Since true worship that pleases God is not sacrifice alone nor mercy alone, but sacrifice and mercy together, we must repent of our one-sided false worship, trust in Christ the true worshiper, and imitate his example.
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Introduction – In the Bible Belt there are three questions people always ask each other when they first meet: (1) Where are you from? (2) What do you do? (3) Where do you go to church? We are all comfortable answering such questions when strangers ask, but what if God asked you? The 1st and 3rd questions would be easy enough, but how would you answer “What do you do?” As a Christian, you believe in God, trust in Jesus for forgiveness of sins, and worship him. But what do you DO? What in particular do you do as a follower of Jesus? Suddenly the question is unsettling. What you DO matters greatly to God. We read in the Bible (and know from experience) that it is possible to be a very religious person but to be socially indifferent—or worse, socially malicious. Isaiah 58 is a rebuke of worship activity devoid of mercy and a promise of blessing if God’s people repent and obey. Religious people often do spiritually impressive things expecting God will reward them, but God ignores this kind of worship when it is not accompanied with mercy for the needy. Since true worship that pleases God is not sacrifice alone nor mercy alone, but sacrifice and mercy together, we must repent of our one-sided false worship, trust in Christ the true worshiper, and imitate his example.
A. The Preacher’s Duty: Proclaim God’s Word (vv. 1-2)
1. Sometimes God’s Word is a sharp rebuke
OT prophets were called and commissioned by God to prophesy to his people Israel. In the same way, NT preachers are called and commissioned by God today to preach to his people (the Church). Notice also that the task of the prophet-preacher is also the task of the Holy Spirit as he brings conviction of sin and comfort when relationship is restored.
2. Sometimes the rebuke is aimed at respectable religious people
Israel’s confession of faith and religious activity are plausibly sincere. They have covered all the bases: their worship appears God-centered, truth-loving, living in faith-based community, obedient to God’s word, and controlled by the regulative principle (using proper means of worship). Yet God sees that their right hand is taking back what their left hand is doing. Israel is blind to their hypocrisy, so they need the prophetic word to reveal how their religiosity is in fact wicked.
Evangelical and Reformed Christians generally take God’s word seriously but often fall into this trap. We pride ourselves in a piety and worship that are reformed according to Scripture, but there are other equally important areas where we act like the hypocrite. How are we like Israel in this passage? (1) Go to church, (2) pray regularly, (3) have “daily “devotions”, (4) love to listen to good preaching, (5) delight to know God’s ways, and (6) actually enjoy in these things. Our society would say people like this are “very religious.” Matthew Henry writes, “Men may go a great way towards heaven and yet come short; nay, may go to hell with a good reputation.” The point is that your personal piety actually aggravates your sin (makes it worse in the eyes of God) because it transforms you into a Pharisee and a hypocrite. But we should take comfort that God changes the hearts of hypocritical religious people like you and I through the proclamation of his word.
B. The People’s Duty: Offer Worship Pleasing to God by Combining Faithful Sacrifice with Loving Mercy (vv. 3-7)
1. True fasting (one form of sacrifice) is related to showing mercy
What kind of worship does God accept? When his people express genuine sorrow for their sin (Ps 51:16-17). God does not desire devotion to religious ritual in itself, but a humble heart and a broken spirit over one’s sin. Specifically, a true fast should promote and not hinder your efforts to crucify the sinful nature. It is not enough to act the part of repentant sinner (many are quite adept at fooling others and themselves with their feigned repentance). You must possess both the form and substance of true faith. Your piety must also have form (the appearance) and substance (sincere faith and works; cf. Amos 5:21-24). Simply, a true fast is to sacrificially love those in need. How does your feeding the hungry make a fast? If you give to the hungry from your own food, then he eats and you do not! How does sheltering the homeless make a fast? If you offer lodging in your own home, that is a greater sacrifice than driving them to the homeless shelter. How does providing clothing make a fast? If you cloth them from your own closet (or from your own wallet), that is a greater sacrifice than asking others to donate clothing.
To fast in such a way that is pleasing to the Lord is to fix what we break, right what we wrong, give restitution to those we have sinned against, remove the heavy yoke that burdens the oppressed, and break the same yoke so its power to burden is broken. If you ask, “Who have I oppressed?” remember the story of the Good Samaritan—whoever you find in your path is your neighbor. If your neighbor needs help (even if you did not contribute to his being in need) then you are obligated to love your neighbor as yourself.
2. Old Testament Israel failed to offer worship pleasing to God
Notice Israel is actually boasting that they are more righteous than God! Yet they reveal their true motive in worship by asking why they should continue if God will not take care of them. They are not serving God out of love for him, but out of the desire for material blessing, protection, and the right to do as they please to others (either being oppressive or aloof). A sure sign of insincere faith is when one complains to God and feels justified in giving up on God when life doesn’t go his way. “I don’t feel like serving God anymore because he let ______ happen to me.” If you catch yourself thinking and saying such things, then know for sure that you are selfishly using God. God is the Lord, not a cosmic genie!
The proper orientation of worship is response. The Israelites in this passage appear to be worshiping God according to the biblical model, but they are actually worshiping like Canaanites—attempting to manipulate God to their own ends (cf. Saul in 1 Sam 15:1-23; a Pharisee in Mk 12:13-15a). God calls sacrifice that is alone rebellion and arrogance, like divination and idolatry. The OT reveals that obedience apart from sacrifice is impossible for sinners, who cannot fully obey without relying on the sacrifice and obedience of another.
