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Monday, April 26, 2010

Removing a Spiritual Obstacle to a Glorious Fulfillment of Promise — Isaiah 59-60

[We are pleased again to welcome as our guest contributor Winifred Hoffner, who has contributed earlier postings on Isaiah.]

Introduction

In the earlier chapters of our study (40-55) Isaiah assures captive Israel that while they are incapable of freeing themselves,  God is willing and abundantly able to deliver them from their captivity and to restore them completely.

In chapters 56-59 Isaiah looks into the future and sees how delivered Israel will still be totally incapable of living righteously before their God.

In chapter 58 we saw how they would fail to live up to God’s righteous commands and so they would turn even more religious, increasing their fasting and their rituals, while on the very same day acting unjustly toward their neighbor, their employee, anyone who disagreed with them.

In chapter 59 they seem to be asking: “Why is not God blessing us as promised?”  Isaiah tells them in no uncertain terms why the blessings they were expecting have not materialized.

"Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. 2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.  3 For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. 4 No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.  5 They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.  6 Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands.  7 Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways.  8 The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace.  9 So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.  10 Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead.  11 We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away.  12 For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: 13 rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. 14 So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. 15 Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey" (Isaiah 59:1-15 NIV)
•    Their sin has put up a barrier between them and God.
•    They do not seek justice for others. No one calls for justice (v.4), instead they indulge in  lies and evil deeds.
•    Everything that they do is evil, violent. Evil is ingrained in them so that their every action gives birth to more evil. They rush into sin (v.7); they shed innocent blood.
•    Their ways are destructive, and no one who follows in their way will ever find wholeness and peace. (v.8)
•    Justice is driven back;  righteousness stands at a distance;  truth and honesty evade them; they live in darkness.
•    In v. 13 Isaiah lists other sins: “rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs  on God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived.”

    In v. 13 notice the first two are sins against God from which naturally progresses sins against fellow man.  In 56:1 God commanded justice and righteousness from them as testimony of their salvation, their restoration. But they are utterly incapable of producing this fruit because of the barrier that they have put up between themselves and God. These first 15 verses present a very bleak picture reminiscent of Romans 7 where Paul writes:
 "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. … 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:14-18, 24 NIV)
    That is the dilemma Isaiah says Israel too is facing. They cannot in their own strength live righteously and seek justice.    What is to be done?
 15  The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. 17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. 18 According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. 19 From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.  For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the LORD drives along. 20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD. 21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the LORD. 1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon (Isaiah 59:15-60:2 NIV)
    God sees their condition and is “appalled”, but he is also merciful. He himself will come and do for them what they cannot do for themselves. With his own arm and his own righteousness and armed as a warrior he will do battle for them.  What is the enemy that he is fighting? The main enemy is sin itself.  The “suffering Servant” revealed in Is. 53 would come humbly and would allow himself to suffer the punishment his straying sheep deserved. In ch. 59 the Servant comes as a conquering warrior wearing the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and garments of vengeance. In this manner “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD. (59:20) . What he is defeating here is sin itself as it reigns in his people. As the repentant allow the Spirit of God to fill their lives and his word to fill their mouths they will become a witness to the surrounding nations so that:
"From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory" (59:19).
    Despite the constant sin and treachery of his people, the Lord remains faithful, his covenant will be kept, his promises will be fulfilled.

Application

 In this chapter Isaiah states plainly that sin is preventing the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Note the short, sharp phrases in vv.2-3, ... your sins ... your hands ... your fingers ... your lips ... your tongue. Nonetheless, the last word is still that of confidence. When God saw “that there was no one” (v.16) then the Lord arrays himself as a warrior and proceeds to accomplish his purposes. Isaiah’s answer to the problem of sin continuing to exist even in restored Israel is the answer to the problem of continuing sin even in the redeemed Christian. We cannot overcome it by ourselves, but Christ, the divine warrior, can defeat sin for us through his Spirit who lives in us, as Rom. 8 tells us. This victory results in our being able to live as Paul asks us to live in Col. 3.
13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  (Colossians 3:13-16 NIV)

Isaiah 60

    Now we turn to Isaiah 60, which I think is one of the most beautiful chapters in all the Bible.  Whereas in ch. 59 we read: “We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows”, here in chapter 60 all is light, brightness, dawn, radiance.
 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60:1-3 NIV)
    This chapter promises the glory of Zion that will be the direct result of her people believing in and submitting to the suffering Servant.

