This talk was given by Neil Banks on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
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Before the talk, Isaiah chapter 58 was read from the CEV (Contemporary English Version).
This morning, primarily I’m going to focus on verses 6 to 12, but let’s just go back to those first few verses and remind ourselves. Because here is God telling Isaiah to cry out loudly and declare to the house of Jacob their sins in spite of all their overt and enjoyable worship and their dedicated fasting. This is not pleasing to God because he sees what is really going on. He sees the hypocrisy of what they are doing in his name. Ouch, God’s people don’t see the trap they’ve fallen into. They are trying to pray and fast their way out of it without seeing first the error of their ways.
How many churches pride themselves on the ambience they create for their worship, the impressive buildings, theatrical lighting, the mood music? Some of our biggest Christian Church fellowships pre-COVID were akin to attending a stadium gig. Thousands of people gathered together, clearly being moved by the worship they were taking part in, probably feeling drawn, ever closer to God. There’s nothing wrong in coming together to worship and, as Christians, we should keep the Sabbath, but in today’s passage, God’s warning to all of us who worship is clear. Your most zealous religious practices could be exposed to sham if that’s all there is to it. Don’t just become another episode of Songs of Praise.
When I was preparing this message, the image that kept coming into my head was of all the closed churches up and down our country and across the world. Many of these buildings are beautiful and ancient, dripping with ornate statues, gold leaf, precious artefacts. I can remember the horror, seeing the images of Notre Dame in Paris being engulfed by flames. A beautiful and historic building that was almost lost into the fire. The latest estimates are that it will cost around a billion dollars to rebuild and restore this cathedral. Financial pledges of over $700 million have already been given towards this cost.
Of course, I recognize the importance that our places of worship have as gathering places for fellowship and community. We celebrate, remember, and mourn in these buildings. Like at Main Street, many of these are also home to community centres, cafes, debt relief, support groups, and food banks. They form part of our Christian outreach to the wider world. Beautiful and historic as Notre Dame undoubtedly is, should that much money be spent on a religious building? I’m not sure that this would be pleasing to God. Based on our passage today, I suspect he’d want to move on from the tragedy, and use the money to make a lasting difference to those who need it far beyond those ancient walls.
As a fellowship, we’ve kept going even though we haven’t gathered in our church buildings since March. Does it matter? For many, it does because we enjoy gathering together for the act of worship and to be in each other’s company, and it’s something that by, and large, we haven’t been able to do since March. We’re still worshipping online, and although strange, I’ve found that sense of togetherness even though virtual remains. We know from Matthew 18:20, that when two or more are gathered in the Lord’s name, he is there with us. No temple required.
Max Lucado, in his book, Outlive Your Life says, “Long before the church had pulpits and baptisteries, she had kitchens and dinner tables.”[page 55] Even a casual reading of the New Testament unveils the house as the primary tool of the church. The primary gathering place of the church was the home. The early church, with its varied backgrounds, got along without the aid of sanctuaries, church buildings, clergy, or seminaries. They did so through the clearest of messages, the cross, and the simplest of tools, the home.
Something holy happens around the dinner table that will never happen in a sanctuary. In a church, we see the backs of each other’s heads. A round the table, we see the expressions on faces, and even on Zoom, I can look at you now. Church services run to the clock, around the table there’s more time to talk. When you open your door to someone, you’re sending this message, “You matter to me and to God.” You may think you’re saying, “Come around for a coffee,” but what your guest hears is, “I’m worth the effort.”
For me, the strength to the Bible is in the simple God-given messages that come up again and again. Throughout our school and early lives, important messages were repeated and reinforced to help us learn. Why? So we didn’t forget them, and it could apply what we’d learned as we went out into the big wide world. As a society, we want our pilots, health workers, architects, engineers, et cetera, to remember those important messages that go with their chosen profession, so they can their job properly and bring benefit as a result. Through the Bible, God wants us to be exposed to his key messages, time and time again, so that we apply them in our daily lives when we go out into society to do our job properly and bring benefit as a result.
You’re probably already familiar with the golden rule, the central message of Jesus’ teaching. It’s there in Matthew 7:12, treat others as you want them to treat you. This is what the law and the prophets are all about. It’s there in Luke 6:31, treat others just as you want to be treated. This crystal clear golden rule also runs through Old Testament scripture in Leviticus 19:18, stop being angry, don’t take revenge. I am the Lord, and I command you to love others as much as you love yourself. In Hebrews 13:2, be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests without even knowing it.
