Have you ever heard about the “messy garage paradox?” Probably not because I just made it up. Let me tell you about it.
The messy garage paradox goes like this: I love working on projects. Woodworking, gardening, farm chores… It all just gives me life. My wife is the same. She’s turning into a DIY pro. There’s always some new room being remodeled in our house.
The problem is that all these projects end up leading to a messy garage. We try to keep things organized, but you know what happens. A box of supplies gets left over here. Unused 2x4s pile up. Tools for unfinished projects get strewn all over the place.
Despite our best efforts, the messiness seems inevitable.
Here’s the problem, though. When the garage gets really messy, it makes me not want to work on projects anymore. I just kind of collapse because the thought of organizing everything again gets overwhelming.
It’s a paradox because the very thing that gives me life: projects - leads to the very thing that saps my energy: a mess.
Of course, every now and then, Liv and I have finally had enough of the chaos and we get to work cleaning it all up.
And guess what happens the moment I have a clean garage? I want to dive right into a new project and it makes me really, really happy.
Now, not every one of you likes doing projects, but I bet the same thing is true for you in other ways. Maybe it’s the messy desk paradox, or the messy kitchen paradox.
There’s something about a clean, tidy space that clears your mind and energizes you, isn’t there? But you’ve got to do the work to get there.
Well, this is what we’re talking about all month in our new series, “Tidying Up.”
It’s not really about our physical spaces, but emotional spaces and mental spaces and spiritual spaces.
We may not always think this way, but those spaces get cluttered too. And when they’re messy, it drains us, we lose sight of what matters, and we don’t pursue the things that really bring us life.
And after a year of pandemic living, where we’ve been stuck inside, and avoiding human contact, and doom scrolling on Twitter it’s a bit messy in here.
So I think it’s high time we do some spring cleaning of our souls.
For the next four weeks we’re going to explore some biblical principles for how to unclutter our spiritual lives and clean out the junk so we can focus on what really matters.
We’ll talk about how to Spark joy with justice.
We’ll explore how to Dump your anger in the trash.
We’ll talk about how Many hands make light work.
And how you can Clear out your stress with generosity.
At the end of the series, on May 2, we’re going to have a church family clean-up day. This is our building, so we’re going to come together and spruce the place up a bit.
It’s going to be a lot of fun. Details are coming soon.
IN A RUT
Alright. Let’s dive into today’s topic. Sparking joy with justice.
I got that term from woman named Marie Kondo. She’s got a Netflix show called “Tidying Up” [image: Tidying Up] where she helps people… tidy up. One of her ideas is that if you surround yourself only with the items (shirts, books, etc.) that spark joy in you, your whole mentality can change.
And I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know there’s a common thread in scripture that’s kind of similar: if we focus on doing the things that really matter to God, we’ll spark joy and find ourselves coming to life.
Let me show you what I mean, please grab a Bible and turn to Isaiah 58.
This book is full of prophecies for the people of Israel. And here, God is speaking through Isaiah to Israelites who were pretty significantly missing the point.
“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?
Here, the people of Israel are apparently trying to earn God’s favor by going through all the right religious rituals. They’re going to the temple, they’re fasting, they’re wearing itchy clothes to show their humility.
And they’re like, “Alright, God, isn’t this what you want? We’re doing all the right stuff so why aren’t you coming through for us?”
Now, it’s interesting. Because there are plenty of places in the Old Testament where the Israelites are worshipping idols or making sacrifices to other gods, but that’s not the case here.
Literally in verse 2, it says they “delight to know God’s ways” and to “draw near to him” and they “ask God for justice and righteousness.” On the surface, it looks like their hearts are in the right place.
And yet, God is not giving them what they want.
Have you ever experienced something like that? I have.
If you’ve been following Jesus for a while you know there are these moments of deep emotion and spiritual highs where you can just feel the presence of God. Maybe it was the moment you first gave your life to Jesus, or at your baptism, or during a really great time of worship.
Growing up I remember going to Christian summer camps, and I’d have these profound nights singing Michael W Smith songs around a campfire… You just feel the Spirit.
But then the moment fades. And you find yourself in a rut… going to church services, doing your quiet times, praying and journaling and it just feels… hollow.
You’re praying for stuff and all of a sudden you wonder, “Is God even listening to me?”
Well, this is what the Israelites were wondering in Isaiah 58. But in verse 3, God tells them why:
“You are fasting to please yourselves.”
In other words, they’re doing it out of self-interest. And yet God calls his people to self-sacrifice. To self-giving love. Their prayers were based out of selfishness.
He goes on. “Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers.”
They’re exploiting the people who depend on them. The word “oppress” here is the same Hebrew word used to describe what Pharaoh and the Egyptians did to the Israelites in slavery! It’s exploitation. And now they’re doing this to others?
God calls his people to justice and generosity and equality. And this isn’t that.
Finally, he says “What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling?” God calls his people to peace, and here they are spreading chaos and violence.
Last weekend we talked about God’s desire to free humanity from the curse and bring us back to blessing, right? Back to Eden. Well, these Israelites are asking for God’s to bless them, but they’re going around spreading the curse to others. That’s why God isn’t coming through for them.
To use our metaphor for this series, the Israelites had cluttered up their religion with a bunch of junk that was exactly the opposite of God’s desires for the world.
If they really want to experience the blessing of God - if that’s what they’re asking for - then they’ve got some spring cleaning to do!
So let’s keep reading. Because God’s about to tell them what that looks like.
“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.