    The Lord gives two commands: “Arise,” “Shine,” accompanied by the strength to fulfill the command... “the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

    By herself Jerusalem could not arise for the sins of her people separated them from God. But due to Christ’s cleansing power she is able to arise, and having received the Lord’s own perfect, holy light, she is able to radiate that light.

    Following in this chapter we find the glorious results that come from obedience to the command of v. 1.
  • verses 4-8 offer promises of great wealth and prestige among the nations.
  • verses 9-14.   The promise that other nations will come to their light and walk by their light.
  • verses 15-16. They will become an object of rejoicing instead of an object of hatred.
  • verse 17.  Peace and righteousness will rule forever.
    This is a glorious picture of a bright future for Zion. When will this promise be fulfilled? Has it already been fulfilled?  As we have seen in previous chapters of this section (56 ff) the promises are all mixed in with commands. The primary command being that they believe in the suffering servant. See 59:20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,” declares the LORD.  Many who returned from the exile did not believe. Some did: the post exilic prophets, Ezra, Zerubbabel, and others. But many did not, as we saw in ch. 59. And so the promises of ch. 60 were not fulfilled immediately upon the return from Babylon. And again when Jesus came most of Israel rejected him, and so while the first three verses of this chapter may well be seen as referring to the first advent of Christ, much more of this chapter has yet to be fulfilled.

    Many scholars say that the promises in this chapter will never be fulfilled literally; that they are all spiritual. And while we can find many spiritual applications from this chapter (and we will attempt to do so this morning) I would like us also to explore together what other scholars believe will be a true literal fulfillment of these promises. They will be fulfilled at the Second Coming of Christ when, as Paul says in Romans 11, “all Israel will be saved.” Paul says: “I tell you mystery.” The mystery is that for a while Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles had come into the kingdom, and then all Israel will be saved. He backs up his prediction of national Israel turning to Christ in the last days by quoting Isaiah 59:20-21 (which we have just read). I believe this turning of Israel to her Messiah is also what Zechariah refers to in Zech.12:10,

  “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son" (Zechariah 12:10 NIV).

    When the command that they believe in the suffering servant will finally be obeyed, we will see the promises of Isaiah 60 come to pass. Let’s compare some of the images here in Is. 60 with the description of the New Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21.

  • Rev. 21:23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Is. 60:1 and 20)
  • Rev. 21:24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.
  • Rev. 21:25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.
  • Rev. 21:26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Is. 60:11-14)
  • Rev. 21:27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Is. 60:18)

Applications

    This then is the glorious future for Zion that God revealed to Israel through Isaiah; a future dependent upon his command that they believe in the suffering Servant and that they live righteously by the enabling of his Spirit. What does this chapter have to say to us today?

    1. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. 2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. 3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Isaiah 60:1-3 NIV).   Do we “arise” by the enablement of his Spirit, allowing the Spirit of God to work in us so that his righteous character shines through us? If so, then nations will  come to him.

    2. Isaiah speaks of great riches coming to them in V. 9.  We all have received rich blessings from God. What is the purpose of all the blessings that God bestows upon us? Is it so that we might take pride in what we have accomplished? Are they for our own enrichment, or to make life easy? No. The purpose is to honor the Lord. We use all that he has given us to bring him glory. This is the thought of vv. 10-16.

    3.   "Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron.  Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones"  (Isaiah 60:17 NIV).  Isaiah speaks of a wonderful transformation here, bronze into gold; iron into silver. How are we transformed, so that we become lamps through whom Christ’s life can shine undimmed?We are so transformed when we allow him to turn us from people who are helpless in sin into righteous people who are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8).

     4. "I will make peace your governor and righteousness your ruler. 18 No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise" (Isaiah 60:17–18 NIV).   Where does real peace come from? Only from God. When we turn our lives over to  him his peace rules our hearts, his wall of salvation protects us, and no violence can ever separate us from him.

