Summary: True religion is not acting good but doing good.
ACTING GOOD …OR GOOD ACTIONS?
Our passage in Isaiah seems contradictory at first… the prophet is told to tell the people they are in rebellion and sin even though it says “day after day they seek God out and seem eager to know his ways”!
But God says they are a nation who just “act like” they are doing what is right and have not forsaken God’s commands. They ask God to give just decisions and they seem eager for God to come near them. But then they complain that God hasn’t even noticed how much they have fasted and how humble they have been.
Oh, but God HAS noticed their fasting….they fast but expect others whom they employ to work and not take time off to fast.
They end their fasting times in big quarrels and fist fights!
God says, “You act like this and expect your prayers to be heard? Is this what I had in mind… a public show of lying around in sack cloth and ashes as if you were really humble?”
God wanted them to “fast” all the attention from themselves and take a break from self-centeredness and look at the really down- and-out ones around them who had no food, no clothes, no shelter and no one to fight for the oppression and injustices they suffered. They hadn’t even been concerned for the plight of their own kin folks!
The point was not to put on a public show of looking dismal and hungry during their ritual fasting times, but rather to actually look FOR those who were really hungry and dismal and do something to alleviate their suffering.
They were to take an inward look at themselves and empathize with those who were forced to spend every day without food and proper clothing and live in humiliation due to no fault of their own.
Fasting had become a custom, rather than a commitment and a time to become contrite before the Lord. Their external show of obedience needed to become an internal desire to extend charity to those around them.
Fasting made them bitter, not better. In their irritableness they had fights instead of faith. They prayed for profit for themselves instead of providing for the needs of others. They needed to trade in their sackcloth for some sympathy and social justice.
I think sometimes this is really not too different from our resolutions to diet and all the moaning and groaning that goes along with it and the feeling as if we are really deprived without realizing that others around us are really hungry for any kind of food and they would happily change their circumstances for ours, getting to just CHOOSE to skip fattening foods and have the finances to make those choices.
Are we THANKFUL for our food and are we willing to spare some and share some?
Verse 10 says, “and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…”
How are we spending ourselves? That is the essential question related to all this.
The spending of oneself is not measured in terms of hours and days. It is measured in terms of energy invested.
The people in our text, as religious as they were, were in reality spending themselves on themselves. All their time and energy went into making a living for themselves and their families—promoting themselves—advancing themselves—entertaining themselves—enjoying themselves. And though they thought it was terrible that the needy were not being properly cared for by either the government or the church—they personally had no time and energy left to invest.
Fasting was supposed to be a time for self-examination. They were not supposed to be showing people how much they were suffering for God, but rather showing suffering people how much God cared about them.
God said once they were taking care of the needs of others then he would be quick to take care of their prayer requests. They would call and the Lord would answer, “Here I am!”
Look at what the Lord promises to do for them in return for their actions on behalf of the needy:
Their healing will quickly appear (prayers for illness answered)
The Lord will guide them (prayers for guidance answered)
The Lord would satisfy their needs (for sunshine and water etc.)
They would be called “repairers” and “restorers”. (Relationships would mend)
They (and we) need to see the connection between our actions and God’s commands and promises.
Now the gospel passage from Matthew this morning continues this idea of Christ-like actions in the world being a true indicator of our faith rather than ritual law-keeping.
The Christian is called “the salt of the earth.” Why?
Because salt is known for its purity, coming directly from the sun and the sea.
Pure sodium chloride does not deteriorate, it preserves and prevents putrefaction.