3. Religious people today (both conservative evangelicals and liberal mainliners) fail to offer worship pleasing to God
We think we’re not like Israel, but religious people today are in danger of the same response. We dare not apostatize like our mother churches and denominations have done. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie—that all God requires is to love your neighbor; believe in God is optional! But we commit the opposite sin in more subtle ways by omission and commission.
Regarding sins of omission, take for example how evangelical Christians reason that such calls to action are nothing more than social and theological liberalism in disguise. So we feel justified in shutting our ears and contenting ourselves with personal piety, Bible study, fellowship, and Sunday morning worship. By and large, this has been the tendency of the evangelical church for at least 100 years—to leave the task of caring for the poor and oppressed to the mainline churches and the government. Regarding sins of commission, we are often guilty of pointing our fingers at others in derision and talking maliciously about them at arms length. Actively showing mercy, being compassionate, and rectifying systemic injustices for the poor and oppressed (either those in the kingdom of God or those on the outside) is to reflect the heart of God. Jesus himself explained that justice, mercy, and faithfulness are more important than things like meticulously tithing your income (Matt 23:23-24).
4. Only the Lord Jesus Christ offers worship pleasing to God
Jesus was a man who perfectly practiced what he preached. He preached a message of deliverance (Lk 4:16-21; cf. Isa 61:1-2) from spiritual bondage to sin—and release from the relational and physical damage that sin causes. His practice on earth included healing the sick (Mt 10:8), feeding the hungry (Mt 14:13-21), offering water to the thirsty (Jn 4:10; 7:37-39), having compassion on the oppressed (Jn 9:35-41), and saving the poor in spirit (Lk 7:36-50). Now ruling from heaven, Jesus continues combining faithful sacrifice and loving mercy in true worship that is perfectly pleasing to God (1 Cor 1:4-9).
C. The Lord’s Duty: Keep His Covenant Promises (vv. 8-14)
1. Covenant curse for those who trust in the merit of their own sacrifice or mercy
Some may not trust in their own merit, but rather think they’re doing God a favor by ignoring or stepping on the oppressed. If you find yourself either trusting your own righteous acts of worship or mercy, you must see that the covenant curse for disobedience looms in the background. We all tend to justify our actions and excuse our inaction. It is human nature, but there is a price to pay. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus graphically illustrates the end result of religious people who do not practice mercy (Mt 25:31-33, 41-46).
2. Covenant blessing for those who trust in the merit of Christ and imitate him
God rewards true fasting with true blessing. How sweet will the Lord’s blessing be when it finally arrives? Like the breaking of the dawn after a long, dark night. The path to glory must wind through the land of servant mercy. This is the path of Christ, and we are to follow his ways (Mk 9:33-37). We can expect new beginnings (Isa 58:8a), healing (v 8b), security and righteousness (v 8cd), and intimate relationship with God (v 9a). True worshipers will inherit the kingdom of God (Ps 37:11; Mt 5:5), peace, prosperity, and the presence of God forever (Mic 4:1-7; cf. Isa 65:17-25; Rev 21:1-5).
3. A note on honoring the Sabbath (the Lord’s Day)
This injunction to observe the Sabbath is not a tack-on to the message of piety and mercy. Rather, ignoring the Sabbath is a sign of a deeper sin—a lack of respect for the authority of God. In effect, God has made true Sabbath keeping the litmus test for true worship. The Sabbath, as a day set apart from the rest of the week, calls for careful, thoughtful living. Although it may not be obvious in our entertainment-saturated culture where over-stimulation is literally at our fingertips, the Sabbath rest is not a fast but a feast. Israelites kept the Sabbath by resting from their regular labors for one whole day. Israelites ceased from work and commerce (Neh 13:15-22; Jer 17:21-27), but they certainly participated in joyful recreation. Sabbaths were holidays. In the new covenant honoring the Sabbath surely includes meeting weekly for corporate worship as Christ’s Church (Heb 10:24-25).
Selfishly claiming for yourself the one day God requires as holy exposes a selfish and hypocritical heart. Honoring God and his Sabbath demonstrates your willingness to crucifying your selfish desires. Keeping the Sabbath is a biblically sanctioned way to demonstrate to God and the world that your time is not your own but belongs to him.
Ministries of mercy and gospel preaching are currently being done on Sunday evenings here at HPC. HMS Kids Club ministers to our children, but also to a group of children in our community—many who are poor and have little exposure to the gospel. This ministry is difficult but the blessing is overflowing into rejuvenated fellowship, new friendships, renewed zeal for serving God, and heighted dependence on God for grace and strength.
Conclusion – Worship that pleases God is true Sabbath keeping and true sacrificing for others. God’s message to us through the prophet Isaiah is a clarion call to WAKE UP! Some of you will need to completely reorient your understanding of what it means to be a faithful Christian. You’ll need to repent of your complacent, selfish, out-of-touch-with-the-world version of serving God. You’ll need to pray that God will give you grace to trust in Christ’s worship of sacrifice and mercy, and trust him to give you spiritual strength to imitate the example of Jesus.