    5.   "Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end" (Isaiah 60:20 NIV).  The days of sorrow, as depicted in ch. 59, were the days of sin and ignorance when all was darkness and the light of God’s presence was not felt. And so for us until we recognize Christ, the light of the world, as our savior.

    6. "Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever.  They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor" (Isaiah 60:21 NIV).  As Christians we are dependent upon God both for the origin and the sustaining of our spiritual life (the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands).  Hence the life that we live must be carried out in obedience to the one who formed it. And the whole purpose of that life is “for the display of my splendor.”

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Under-Servants Examining Themselves — Isaiah 57-58

Inner reflection is not one of the "big" things in today's society. We tend to blame all our unhappiness on outer factors: our next-door neighbor's loud kids, our boss' constant criticism of how we do our jobs, the government's obvious failures to rectify the problem of current joblessness. Or if there is no obvious "villain" around to pin the blame on, we think we just need more time partying, more time spent in Facebook, better "creature comforts", a newer medication. Looking inward at our spiritual condition to find out if there is some problem "under the hood" is not a high priority for us.

But God, through the prophet Isaiah, has a word for Israel that we would do well to consider today. It is that real happiness comes from the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant (ch. 53), accepted by faith (chs. 54-56), but also by examining how we now live as his redeemed "under-servants". One of the perpetual tasks of the Suffering Servant's "under-servants" is genuine self-examination. And that is what chapters 57 and 58, which we study today, are about.


I. God Accuses the Wicked, 57:1-13
The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. 2 Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death. 3 “But you—come here, you sons of a sorceress, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes!  4 Whom are you mocking? At whom do you sneer and stick out your tongue? Are you not a brood of rebels, the offspring of liars? 5 You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags.  6 [The idols] among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion; they, they are your lot. Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings and offered grain offerings. In the light of these things, should I relent? 7 You have made your bed on a high and lofty hill; there you went up to offer your sacrifices.  8 Behind your doors and your doorposts you have put your pagan symbols. Forsaking me, you uncovered your bed, you climbed into it and opened it wide; you made a pact with those whose beds you love, and you looked on their nakedness.  9 You went to Molech with olive oil and increased your perfumes. You sent your ambassadors far away; you descended to the grave itself!  10 You were wearied by all your ways, but you would not say, ‘It is hopeless.’ You found renewal of your strength, and so you did not faint.  11 “Whom have you so dreaded and feared that you have been false to me, and have neither remembered me nor pondered this in your hearts? Is it not because I have long been silent that you do not fear me? 12 I will expose your righteousness and your works, and they will not benefit you.  13 When you cry out for help, let your collection [of them] save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But the man who makes me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 57:1-13 NIV adapted)

Good leadership is vital to a community, whether political or spiritual. And so we can understand how God's criticism of post-exilic Israel began in 56:9-12 with their leaders, who were lazy and indifferent to the needs around them. But it's all too easy to blame all our problems on poor leadership. A community handicapped by poor leaders can take the lead in demanding a higher standard of obedience to God. The readers of these chapters were not doing that.

So in the first 13 verses of ch 57 the subject changes from the leaders to the people themselves. How are they described?

1-2 When people die at the expected old age, or when there is no difference between the number of godly and ungodly who die at a young age, perhaps it is not significant. But when it seems that only the godly people who are dying young and unexpectedly, should we consider this a sign? And if so, what? At least at this particular time in Israel's history, God says he was taking the godly ahead of time to spare them the judgments to come. But this implies that what was to come was worse than mere physical death. Otherwise, it spares the godly person nothing. Verse one says it was to spare them from "evil". This could mean the evil actions perpetrated by Israel herself or the "evil" of God's judgment on Israel. Some scholars think that this section refers back to an earlier period before the exile. The rest of this part of Isaiah, as we saw last week, seems to reflect conditions when the exiles had returned. And we have seen that, while Israel learned some important lessons from God's punishment in the exile, such as the evils of idolatry, they did not return to their land wholly reformed, any more than you or I have lived completely faithful and godly lives since our conversions. And while the first generation may have returned in a contrite and reformed state, this may not have lasted into the next generation of young people. So it may not be necessary to assume an earlier period here.

