaks to us!  In our day we go through all the motions of religious faith.  We say the Lord’s Prayer.  We say the Rosary.  We go to church and we may even attend a special prayer meeting.  Yet all of these religious activities have very little visible effect on the people around us or on community in which we live.


Back in those days, all the really spiritual people fasted.  Fasting was then – and continues to be today – a very serious spiritual discipline.  No one engages in a fast lightly.  God was saying that it’s great for you to fast and go through all those disciplines.  But God was also saying your religious observances are having no effect on the way you live nor is there any effect on the way your life touches others.  If your life is no better for all that struggling, if no one you know is changing for the better or coming near to God because of all your fasting and religious observances, what’s the point?  As one politician famously said, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”


It will be a profoundly humbling experience to allow God to inspect our hearts.  I am by nature and by choice a lazy person, and you more than likely share my nature.  We prefer the recliner to the job site.  In church, we prefer passive rather than active worship.  We’d rather sit than serve.  We’d rather watch than do.  God was saying to Israel, how wrongheaded can you possibly be? 


In the New Testament, there’s a corollary teaching in Ephesians 2: 8 – 10.  We are very familiar with verses 8 and 9, because they teach that we are not saved by doing good works, but by the miracle of grace.  The battle for your soul was hard-fought at the cross and hard-won at the tomb.  We don’t deserve God’s love – not by a long shot – but He lavishes His love on us anyway.  The radical departure for many Christians comes in verse 10:  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.”  That salvation we hold so dear and so precious is not an end in itself.  Paul teaches that God crafted us.  God worked and labored over us, so that we can do good works.  We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works.  Paul did not mean those everyday and generic good works we do, like writing a support check to a missionary organization.  No, the good works God has in mind are those He “prepared in advance for us to do.”  Those would be specific works God has prepared for us to do, specific people He has asked us to love, specific towns and cities and nations to which He has called us to serve.


So, when some Christian sells his home in a nice suburb and moves himself and his family into one of the ghettos of Houston, Texas to live and plant a church, he is not being weird.  He has simply discovered the good work God had prepared for him to do.  It may sound crazy or dangerous or unwise to you, but that is God’s new normal and it is a perfect fit for him and his family.


What is going to be God’s new normal for your life?  The activities listed in our text suggest that we adopt a much more activist posture than we have ever known before.  None of those things – the chains of injustice or the yokes that bind and oppress – can be broken while seated in front of a television or a computer.  The question is – are you willing to be inconvenienced for Jesus’ sake?  Are you willing to evaluate your life to see where God might be inviting you to be inconvenienced? 


For example, we are all heavily committed in every area of our lives.  Between our jobs and our kids and all their activities, there are not enough hours in the day to finish everything we are expected to accomplish.  It’s not always because we are selfish and greedy.  Our commitments have left us with little or no margin in our lives.  Margin is at the edge of our lives, where there is room for us to rest and recover.  But for us there’s no room left for rest or play.  There’s no room left for us to show compassion to our neighbors.  If there’s no room left, we have no margins and we are frazzled and distracted because we are surrounded only by busyness and by the expectations and demands that are placed on us.  We are filled to the brim, but not with Him!  Instead, we are all about making money and all about living for ourselves.  Our idea of sacrifice is missing our favorite TV show.  It is a huge sacrifice for us to surrender some precious “me time.”


When we have allowed God to evaluate our lives, we have allowed Him to set limits for us so there can be room for the good works He has prepared for us to do.  What might that look like in your life?  Surely, this is one of the reasons why Isaiah 58 is in our Bibles.


First, we need to come to grips with the question of question and answer it in the affirmative: Yes, I am willing to be inconvenienced.  When would you be willing?  On a Saturday or a Tuesday?  What times can you open up so God can give you His assignment?


Second, identify the chains of injustice.  What are those cords of the yoke that God is challenging you to break?  How will that be accomplished?   Remember, in every area of concern, God’s enduring purpose is for the redemption of people who are estranged from Him.  As you look about, who needs your compassion?


No matter what anyone tells you, God has not put us here simply for ourselves.  The Gospel is not happy juice!  God is not being well served if the joy of the Lord and the presence of God stops here and focuses on us.  Many leaders in the church today are preaching a false gospel that is aimed inwardly and only toward the goal of personal happiness, of having your best life ever.  Remember, Jesus spoke about this in Mark 10: 45“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”  Jesus was not fixated on satisfying His own needs and wants.  There’s also no question that He was incredibly busy and no question that His life was filled with the purposes of God.  There’s no question that Jesus was filled with a great passion for the things of God.  Because Jesus knew His purpose, because even the Son of God maintained healthy margins in His own life, Jesus was able to serve people.  He was able to heal those who came to Him for help.  He was able to love, and He was able to live life fully.


We have been blessed by God so that we could be a blessing to the nations of the world.  This may come as a shock to some, but we don’t serve people and we don’t love people in order to make our church grow.  That’s an ulterior motive, and ulterior motives are not of God.  We love simply because God loves us.  We serve simply because God has changed us.  We focus our attention outside the walls of the church and we allow God to do the convicting.  We let God do the drawing.  We leave the heavy lifting in His capable hands.  We are simply His hands and feet.


My friend Christine used to visit a woman in a nursing home in Connecticut.  The poor lady was angry and bitter because she was all alone and her children lived too far away to visit her very often.  Christine noticed that next door to the nursing home was a school and a playground filled with children at recess.  The lady complained heartily about all the noise those kids made every day yelling and screaming, as children do.  Christine called her over to her window and urged her to pick out one of the children and to pray for him or her.


Some time later, when Christine returned for another visit, she noticed the lady’s demeanor was very different.  She called Christine over to that window and pointed out a boy in a green jacket.  “No one plays with him,” she said, “and I’ve been praying for him.”  The woman had experienced a huge change in her attitude toward life, all of which was caused when she focused her energy and her concerns outside of herself.  She started to aim her life to the benefit of someone else.  When she did that, all her troubles took a back seat and diminished in importance.  A life that is externally focused is a life God can use.


As you are praying and as you are reading Scripture, how is God speaking to you about your purpose in life?  How is God challenging you to live out that purpose in this church?  Why has God brought you here?  What are you discovering about God’s purpose for your life? 


Edmund C. de la Cour 
37 Buzzards Bay Avenue
Buzzards Bay, MA  02532-3132