Over the last several weeks, we have been exploring what the Bible has to say about our faith when nothing's normal anymore.
In times of crisis - in times of pain, uncertainty, isolation, and helplessness... times like right now - how are we, as Christ-followers, supposed to respond?
In the first week of the series I suggested that in our pain we cannot move too quickly past lament - a brutally honest acknowledgment to God of our grief and loss, mixed with an unwavering trust that he will ultimately act.
In the second week, Amy helped us dig deeper into the dynamics of that trust in the midst of our uncertainty.
Last week, Tim showed us the surprising truth that loving our neighbor was a path out of isolation.
And finally this week I want to address something so many of us feel right now: helplessness. What do we do when the world seems out of our control?
While you're turning there, let me give you a bit of context. The whole book of Isaiah contains a ton of prophecies which speak to Israel.
(Remember, biblical prophets don't tell the future, they tell the truth. Sometimes that truth contains a glimpse at the future, but the point is to share God's heart for the people.)
In this particular passage, the prophet is speaking to the people in the days after the Babylonian exile, when Israel had returned to their land, rebuilt their ruined temple, and were trying to regain some of their former glory.
What we're going to see is that the people this prophecy is speaking to were trying to get God to come through for them. To answer their prayers.
They needed God's intervention to rebuild their country, and as far as they were concerned, they were doing all the right things for that to happen.
""Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
Shout aloud! Don't be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
pretending they want to be near me.
""We have fasted before you!' they say.
""Why aren't you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don't even notice it!'
""I will tell you why!"" I respond.
""It's because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
Woah. Comin' in hot! Ok, what's going on here?
Well, we don't really know any specifics about exactly what they were requesting from God, but we do know that these things they're doing - fasting (not eating food for a period of time), wearing burlap, bowing their heads - were all actions meant to show humility and self-sacrifice.
They were ways for the Israelites to say to God, ""I'm lowering myself because I need you.""
So why wasn't it working? Well, look at the second part of verse 3. Was this really self-denial?
""You are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. [You're] fighting and quarreling.""
In other words, the people were going through the right religious motions, but they were spreading injustice and violence and chaos at the same time. All things exactly the opposite of God's heart for the world.
They were acting in self-interest in the way they treated others. They were squeezing vulnerable people for their own benefit, and they thought that if they checked all the right religious boxes, they could squeeze God as well, twist his arm and force him to give them what they wanted.
All their pious self-denial was just a show. As it turns out, God is not actually that big of a fan of religion.
Kind of a weird thing for a pastor to say, but hear me out. God doesn't care about the religious motions we go through. He cares about what's in our heart.
For example, fasting can be a powerful tool to help us focus our desperation and dependence on God, but if we're just doing it because of our self-interest - to get something out of it - we might as well just keep eating three meals a day!
That's why the Israelites' actions were coming up empty. They were doing the right religious ""stuff,"" but it was all for the wrong reasons.
By the way, this was not just an issue for the ancient Israelites. We do the same kind of thing today. We check the religious boxes and we think we're making God happy.
""I read a devotional every morning... and then post about it on Instagram so everyone knows.""
""I listen to Christian radio... when I'm cutting people off in traffic.""
""I've attended church several times... this year""
We think our religion is doing God a favor even when it doesn't reflect our internal world.
And when we're in a crisis, how tempting is it to say to God, ""Hey, I read my Bible. I give money to the church. Why aren't you coming through for me?""
Again, these are all good things to do, but what's the point if they're not actual reflections of what's in our heart? That's the question Isaiah 58 is raising.
Ok, so how should we act? How should our hearts be aligned?
Let's keep reading and we'll find out.
""No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
""Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
""Yes, I am here,' he will quickly reply.
""Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
""Keep the Sabbath day holy.
Don't pursue your own interests on that day,
but enjoy the Sabbath
and speak of it with delight as the Lord's holy day.
Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day,
and don't follow your own desires or talk idly.
Then the Lord will be your delight.
I will give you great honor
and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob.
I, the Lord, have spoken!""
I love that passage. I find the imagery so beautiful. And desirable.
In a time like today - a global pandemic, economic collapse - with so much darkness and uncertainty and pain in our world, I want to be like a well-watered garden. I want the light to shine in the darkness. I want water when I am dry. Don't you? I think we all do!
So how do we experience that?
Well, verse 6. We've got to take action - pursue freedom and justice. Verse 7. We should care for the vulnerable.
That's when our salvation will come. That's when our wounds will heal.
Ok, so is this just some new kind of religious ritual? Are these just some different boxes to check?
No. Because remember that fasting-to-twist-God's-arm from earlier? That was an action done out of self-interest. All of these actions are done out of what I call self-giving love. It's a love that costs us.
Think about it: Lightening the burden of those who work for you (v.6) means a reduction in your profits. It could mean sacrificing your own wellbeing for the sake of others.
Letting the oppressed go free is risky. You don't want to get on the bad side of the oppressors. You might be putting your own life on the line.