In contrast to some of the godly who died young, others are described as "mockers" (57:4).  The mockers could be mocking the true prophets of God or the scriptures being taught by the likes of Ezra and the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. If it appeared that there were more godly people than ungodly ones dying young, the mockers may have claimed this as proof that godliness did not pay. These verses then could represent God's reply to their mockery. Early death was not a sign of foolish faith but of God's mercy on the faithful. But we have to be careful not to apply this idea too generally. We do not always know why God takes a believer home early. If it is to spare them from some harm or evil, he obviously has left others of us, either because the particular evil would not affect us or because he wants us to refine our faith by passing through it.


5-9 In verses 5-9 we have a picture of flagrant idolatry. In general, the post-exilic prophets—such as Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi—do not inveigh against idolatry in Israel. There is only one place (in Zech 13:2), where God threatens to "cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit". But since otherwise there is no mention of idolatry in Israel after the return under Ezra, these verses in Isaiah might either be referring to the pre-exilic and exilic period, or be referring to "spiritual" idolatry rather than the literal worship of idols. The sexual imagery was commonly used by the ancient Israelite prophets for literal idolatry, either because Canaanite idolatry often combined worship of the idols with sexual immorality, or because Israel's relationship to Yahweh was depicted as that of a faithful wife to her husband, and pursuit of other "gods" was like adultery.

10 These Israelites were not deterred from the pursuit of other "gods" by either the expense or effort involved or by the initial lack of good results (no immediate benefits of better crops and livestock). They showed remarkable "faith" in these other gods!

In 11 God is curious why they were so able to persevere in their faith and sacrifice to these useless "gods", when they cannot do so with him. Maybe, he thinks, it is because he was been too long silent in addressing them?

In 12-13 come the threats of judgment.The outward show of pseudo-"righteousness" is exposed by the inner "idolatry" of the people. Those "works" will not save the doers from God's judgment. Not even if they amount to quite a "collection"! For they are mere idols and can be blown away like chaff by the wind of God's judgment.

II. God Comforts the Contrite, 57:14-21
And it will be said:  “Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.”  15 For this is what the high and lofty One says— he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. 16 I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me— the breath of man that I have created. 17 I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways. 18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, 19 creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the LORD. “And I will heal them.” 20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. 21 “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.” (Isaiah 57:14-21 NIV)


God is no great Sadist who derives pleasure from catching us in our failures and then lowering the hammer of his judgment.  He delights in seeing people awaken to their sins, admit them, and change their behavior. That is what true "contrition" means. It isn't just a sad face: it's a hopeful one of someone determined to correct his attitudes and actions. I love v 18: God says "I will heal him, guide him, restore comfort to him, create praise on his lips, give him peace". Those are not the words of One who loves to create pain and misery! And in v 20 the real punishment of those who refuse the path of contrition is the very lifestyle they create and maintain, one that constantly casts up mire and mud and destroys any peace they might have.


III. True Fasting, ch. 58

The same pattern that we saw in chapters 56 and 57 continues here: commands followed by promises conditioned on obedience to the commands.
 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.  Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.  2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them (Isaiah 58:1-2 NIV)


1-2 These verses may be referring to Israelites responding to the earlier command to "seek Yahweh while he may be found; call upon him while he is near" (55:6). But those described here did not continue with 55:7 "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts". Mechanical, outward "seeking" through mechanical Bible study or formal prayers can lead to the false sense of obedience and pleasing God. Both practices have to be producing a quality of love, compassion, generosity and service that shows a true encounter with God.


There is a certain irony here, in that the people addressed profess to be seeking feverishly to know God's will, using study of scripture and prayer accompanied by fasting—very rigorous. Yet they seem to have difficulty hearing God even when he shouts in their ears what their sins are and blasts them awake with trumpets!


The people made special inquiries to God about decisions they must make, when the answer was right there in God's commands to act honestly and compassionately with others. It does not good to ask God in prayer if you should pay your debts or the wages of your employees, or whether you should have premarital or extramarital sex. The answer should be obvious from the scriptures you study each day. No special revelation of God's "will" is necessary.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.  4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. (Isaiah 58:3-4 NIV)



The question posed here indicates that the people knew somehow that God was not pleased with them. How? Perhaps through the voices of the prophets of their own time—Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, those who had been shouting into the deaf ears. They had declared to the people their "rebellion and sins" (v. 1). So this is the people's response. Instead of contrite repentance they offered objections and excuses. "But we have fasted and humbled ourselves," they protest. "Can't you see how much we love you by this?"


