This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12
Sermon prepared by Pastor George Vander Weit, Grand Rapids, Mich.
In a couple weeks we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day (or: A couple weeks ago we celebrated Thanksgiving Day.). We will gather together in worship to remember the blessings we enjoy. We will acknowledge God as the source of those blessings and will thank God for them. We will gather together as family members, surrounded by that goodness, and we will rejoice that we are so richly blessed. It will be a good day for us, but hopefully it will be more than a day. Hopefully, that single day will assist us in developing an attitude which will last longer than a day, an attitude of thanksgiving so we are more conscious of what we have and more grateful for it.
The same is true of this day, World Hunger Sunday. In 1978 synod, the policy making body of our denomination stated, "the alleviation of hunger at home and abroad is an integral part of our Christian responsibility" and asked "that all members of the Christian Reformed Church devote themselves to gratitude, compassion, repentance, and justice as they respond to world hunger with a ministry of word and deed."
To assist us in that, a special Sunday was designated between the Canadian and United States Thanksgiving Days, and that has grown to World Hunger Week, complete with a giving calendar that makes us conscious of the needs of people around the world and gives us an opportunity to assist in meeting those needs. It is good to ask, "What’s the purpose of it all? What are we doing on this single day or in this special week?"
The chapter before us really asks the same question. Here, too, we see people involved in a religious exercise, not using a giving calendar, but fasting. In the O.T. God commanded fasting on only one day, the Great Day of Atonement: on which Israel was cleansed of all her sins. Yet as we read the history of God’s people we see that other fast days were instituted by the people themselves, national fast days on which the entire nation refrained from food in remembrance of some national calamity and personal fasts in which an individual or group would fast for various reasons. That continued into the New Testament where we see Anna, John the Baptist, the early church and the Apostle Paul fasting. It was, and still is, a beneficial practice, but it has always been possible to participate in fasting — to participate in a truly beneficial religious exercise — in such a way that no real or lasting benefit is derived.
That‘s the issue in the chapter before us. What we have are people who are very desirous of receiving God’s blessing. They live in the conscious realization that he has something to do with their lives. Verse 2 very clearly states that "day after day they seek God; they seem eager to know his ways...; they ask God for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them."
It’s easy to look at these verses and call these people hypocrites, especially because of the indictments in verses 3 and 4. It’s even easier when we remember our Lord’s words about somber-faced, fasting hypocrites. We ought to be careful with that judgment. Certainly, there was hypocrisy involved here. The passage reveals that. But surely there were many who were sincerely seeking God as verse 2 states. We know how that is in our own lives. Often we come to worship with the best intentions, but we are distracted either with thoughts of our own concerns or our own work. We are not single-minded. We do not give ourselves wholeheartedly to the worship and praise of God. Are we therefore hypocrites? That’s a rather strong judgment. Are we not rather people with sincere and earnest intentions who must continually struggle against the sin that would deter us from those intentions?
I say that because if you read on in this chapter you notice that God through his prophet does not simply attack hypocrisy. Rather, he calls the people to examine the very purpose of the religious activity in which they are engaged. Verse 5 asks, "Is this the purpose of fasting? Is it 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?"
"Why yes," someone might answer. By definition that’s what fasting is. If you look at a person fasting, that is exactly what you would see. But God’s answer to that question is "NO." No, this is not a fast acceptable to me. This is not the kind of fasting I have chosen. It is good as far as it goes. All of the exercises are correct and proper and admirable, but it doesn’t go far enough. It is not complete. The emphasis is on the self and on what I do to myself. An emphasis on others is missing.
And that’s the concern of God as is apparent from the rest of the chapter. Verse 6f: "This is 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." That’s repeated in the last part verse 9: "to do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk." The accusing finger and malicious talk could be interpreted as gestures of contempt, but we can also see them as referring to false legal accusations against others.
What we have then is a picture of oppression, people held in bondage, even the law twisted to further that goal. And in the midst of that we have God himself through his prophet calling his people to work for social justice. This wasn’t anything new for Israel and certainly it isn’t anything new for us either because both Old and New Testaments call on God’s people to protect the helpless.
There is more! Verse 7: "This is the kind of fasting I have chosen: to share your food with the hungry, to give shelter to the homeless, to clothe the naked and to minister to those in need." The first part of verse 10 is the parallel to this: "Spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry; satisfy the needs of the oppressed." This is what I desire, says the Lord, and in this way you will experience my blessing.
Fasting was not to be an end in itself. Rather it was to be a vehicle to other ends — a sharpened communion with God, greater awareness of dependence on him as a national calamity was mourned and remembered or, as is the case here, active involvement in deeds of mercy and justice.
That speaks to us on this day, doesn’t it? We have used the giving calendar over the past couple weeks. We participate in this special Sunday. All of that is good, but these things are not ends in themselves. They are vehicles to other ends. We focus on World Hunger not so we can say "Well, we did it," but we focus in an attempt to create an awareness and an attitude that will last more than a day or a week, an attitude that will affect the way we live everyday.
How easy it is to get swept away in the materialism of this world! How easy it is to focus on ourselves and never really see the needs of others! And how hard it is to talk about these issues in a meaningful way with other members of the Christian community.
I once read this quote: "I know a man is a hypocrite when he has two suits in a world where most people can not afford to buy one." I wonder how most of us would respond to that quote. I suspect we’d quickly dismiss it. Some of us would dismiss it because we think it absurd. Some of us might dismiss it by saying, "The use of money is a matter of personal judgment. All of us are free to make up our own minds as to how we spend our money."
Is that true? Or is that simply another testimony to the individualism of our world? Is there no community-based ethic? What kind of testimony do I give through the use of my material resources? What kind of testimony could a congregation give if it covenanted together saying, for example, "We’re not going to spend any money for this or that. We’re going to live in houses that cost no more than a certain amount of dollars. We’re going to squeeze out as much as we can to (verse 7) ‘share our food with the hungry, to provide the poor wanderer with shelter and to clothe the naked."’
I suspect we’d find a lot more people taking a lot longer look at the church of Jesus, and I suspect we’d find a lot more joy in life. I suspect (verse 8) "our light would break forth like the dawn and our healing would quickly appear; our righteousness would go before us, and the glory of the Lord would be our rear guard."
I don’t say these things to make us feel guilty. God knows that most of us already have more guilt than we can handle. People can probably make us feel guilty about most anything. But guilt doesn’t motivate us — at least not for the long haul. It’s the love of Christ that constrains us!
The way we use our money is not simply a financial issue. For centuries we Christians have confessed that it’s a spiritual issue. And yet we haven’t done a very good job assisting each other in this area of our spiritual lives. We don’t have many good answers. If the truth were told, we’re so afraid of offending each other that we even have difficulty asking the right questions.
Praise God for special days and special times of the year that give us special opportunities to focus on and to meet the needs of others. Hopefully, such days provide more than that. Hopefully, this day provides another opportunity for serious consideration of our life styles — why we live the way we life, why we buy what we buy, how much we give or don’t give to God’s kingdom and why. Then our participation in this religious exercise with giving calendar and special offering and all the rest will have even greater value. Then we will indeed hear our God say, "Yes, this is the kind of religious exercise I have chosen. This, indeed, is a day acceptable to me!"
Suggested Songs from Grey Psalter:601, 603