What does all this have to do with today’s message? Well, in verses 6 to 12, we have that clear, simple message coming through loud and clear. Love others as you love yourself, and as you love God. For Jesus, the love of God and a neighbour were one and the same, inseparable, and interlinked. This is where things are going wrong for God’s people in today’s passage. They’re loving the experience of seeking God, worshipping him, and showing their piety to others, but that’s not what God wants.
The reference to water in verse 11 is powerful. Good water is no use in the reservoir. If a river is dammed up, the land downstream becomes dry and cannot sustain life. It ends up as desert. Isaiah 58 tells us that God doesn’t want reservoirs. He wants his spirit to flow to us and through us. That way his spirit can sustain and nourish way beyond his followers and out into the world.
If we pour ourselves out for others, God promises to make us like a watered garden. That is, we will receive the water we need for refreshment, but even more, we will be a spring of water that does not fail for others and for the demanding, exhausting ministry that Jesus himself taught us while he was living here among us. Why does God want it to be this way? Why does he want us to be this way? Well, in one word, love. God is love. Romans 5:8 says, but God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful.
In Paul’s message last week, he spoke about the word Shalom, and how the depth of meaning of the word didn’t translate into our English word, peace. Well, let’s consider the depth of the word love. In English, the word love has to cover everything from what you might think about chocolate, a new car, haircut, shoes, right up to how you feel about your partner, or family, or God. It’s difficult to understand where love your neighbour fits into that list.
When the teachings of Jesus were written down by his early followers, they were written in ancient Greek. Now, those of you familiar with the writings of C.S Lewis will recall that Greek has four words for love. Eros, romantic love; philia, friendship love, or brotherly love as it’s sometimes called; storge, family love; and agapē, sacrificial love, or as I’d suggest, generous love that you give without expecting anything in return. The early scribes didn’t have dictionaries to refer to. They looked directly to the teachings of Jesus to define what love really means.
For Jesus, agapē love was action love. I find the works of the Bible Project, and how it uses YouTube to spread understanding of the word of God in a simple, engaging way, really helpful to me. They have a video about agapē love. There’s a simple and powerful sentence in that video that says, “We wouldn’t still be talking about Jesus today if he’d only said, 7lsquo;You should love your neighbour.’ Jesus lived that way, and sought out the excluded and sidelined people in society, and showed agapē love to them, knowing they had nothing to offer in return.”
The message in Isaiah 58:6–12 is one of those clear, simple messages that we need to hear time and again. When you really take note, this is a deeply unsettling message for us. A hard message to hear. It hits like a brick. I know I don’t measure up. As Christians, we all want to receive God’s blessing, but these verses remind us that to truly receive his favour, God wants us to be the helper, not just the helped. He wants us to be a blessing to others, not just to receive his blessing ourselves.
If we’re in church singing, praying, et cetera, a person can walk in off the street, he can point to us and say, “They’re religious. They’re church-goers.” What God is saying today in Isaiah 58 is that none of that matters, if when you’re not in church, a person can’t point at you and determine that you’re a follower of Christ, that you’re living the way that God wants you to do.
Let’s just think about in our modern world. Verses 6 and 7 talk about removing the chains of prisoners who are unjustly imprisoned, free those who are abused, share your food with everyone who is hungry, share your home with the poor and homeless, give clothes to those in need, don’t turn away your relatives.
How many of us have really stopped to think about how we as a nation, a so-called majority Christian nation, welcome a stranger, show that real Christian love to those people who’re arriving in desperate poverty, desperate need with the clothes on their back. It troubles me greatly. I know I don’t have an answer, and I don’t feel I’m doing enough. I feel I just have to pray that God will guide me in that terrible situation, but it really haunts me that we have people arriving in this country to what is a harsh and cruel welcome.
I suppose, what I’m saying really is if what you do on Sunday doesn’t carry forward into Monday, then it isn’t pleasing to God, and it’s ultimately wasted effort. I feel like Jesus, we should do our utmost to be known by our agapē-action love, as simple as that.
As I say, I found this message quite personally challenging, and perhaps you have too. Some suggestions for how you might want to reflect over the coming week, perhaps find some time to think about the words of Isaiah 58 in personal prayer. Have a look at some of the things that are mentioned in verses 6:3–12. Think about how perhaps it will reveal uncomfortable issues that you might need to deal with, or hopes of a blessing that you hope that you can do with the Lord’s will.
To finish, I’d just like to pray. Lord, keep us close in our families. Keep us close to our society and the problems. Don’t blind us to the real need. Flow through us and to us, guide us, and give us those signs, speak to us, give us that nudge when there is something that you know we can make a difference to in this world. I pray this through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Max Lucado, Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (London: Collins, 1960).
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