Sharing your food with the hungry (v.7) means having less food for yourself. And who wants to do that when you're facing a very uncertain future?
Self-giving love is risky. It's costly. And yet this passage claims it is only in self-giving love that we truly begin to discover the presence of God. It's when our healing begins.
Look again at verse 9. When you do all these things, ""Then when you call, the Lord will answer. "";Yes, I am here,' he will quickly reply.""
""Yes, I am here.""
Why is God here when we give of ourselves? Because it's who he is. He is a God of self-giving love. A God who pours himself out for the sake of his children. A God who sacrifices himself on the cross.
A God who again and again pursues justice and mercy and healing for those the world has forgotten.
When we act in self-giving love and compassion, when we stand up for the vulnerable, we are jumping in to the very work that God is already doing. ""I am here.""
God doesn't want us to go through the religious motions. He wants us to join him in healing the world.
When we do that - when we dive into God's presence through our self-giving love that is when we can experience light and life and healing. Because he is a God of light and life and healing and we are now working with him shoulder to shoulder.
Jesus said it himself.
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
God's very nature is to give himself away to those who can never repay him. And he is inviting us to join him and do the very same thing. With that invitation comes the promise that he will more than sustain us for the journey.
v.11 ""The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength...""
The path to restoration comes not through self-interest, but through self-giving love.
So let's get practical with all this. We're facing a global pandemic. We're facing economic turmoil. Death. We need God's intervention right now. As individuals, as a church, as a community, as a world...
What do we do when the brokenness of the world goes way beyond our ability to fix it? What do we do when we feel helpless?
Well, we could go through the religious motions, try not to sin too much, do the right things and maybe we can twist God's arm.
Or, as Isaiah 58 implores us to do, we could join God in compassion for the marginalized, mercy for the oppressed... We could rise to the occasion in self-giving love and let God take care of the rest.
(In case it's not clear, I'm in favor of the latter two suggestions!) And I have three practical suggestions for what this might look like. For how we as Grace Church can take action right now and practice self-giving love.
First, we can accept inconvenience and discomfort for the sake of the vulnerable.
We know COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally. Those who are older, or with weakened immune systems, or with other medical conditions are at much greater risk.
I know you hear voices out there treating these individuals as statistics and saying, ""well, some death is inevitable."" No person is a statistic to our God of love.
If we as a community are willing to do uncomfortable things - to hold off on public gatherings, to take social distancing seriously, to wear masks in public... we can join God in, as it says in v.10, ""helping those in trouble.""
This is why, as you may have heard already, we have chosen not to re-open in-person services at Grace for the month of May. Yeah, it's hard, it's a sacrifice, but it's a way for our church to practice self-giving love right now.
And friends, let's wear masks in public. We don't wear them to protect ourselves. We wear them to protect each other.
Let's give up a bit of comfort to become a community where those of us who are healthy become an impenetrable barrier to protect those who are not.
Second, we can stop the hate train.
Verse 9 says ""stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!"" I don't have to tell you how divisive and hate-filled our world is right now.
This is costly, but I think we need to learn how to give up our right to be right.
Look, I get how satisfying it is to see someone you despise getting dunked on on social media. But if we want to join God in his work of healing the world, we can't go around feeding or encouraging hate. We have to stand against it.
Stopping the hate train might mean risking our reputation to stand up for someone.
For example, the Asian American community right now is facing massive amounts of hatred and xenophobia and racism. I know in a congregation our size, some of us are going to witness this happening before our eyes.
A joke by a classmate, a hateful comment by a family member...
In those moments, are we willing to risk embarrassment, ridicule, even shame, to speak up and say that's not ok?
It's risky. The hate train is strong, and you might put yourself in its path. But I'll tell you this: self-giving love is stronger. Why? Because when you stand against hate, God is standing with you.
So, we can accept inconvenience or discomfort for the sake of the vulnerable, we can stop the hate train, and finally, we can give generously of our abundance.
Verse 7 says ""share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.""
What does this look like in our context?
Well, this could mean giving of your money to support the work of Grace or the Care Center.
Giving of your time to support a frontline worker or make masks.
Giving of your privacy to reach out to a struggling neighbor.
Again, self-giving love costs us. That's the whole point. Giving to others means having less for ourselves.
And yet, look what comes as a result of that sacrifice.
""Your light will shine out from the darkness... The Lord will guide you... give you water when you are dry... restore your strength...""
Again, when we give freely of our abundance, we're working shoulder to shoulder with a God who gives freely of his.
So look for ways to give of yourself and see what God will do.
Those are just a few ideas of how we can join in with the healing work God is already doing.
Remember, when we take action aligned with God's purposes in this world, when we model our lives after the self-giving love of Jesus, that's when we find that his healing hand is already upon us.
That the light is already dawning. That our community is becoming like a well-watered garden.
The path to restoration comes not through self-interest, but through self-giving love.
It's a path I'm willing to take. Grace Church, let's walk that path together.