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Something to Shout About

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As a pastor, I lead a lot of religious activity: church services, prayer meetings—you know the list. Yet I’m beginning to wonder if I’m more impressed with our religious activity than God is. The more I read the Bible, the more I get the sense that God has remarkably little interest in religious activity for the sake of religious activity. Practices deemed “spiritual” in and of themselves don’t impress the Almighty.

The people the prophet addressed in Isaiah 58 must have found the sermon unduly harsh. Day after day they were seeking God. They were eager to know His ways. They looked to God in their decision making and longed for God to draw near to them. They even humbled themselves through corporate fasting—a level of religious zeal I rarely attain.

God’s response borders on sarcasm. Evidently, their fasting was ineffective in changing their hearts, and their holy days often ended in disputes. About their fervent religion, God remarks, “‘Is that what you call a fast . . . ?’” (Isa. 58:5).

Rather than being impressed, God is concerned about their treatment of the oppressed. True religious activity changes how we treat the underprivileged. “‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice . . . to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?’” (vv. 6–7).

In the New Testament, James echoes the same message. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

Neither testament espouses a private religion that is concerned only with a vertical relationship to God. Our love for Him is shown horizontally by our love for others (Matt. 25:40; Heb. 6:10). We cannot claim to love God and not love those around us. John warns, “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

And so, God’s statements in Isaiah 58 shouldn’t surprise us. God is looking for religion that:

  • looses chains of injustice.
  • unties cords of bondage.
  • frees the oppressed.
  • breaks slavery.
  • shares food with the hungry.
  • provides shelter for the homeless.
  • clothes the naked.
  • doesn’t turn away from a family member in need (vv. 6–7).

This is the kind of activity God is interested in. This is the religious practice He rewards. Following these admonitions are some of the richest promises in Scripture (vv. 8–14). God seems to be telling His people, “Spend yourself on behalf of the needy and watch what I will do for you.”

A young couple in my church recently asked for prayer. Because many women in our city find the step between living in a shelter and obtaining permanent housing monumental, this couple is purchasing some cottages to provide transitional housing for unwed moms. This man and woman have met a few obstacles in pursuit of their dream, but they are resolute. With tears streaming down his face the husband told me, “When you make efforts to help the poor and oppressed, you hit something deep in the heart of God.”

I believe he’s right. Isaiah would agree with him as well. In chapter 58, God not only told His prophet what to say, but He also told him how to say it. “‘Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet’” (v. 1).

What message has the evangelical church—what message have I as an evangelical pastor—shouted in recent decades? “Pray! Be faithful to church! Witness! Read your Bible! Worship!” All are good religious activities. All are messages I will continue to give. But if Isaiah were still alive, what message would he shout to our church? Since God preserved his sermon for us in His Word, I believe Isaiah is shouting still.

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