Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you: the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.
The final verse of our scripture today should be familiar to most of us. Some months ago we discussed the yoke that we people of faith continually put on ourselves. The pointing finger and the speaking of evil. These were ways that we could escape our own culpability. Or, if we were not worried about escaping blame to at least feel better about ourselves at the expense of others. At the time we discussed the greatest obstacle to our repenting as a lack of honesty about where we were in life – opting to blame others rather than look within ourselves.
Today we read the opening injunction of God’s case against God’s people. God was not just concerned with the people placing blame, God was also concerned about their tendency to see themselves as innocent of all guilt. They came before God and said, “Lord, we are so good, we are well behaved and we do all our religious duties, but you still won’t give us the time of day. What’s going on?” Of course, when we frame it this way, we caricaturize the people of God. Generalizations, like finger-pointing, are easy to do after all. When we want to we can talk about the overly religious people we know, those who have the form of righteousness but none of the substance.
Already in describing the principle of these, “fake” religious practitioners some of us will begin conjuring up examples in our head. Maybe that minister we don’t like on the radio. Perhaps the young radical minister who is involved in politics we do not agree with. Public officials and world leaders who we have written off as abusers of the title, “Christian,” without having the clout to justify their use of it. While it is good to be aware of when we are being taken advantage of by people who claim to be part of the church, this is not the primary purpose of such prophetic calls. We must turn the mirror inward before we ever look outward. We must take Isaiah’s words here and apply them to ourselves.
Isaiah gives us an image of the people of God that should remind us of ourselves. They are people who love God and desire to know God’s ways. They pray and they fast and they look to see how God is moving in the world. The literal rendering of the phrase, “Delight to know your ways,” is, “They delight to see how you act.” In other words, the people of God are not just looking for rules about how they should live – they want to know how God lives so that they can model that behavior. Isaiah here does something that we are not often willing to do, he establishes the good intent of the sinful people around him.
We often want things to be cut and dry, black and white, in our discussion of moral behavior. Either a person is completely good and well-intentioned or reprobate and bent on evil. Now, I am not sure about you, but I can count on one hand the number of people I have met who were simply bad for the sake of being bad. I can think of many more people who were misguided and who acted in evil ways to do what they thought was best. Think of all those people throughout history who did what they thought was for, “The greater good,” only for us to look back and be able to see clearly how misplaced their actions really were.
We could draw from extreme examples throughout history that muddy the water rather than clarify anything, and so let us look at a simple story of right intent going very wrong. Thomas Midgley Jr. was an inventor in the early 1900s. Midgley was a chemist who developed revolutionary treatments that allowed for revolutionary industrial developments. The first allowed for gasoline to run in cars without knocking, the second allowed for aerosol cans to be produced en masse.
Midgley set out to revolutionize how we live. His inventions allowed for mass transit and for refrigeration and compression of gases. Unfortunately, the two things he had invented were leaded gasoline and Chlorofluorocarbons. The former invention filled the developed world with lead – causing low-grade lead poisoning in generations of people. The latter invention would lead to the destruction of the Ozone layer over Australia. No single organism, not since the first photosynthetic microbe eons ago, has produced more atmospheric disturbances than Midgley.
Now, no one could look to Midgley and say that he had purposefully done something evil. It would be years before research into these inventions would show their true danger. However, had he known and acted things would be different. Understanding consequence can make a difference in how we treat a person’s actions. Can a person who does not know the damage they do be held accountable? That is a big question, but or Midgley the answer, I think, is no.
Isaiah presents the people of God, and that includes us, as fully aware of what we have done. We are cast as those who have good intent but have neglected to acknowledge the wrong that we know we are doing. Isaiah, voicing God’s frustration, puts it this way. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
In other words, God highlights what the people are doing as fundamentally a show of humility without the substance of humility. The fasts and the prayers are a show because the people have forgotten what makes upright action. It is not in abuse of self or displays of abject humility, but in doing good toward other people. The well-intentioned people of God have forgotten that right intention only ever gets you as far as imagining good for other people and never actually doing it.
As we said earlier, the people of God wanted to see how God acted. The problem is that having found themselves in the safe comfort of their own imaginative intentions, they began to imagine rather than look at what God wants from them. “Clearly God,” said the devout worshipper, “Would want me to show my faith loud and proud. I make sure I fast twice a week. I make sure that I mourn my sins and say my prayers just as I am supposed to. My eyes are wet constantly from my knowledge that I am a sinner and I am not up to snuff, and I am the humblest I ever could be. I am exactly what God wants.”
The ancient worshipper and those of us seated here today are no different. We adore esteeming ourselves as wretched creatures. We embrace our sackcloth and ashes because if we think of ourselves as nothing but worms it means that anyone who thinks better of themselves than that is proud in comparison. If we believe this then our inevitable failings are covered in our own self-awareness. We excuse ourselves of all evil because at least we are not like those people doing those things over there!… and just like that we have a pointing finger. How strange. That no matter how long we sit and talk about our sinfulness, we begin to see that finger forming to free us from any actual responsibility.
The scripture we read today is clear that our good intentions are not enough. It is also clear that we should not discredit them. Each person gathered here today desires God in their heart. If we are honest, a great deal of people out there desire God and want to see God fulfilled in their life. The thing that prevents us from changing, from loving, from working, is the pointing of the finger that happens when we stop at imagining good for other people and not acting upon it.
God tells God’s people, God tells us, that the only fast that truly matters is a change in our hearts that frees other people. God describes our tendency to pray in church and proclaim to the world our love of God and neighbor, all while feeding into systems that hurt both parties. We are a people who salute companies for paying several million dollars in ads for commercials that support our values, instead of using that money to see them lived out. We are a people who will talk for days about how the media and a lack of prayer in school are hurting our children, but when we get the chance to talk to them take that time to insult and degrade them.
We are not well-intentioned people ignorantly causing pain. We are well-intentioned people who, unable to accept that our current ways are wrong, just change the facts to say they are actually doing good. We are not like Thomas Midgley Jr. we are like the people in Judah we read about today. We oppress our siblings on the Sabbath, we support political, legal, and social systems that choke the poor under unyielding yokes, and we do whatever we can to make ourselves feel like the heroes even as the world burns under the heat of our conduct.
As we near Lent, now just seventeen days away, we need to think about what it will mean to us. In this period of prayer, fasting, and repentance are we going to give up something that will show the world how good we are? Give up chocolate of Facebook, or any number of other things that we can proudly tell people we were strong enough to overcome? Or will we engage in a real fast, giving up those comforts we are not always willing to admit we enjoy? Will we give up our hoarded wealth for the cause of the poor, give up our security to let the stranger feel secure, give up our power and privilege to free the oppressed. Will we take off our yoke or not?