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Worship and Silence

Isaiah 58

Today’s portion of Scripture is one of my favorite difficult passages. You know how it is that you have a certain type of housework that, while you drag your feet to start, yields the most reward—like cleaning a refrigerator or closet? There are passages in Scripture like that. Isaiah 58 is one of those passages. It is a hard message. But what makes it so important is that it answers a fundamental question: Why does God seem silent when we seek Him? At first glance, we presume that doing the deeds God commands should create closeness to Him—that He at least seems more alive in the oxygen we breathe—but we all know that doing “God things” does not guarantee God’s favor. The answers to the question of God’s silence are complicated, but in Isaiah 58 we find a simple diagnosis.

Let’s begin by reading Isaiah 58:1-3a: “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. 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. ‘Why have we fasted?’ they say, ‘and have you not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

The conflict here is interesting. They offer themselves as a people that should be rewarded: they seek God out, they seem eager to know His ways, they ask for just decisions, and want God near. And they’re even committed enough to fast, to refrain from eating, in their eagerness to enjoy God’s will. That is not an insignificant addition to your spirituality. And they understand this as a humble act before God. This, of course is the set-up.

Read along from Isaiah 58:3b-5: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 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. 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?”

The cat is out of the bag. Yes, they were fasting, but on the day of fasting for God they inflicted venom on neighbors: poor treatment of workers and a dessert of fisticuffs to end the solemn day of fasting. God will ask, “Is a day without food, but full up with conflict, what it means to seek me? And is it just about a day, a single day, to show me reverence?”

This brings us to the first question of our faith and God’s silence:

#1 Am I valuing the extraordinary over the ordinary?

As Isaiah shares with his people, God can hardly be moved by humility in fasting when the non-fasting behavior includes poor treatment of people and conflict to the point of violence. Think of it this way. Imagine a dad that gets the kids to Disney World, but wholly under the chair and whip. No one can relax because dad won’t relax. He keeps everyone on their heels. The family gets home from the iconic trip to Disney World, and the dad’s reputation is set as a man who gets his family places. But what if the kids only remember dad’s bad attitude and hard words? What are kids to make of dad’s extraordinary financial sacrifice for the trip without the ordinary kindness that makes a trip such fun? To kids, the conflict is pretty obvious.

To God, the conflict is pretty obvious. An extraordinary act of faith like fasting means little if it is not marked by ordinary faithfulness. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus dealt with the same attitude of fasting, except here those doing the fasting wanted to be seen as fasting and, more important, uncomfortable for God. Jesus calls for ordinary life: comb your hair, clean your face, go through a day with ordinary faithfulness. That is, your faith in God is not a costume you put on. It is not merely a day, not merely an act of fasting, not merely picking out for God the largest piece of candy in the box.

Practically, it means this. While we may daydream about trusting God in some extraordinary way, God expects that we follow Him through the ordinary round of prayer, Scripture reading, church, giving, checking on one another, and sharing our faith. He expects that we recognize sin in ourselves and change what must be changed. Faith has its mountain-top, thin-air moments, but faith is primarily lived in the ordinary air of the plains.

When God seems silent, the ordinary is the place to begin the inventory. Are you reading your Bible? If you are reading, why are you reading it? Are you praying? Why do you pray and what do you say? How do you spend your money and why? Is church a means to worship and serve others? Are you available for God’s use for sharing the gospel? This ordinary faith extends to your people, too. My relationship with God is revealed in the voice I use with my family as well as the gas station attendant. For all the ways we think that faith is waiting somewhere else and with someone else, we are challenged to practice an ordinary faith that creates faithfulness.

Second, let us read from Isaiah 58:6-9

“Is this not 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? 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? 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. Then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I.”

The second question we ask when seeking a fresh voice from God is:

#2 Am I hoarding compassion?

God states that the kind of “fasting” He desires is not a private hunger but a public lunch. And you’re the cook. Make no mistake, these are dicey situations: injustice, oppression, hunger, poverty, homelessness, and your family’s need. More, the actions are complicated: loose chains, untie cords, set free, break yokes, share food, provide shelter, clothe the naked, turn toward family. Even if everyone is willing, these are not easy scenarios. This is the world of interruptions, long lines, longer stories, apologies, and reaching for your wallet. It is a world that requires you to look at people and consider them as fully human as you are. More, as the parable of the sheep and goats tells us (Matt. 25:34), caring for them is caring for Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong. Compassion won’t necessarily change the problems. But to withhold compassion is to withhold the gospel and withhold from another what is the great ocean of change in your life. God’s compassion is the heart of your own story in Jesus. You are breathing the air of the forgiven because God had compassion on you. He is the one who humbled himself and became obedient even unto death for your sake (Phil. 2:6-8). He was the good Samaritan that stopped on the road to help you. He was the shepherd that left the ninety-nine on the hill to seek you out. He is like the father who grants you, the prodigal son, a homecoming welcome of mercy, not judgment, when you seek him.

Note in the passage that light, healing, and righteousness await you as you show compassion, not as you hide in a cave with your Bible. The paradox is that by taking a less secure position through life you find God’s security carrying you through life.

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