By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 5, 2023
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Isaiah 58:1–12 (ESV)
1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. 11 And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
This week I spent quite a bit of time in contemplative prayer. Well to be honest, I had a migraine and Kristy gave me this really neat wrap that you can put in the freezer and then you put it on your head over your eyes, and you just sit there with this cold head wrap in the dark. I call it my hawking hood because that is what it looks like. But as I sat there in my hawking hood, I was in contemplation. Last week we read Micah, and he spoke about justice. This week Isaiah speaks of the same things. There seems to be a common theme throughout the prophets. And that is why I picked that long song to open worship with. Patrick speaks of the prophet’s scrolls. He speaks of them as having power.
I have often thought about St. Patrick and the conversion of Ireland. Their story of conversion is different than most ancient nations’. They were not in a war. They were not conquered by Christians; they were just going about their lives content. And then this man Patrick, a former slave in their land, comes and begins to preach about Christ. And not too long after he began to preach nearly the entire island converts. I have often contemplated this, I have read books on the subject, and most scholars have not really provided much of an answer. But I yearn for the answer, because I think this speaks to our world today. I continued to research and study, and I came to a conclusion. It may not be profound, it does not have theological depth, but the conclusion that I came to is that Patrick was not afraid.
He faced constant persecution. The wizards, spoken of in his song, were seeking to do him harm. People sought to kill him, pretty much every stanza in that poem is something that Patrick faced. And yet the people of Ireland, heard what he had to say, and they followed. Imagine being in a land where spells and magic seemed to be a reality. Imagine every moment of your day could be the last breath you take, and yet Patrick persevered through his trials. He persisted and people began to take notice. He faced these trials. Trials that would keep many people awake at night, and yet from all my research the one thing that I found most profound was that the people considered what Patrick had to say, because he was not afraid and he slept soundly at night.
As simple as that may seem, it is powerful. He could sleep at night. He was not afraid. We live in an era where fear is a dominant emotion. The twenty-four-hour news cycle uses fear to keep our attention. The politicians use fear to garner our support. Often the decisions we make are made, not out of careful consideration, but out of fear.
This caused me to consider what Isaiah was speaking about. The prophet tells the people to cry aloud, to sing the praises of God with their full throat. He urges the priest on the day of Atonement to not hold back and to speak truth. The nation that claimed to be the people of God were not living the life they professed with their mouths.
Isaiah says, “They seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.” If we do not listen carefully, we might think that Isaiah is speaking of the goodness of Israel, but that is not the case. Mark Elliott, quotes Theodoret of Cyr, in his Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series. “The text shows that they have no desire to draw near to God, but want him to come near to them through his protection and care, even while choosing a life unworthy of him.” This caused me to pause and I hope that it shakes you soul a bit as well.
They were worshiping. They were gathering together corporately to give praises and to offer sacrifices to their God. The first verse indicates that they were participating in the required fast proposed in Torah in preparation for the Day of Atonement. And yet they cried out to God because their prayers and deeds seemed to be falling on deaf ears and blind eyes. “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” They cry out to God.
We have those cries ourselves at times. We have those emotions individually and as a nation. We wonder why we are facing the possibility of another recession, when many of us have yet to recover from the one that happened fifteen years ago. We wonder why God allowed a plague to ravish our world. Why God has allowed suffering and war to wage throughout the world. Why? Why do good people suffer?
I ask these questions, and to be honest I do not have answers. I wish I could, like so many pastor, simply say the reason for all the suffering is because of sin. This is not wrong, but to me it sounds as if it is an evasion of the questions we all ask. Yes, sin is a problem, but that does not really help. We can say Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again to take away our sin. I believe this with my whole mind, body, soul and spirt, and yet I still cry out to God at times.
This is why the words of that ancient father, Theodoret, spoke so deeply to me. He lived during the turn of the 5th century. This, if you know church history, was when many of the core theologies within the church began to take root. The first great schism of the church began at this time and in many ways it was over a misunderstanding of language. The Oriental Church said that Christ had one nature, where the Catholic or Universal Church said that Christ had two natures. The sad thing is that the Oriental Church and the Catholic church was meaning the same thing, but at the time they could not reconcile this. They both meant that Jesus was human and divine, the Oriental Church simply said that Christ always existed as he is, fully God and human in one person. I understand the schism and the semantics. But poor Theodoret was caught in the middle trying to bridge the gap, yet the discussion fell on deaf ears. And after nearly 2000 years, they are finally making attempts toward reconciliation.
This speaks to me because we often find ourselves in quarrels. We argue and we fight. We pound our Bibles saying, “Thus says the Lord,” but are we listening to what the Lord has to say? “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”
The nation that claimed to worship God, turned their backs on the lifestyle God desired. I do not speak much about fasting. My negligence on this discipline is in part because of these verses. So often when people fast, they simply see it as being a sacrifice made so that they can honor God and participate in the suffering of Jesus. That is part of the fast, but it is deeper than this. The sacrifice is to direct our attention to our own weaknesses and our need for God’s provision. Most Christian sects fast during the season of Lent, they will give up something for forty days. I have participated in a fast like this, and it does give some clarity. A few years ago I fasted from Dr. Pepper, and I quickly realized just how tight the grip caffeine and sugar had on me. If something so small could cause such struggle in my life, how could I possibly make a larger sacrifice? That is the point. We cannot. This does not mean that we should not try.
Israel during the time of Isaiah did fast, and they did it according to Torah. In the eyes of mankind, they were righteous. Yet in the eyes of God, all they proved was that they were stubborn. The fast is not just to give up, but to give out. It reveals to us that we are slaves to our own lustful and hungry natures. And hungry we are. We have strong desires, desires for wealth, power, luxury, and pleasure. We can make a list a mile long if we wanted to, but Isaiah is telling Israel, and us, that we may fast, but we are not recognizing the reality of who we are.
We are being led by our lusts. We are in bondage to our greed. We lash out to those that might question this within us. If you do not believe me just turn on the news, it is all right there in our fears. The Republicans are going to take away our social security. The Democrats are wanting to kill babies. The Libertarians just want to legalize drugs. The Russians are going to nuke us all. The …. Do we need to go on?
Fear is big. Fear distracts us from the truth. It drives us to act in ways that do not always reflect what we believe, and yet we are bound to fear. What if we were to let go of the fear? What if we were too fast from fear?
What if instead of worrying about our social security, babies, or drugs, we invested the energy we expend on fear toward the people around us? Isaiah says, “If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday…And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”
Do you love one another as becomes the followers of Christ? Are you careful of the reputation of others? When differences arise do you make earnest efforts to end them speedily? Are you in bondage to fear or are you participating in the discipline of Justice?
Last week Micah told us what the Lord wants of us, and today Isaiah repeats the same theme. God is calling us to come back to the life and lifestyle our first parents rejected during the fall. He is calling us to walk once again with Him in the cool of the evening and to participate in the mission that has always been part of who we as image bearers of God have been called to participate in. We are to go into all the world and bring it into submission, we are to go out into the world and tend to it as if it were the Garden of Eden. We cannot do this on our own, because we are so often distracted by the customs of the kingdoms of Men. We want what is ours. We want what we deserve. We want. Yet Jesus tells us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And his command is that you love one another as he has loved you. Let us go now and live the love of Christ with others.
 Elliott, Mark W., editor. Isaiah 40–66. InterVarsity Press, 2007, p. 209.
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