So, in the last passage the Israelites were fasting and doing religious stuff, but God wasn’t listening. But here, everything changes. God brings blessing and provision and protection.
And he’s answering prayers quickly. Verse 9. “When you call the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here!’”
So what’s causing such a night and day difference in God’s behavior?
The answer boils down to one thing… justice. God’s justice.
Look at verse 6. Here’s what the people are called to do:
Release the innocent from prison.
Care for your workers.
Free the oppressed.
There’s that Egyptian slavery word again. The imagery of freedom in the original Hebrew here is beautiful - it pictures untying a person who is strapped to a heavy yoke like an ox. You can picture them standing up straight.
Free the oppressed. He goes on in verse 7:
Share your food with those who don’t have any.
Put a roof over the head of the homeless. (Actually, it literally says “bring them into your house.”)
Clothe the naked.
And don’t hide when your relatives need help.
This is a vision of biblical justice. Not just some legal code, but a way of living that heals the brokenness of our world. That brings us back to an Eden kind of life.
This is self-giving love. This stuff costs us. And yet according to Isaiah 58, pursuing justice changes everything. Look at verse 8.
When you pursue justice, “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal.”
Or verse 10. “Then your light will shine out.” Not only will your darkness disappear, but now you’re radiating light into the lives of those around you.
He goes on. When you care for others, then God will guide you and make sure you’ve got supplies for the journey.
And I love this. When you seek justice, “You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” In other words, not only are you verdant and green and alive, but life-giving water is flowing out from you into your world.
Healed, radiant, life-giving, God’s presence by your side. According to Scripture, pursuing justice unlocks it all.
Why? Because justice is what God cares about. Not the religious rituals. Not the perfectly worded prayers. Not our best attempts to re-capture that spiritual high.
God cares about making this world right and bringing humanity back to blessing. When we join God in doing that work, well no wonder he helps us come alive! Because it’s what he cares about.
It’s so easy for junk to clutter up our spiritual life. Selfishness and rote religion and injustice. It happened to the Israelites. It happens to us.
If we want to do some spring cleaning of our soul, we should take a cue from Marie Kondo and learn how to spark joy.
To get rid of the clutter and focus on doing just the stuff that’s actually going to help us come alive.
And what is that? Well, according to Isaiah 58, we can Spark joy with justice.
We can give of ourselves to heal the brokenness around us. To provide for those in need. To care for those in trouble. To have compassion. That’s what will bring joy into our life.
I can tell you this has absolutely been my experience. Before I became a pastor I was traveling around the world spending time with people pursuing every kind of justice you can think of, and they were some of the most joyful people I’d ever met.
It didn’t make any sense because they were in these terrible places. Slums, refugee camps, impoverished villages.
And yet, because of their faith in Jesus, these men and women were giving of themselves every day to bring light and life into their world, and they were alive.
Like in Zhytomyr, where our partner Mission to Ukraine is headquartered. One of the places they serve is an orphanage for boys and young men with disabilities.
And let me tell you. When I first visited this place was like hell on earth. These institutionalized boys were treated like cattle. The place smelled like an open latrine.
And yet the whole drive there and the whole drive home every week, the Mission to Ukraine staff was giddy and laughing and having a blast. And while we were at the orphanage, they were hugging the boys and teaching the boys and singing with the boys.
And to my shame, on my first visit I was standing in the corner trying not to gag from the smell. My heart was cluttered up with selfishness. I didn’t want to get messy.
How could they possibly be so happy here?
Well, I’ll tell you. They had sparked joy by joining God in the work he cares about. They were “removing the chains that bind people” as it says in verse 6. They were “helping those in trouble.” They were bringing God’s justice to bear in a terrible place.
And do you know what God did for them? He made their light shine out in the darkness. He turned them into well-watered gardens. And their abundance and joy began to spread. To the boys, yes. But also to me.
I got drawn in and by the end of my time in Ukraine, I was hugging the boys and teaching the boys and singing with the boys. And I felt something I never, ever would have expected in such a dark place. I felt joy.
For a moment I had cleared out the clutter of my pride, and something new was kindled in my heart.
Just like my messy garage back home. When it’s clean, the first thing I want to do is dive into a new project.
I had sparked joy with justice and I wanted more. My prayers shifted from, “God, give me this. God, give me that…” to “God, show me injustice in my world. Show me those who are suffering. And show me how to set the oppressed free.”
I tell you all this because if it happened for me - a comfort-loving, picky-eating, video game addict couch potato - it can happen for you. You can spark joy in your life with justice.
Now, I know the easiest thing to do right now is think, “Yeah, this sound nice. I’m sure I’ll give this a try the next time I’m in Ukraine or sub-Saharan Africa or the developing world.”
But I want to remind you that in this broken world, injustice is everywhere… and so are the opportunities to heal it.
So let’s do a little spring cleaning. I want you to take a look at your life and ask yourself this:
What injustice in my world is God asking me to heal in Jesus’ name?
I’ll help you think through this with the words of Isaiah 58.
Who has been wrongly imprisoned around you? (Don’t just think physical prisons)
How can you lighten the burden of those who work for you? (If you’re not an employer, what about service industry workers or public servants?)
Who around you is chained and oppressed? (Exploited by others)
Who in your life is hungry? Who needs a home? Who needs clothing?
And who in your biological or spiritual family needs your help?
Like I said, our world is filled with injustice, so I am positive God put something on your heart just now. What are you going to do about it?
You don’t have to live in the mess and the clutter anymore. You can be a well-watered garden. But it starts with self-giving love just like Jesus. It starts with justice.
So grab a broom. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to come alive.