In v. 4 God's answer is that on the very days they were fasting they were drafting the eviction notices for their tenants and foreclosing on the loans that were outstanding, and withholding wages from employees, and even getting into fist fights with those who disagreed with them. Hardly signs of a true desire to live according to the commands of God in the Torah! "You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high" (v. 4).

Now let's be clear: the illustration of all this sinning taking place on the day of the fast doesn't mean that it was okay to do it on other days of the week! This was merely God's way of making the point that religious activity can be so superficial that it can go on at the same time as sinful behavior, and the latter can be completely unnoticed by the worshiper. In the church at Corinth while worshipers were show-casing their so-called "spiritual gifts" of tongues and prophecy in the worship services, they were oblivious to the needs of poor members who didn't have enough to eat! This wasn't worship. This wasn't exercising the gifts of the Spirit. This wasn't love. This was "noisy gongs" and "clanging symbols" (1 Cor 13). This was "giving my body to be burned", which profited them nothing (again 1 Cor 13)!


God is not impressed with a beautiful worship service in College Church, if there are individuals in the congregation that morning with known needs who are not being helped. I always thought that more beautiful that how the choir sang on Sunday mornings was the sight of Kristen or Phyllis wheeling Gini Aamodt into the sanctuary so that she would participate with us in the worship service. I'm sure that was sweeter music in the ears of the Lord Jesus than the anthem each morning, for it was the true worship of obeying God's commands to help the needy.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:5-7 NIV)


How does one show true self-denial? And what is the point of self-denial? We live in a day of fitness craze. the suburban streets and bike paths are filled with people feverishly pursuing the athletic physique, the lithe lean bodies that bespeak conditioning. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to keep the bodies God endowed us with healthy. But is all this self-denial just in order to impress others with our physical appearance? If so, it isn't substantially different from what these Israelites were doing in fasting. It was a form of self-denial that others could see and admire. And maybe it produced healthier and more attractive bodies.

But God is not pleased with that kind of self-denial. For you see, true God-honoring self-denial always has in view a benefit to others. Denying yourself your own rightful money repaid by forgiving a debt to a friend out of work. Denying yourself the privacy of your own home by taking someone in who needs a place to stay. Denying yourself a well-earned evening of relaxation with TV in order to invite a grieving friend over to talk and pray together. Denying yourself a pleasant Saturday afternoon reading a book in order to help a neighbor with his yard work.  Self-denial unconnected with relieving another is like the medieval monks who engaged in flagellation, having themselves beaten to drive away sinful temptations. It accomplishes nothing but pain. And it makes no good impression on God.
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.  You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. 13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’S holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, 14 then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the LORD has spoken.  (Isaiah 58:8-14 NIV)

Here comes the harvest of true self-denying service! All that pointless, self-serving "self-denial" could produce was darkness, frustration, unanswered prayer, lack of true guidance from God, a feeling of unsatisfied needs, weakness, spiritual dryness, and lack of accomplishment. do you notice how what is promised here is the exact opposite? Light (v 8), prompt healing (v 8), answered prayers, true guidance from God, needs satisfied, strength, springs within that never fail, successful rebuilding of the community.


And what is this attributed to? Not doing just "as you please" but as God pleases. Now don't misread this passage. It appears to be about the Sabbath, but the real meaning goes much deeper. Believers in Jesus follow his example in doing good on every day of the week and resisting strict sabbatarianism with all its confining rules. And condemning "doing as you please" isn't a code word for prohibiting "secular" things on Sunday such as watching a baseball game. Instead, "doing as you please" means violating the commands of God in scripture, letting your own wishes—not God's—guide your life, not just on Sunday but every day. The true worshiper is not the person who makes the best impression in church, but the one whose life is consumed with serving others in the name of Christ.


The bottom line is v 14: "then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob". And the chapter ends with the answer to the question that began it, "Why don't you answer when we fast and pray?" This is God's answer: "The mouth of the LORD has spoken"!