IntroductionI was not brought up in a Christian home. My family was nominally Church of England and used the church for christenings, weddings and funerals but that was as far as it went. I never encountered anything you might recognise as faith among the members of my family.
So it might seem surprising that, for no apparent reason, in my mid-teenage years I began talking to a God I had no knowledge of and tried to read the bible – Authorised Version, starting at Genesis and not getting very far.
When I eventually met someone at school who had real faith, that vague stirring of belief became an all-consuming passion to connect with this God. After a fortnight of asking my friend questions, I did what was known in those days as, 'Making a Decision,' and was very soon an out-and-out follower of Jesus, full of teenage enthusiasm. That will be 43 years ago in April.
In those days, and in the circles I moved in, everything was about personal salvation. Tearfund did not exist, and Christian Aid was not supported by the church I belonged to. The Salvation Army was seen as preaching a merely 'Social Gospel, which is no gospel'. Getting souls saved was what mattered: better to go to heaven hungry than to hell with a full stomach.
It wasn't just my church. At University, we had the Christian Union – an evangelical organisation – and a Community Action Group – a non-aligned organisation. Very few of us were members of both.
In my recollection, passages of scripture such as the one we've just heard were given scant, if any, attention. But, like it or lump it, it's in the Bible and we can't ignore it. And, really, it's because of such passages that The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund – Tearfund – eventually came into being.
Passages such as this remind us that a Gospel which is only a Gospel of Personal Salvation is inadequate. Because, whilst God dearly loves us, and longs for every one of us to be saved, he loves us body, soul and spirit, not only our souls. Yes, Jesus died to save us from our sins – and how we need that – but he rose again to bring us new life and to transform our way of living so that we can show his holistic love to the world and bring about his kingdom on Earth.
It's true that there's nothing new under the Sun, and Isaiah's people appeared to have the same problems with faith and action that I've seen in more modern times. Believers in both ancient and modern times have suffered from the same spiritual disease.
SymptomsTo the onlooker, the people of Isaiah's day gave an appearance of being devout believers. As verses 2 and 3 tell us,
- they sought God out daily, presumably by following prescribed religious practices;
- they seemed keen on God's ways of doing things;
- they brought their decision-making before God, asking him for guidance;
- they even fasted, in a humbling way that involved sackcloth and ashes, and bowing down before God;
DiagnosisThe thing about God is that he's not easily fooled. It's very difficult to pull the wool over his eyes.
As we know, he judges the heart not the outward appearance. In response to the people's complaint, he goes directly to the diagnosis. 'You are rebellious! You are sinners!' And there's no intention that this confrontation should be done quietly, in a corner somewhere. No! He tells Isaiah, 'Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.'
God declares through the prophet that the people as a nation do not do what is right. They have forsaken his commands. Taking an lead from Jesus' summary of the law, God's commands then as now are to love him with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
This is the root of their problem: instead of outward-looking love, they exhibit inward-looking utter selfishness. In the midst of their so-called fast
- they do as they please;
- they exploit their workers – and exploitation is always about personal gain;
- they argue to get their own way. When they don't get their own way they get frustrated and angry, even to the point that physical violence breaks out.
The believers of both James's day and of Isaiah's were going to the right source of supply but with entirely the wrong motivation. And Isaiah's people seem to have slipped into a very pagan expression of belief; one of appeasement and placation, earning favours by doing sacrifice; doing the expected religious stuff but only to enhance personal gratification.
The modern word for this could be 'Compartmentalisation'. “On Sunday, I'm a God-fearing Christian. Saturday, I'm a family man. Monday to Friday, I'm just like everyone else. My religion is one thing, my business is something else. I like to keep things separate.”
This attitude is wrong. You cannot be a God-fearing Christian and a ruthless business man. Yes, you can be a businessman; but ruthless? The faith that's rooted in love for God and love for others must affect all aspects of our lives.
RemedyGod prescribes a remedy for Isaiah's people: a different kind of fast. It's not a fast that is about giving up a bit of comfort, not about abstaining from food for a day. It's a fast that's about giving up self, of abstaining from personal greed, long term.
Isaiah tells us in verses 6 and 7 that it's about
- being actively concerned for justice to prevail,
- fighting against oppression and exploitation,
- sharing what we have with those in hunger and poverty,
- looking after family and, to speak to our own era, not leaving it to the state.
- light, that we might find his ways,
- healing, that we may be whole,
- right-standing with God, that we may not be guilty before his commands,
- protection, with God himself covering our backs,
- relationship, with a God who draws near.
ApplicationWe have the same God today. A God from whom we were alienated because of our sins. A God who took it upon himself to step down into the human arena in the person of Jesus Christ; who as God the Son died and rose again, taking on himself the judgement that should have been ours, so that all who believe in him would not perish because of their sins but have everlasting life.
Personal salvation is important. It was certainly important to the Wesleys – you have only to look at Charles Wesley's hymns to see that. We are each one called to personal faith. But it's a faith that is to transform the way we live; a faith that, as James tells us, has works and is not dead. We work because we are saved, not to obtain salvation.
Paul tells us, in Galations 5, that religious observance doesn't cut the mustard (you realise I'm paraphrasing here. Paul doesn't actually use those words). He makes an astonishing statement in verse 6: 'The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.' (NIV)
Our heavenly father cares about the people of this world, and so must we.
We must hold out the gospel of salvation but we must also demonstrate the love of God if people are to believe us. I think John Wesley may agree with me on this. He said: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
There are many practical ways we can be involved in showing God's love. Obviously, we can give our money to organisations working on our behalf to carry God's help to the neediest in our world; organisations such as Tearfund, Christian Aid and Compassion, to name but three. And how can we not respond to appeals to alleviate crises such as arose from the hurricane in the Philippines?
But there are local social needs we can be involved with too, and in practical ways. In our chapel, we have begun supporting local food banks. We've all been encouraged to buy a couple of extra items when we do our weekly shop and to put them in our collection box. We've even publicised it in the village and others outside the church are responding with donations.
A GP friend of mine told me of someone whom she referred to a food bank for help. That person came back in tears, overwhelmed that people cared enough to give food free of charge to others in need. That person has decided to do some work at the food bank, and so will work alongside Christian people who will now have opportunity to explain God's gospel of salvation.
We can easily get involved in things like these but we can also look out for our neighbours, doing all the good we can, as John Wesley encouraged the people of his day.
ConclusionOur walk with God begins with faith and repentance. From that comes the transformation of our lives and of our living, so that our lives become more and more a practical demonstration of the love of God, a genuine expression of the heart of God, and, as we serve, our own hearts are warmed by the love of God.
Read the whole of Isaiah 58 and catch a vision of what might be if we allow our faith to transform our living. Our churches are shrinking. People will respond to the love of God.
We don't really know what kind of response Isaiah got to the message he delivered. Did the people respond as God instructed? Were they willing to change so they could receive the promised light, healing, right-standing, protection and relationship?
What will our response be?