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Oct 18 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

October 17, 2010

Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,
As a nation that has done righteousness
And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
They ask Me for just decisions,
They delight in the nearness of their God.
Isaiah 58

INTRO: We cannot read this prophetic poem without a sense of surprise, even shock

It describes Israel’s spiritual quest:

  • to seek God
  • to know his ways
  • to enjoy his nearness

But right way it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong
– they have been seeking him without finding him, calling to him without receiving an answer

The poem forces us to ask ourselves serious questions about our spiritual quest
– if I were to write out my spiritual longing over theirs, it would be a perfect match
– I, too, am seeking God day by day and take joy in his nearness

A large number of Christians are looking for a spiritual life with God of greater depth that what they have found in their current religious situation
– what happens, however, if we find that God is not interested in our spiritual quest?

Verses 1-3a, A Disconnect

Verse 1: Attention-getter – a trumpet blast could not be ignored (alarm)

Verse 2: An outline of their spiritual quest:

  • “seek Me” – a main theme of Old Testament spirituality (e.g., 1 Chr. 16:0-11; Ps. 27:8; Is. 55:6; Jer. 29:13; Ho. 10:12)
  • “day by day” – not sporadically, but a discipline they built into the rhythm of their daily lives
  • “delight to know My ways” – they enjoyed learning the Torah and from the prophets
  • “As a nation that has done righteousness” – the point might be clearer if instead of  “As” we read, “As if they were“–i.e., a people who had lived up to their destiny
  • “They ask Me for just decisions” – they invoked God in court to uphold justice
  • (Here is the big one) “They delight in the nearness of God”

Verse 3, Their complaint: it hasn’t worked! – “Why have we fasted . . .?”
Here is the first indication of a malfunction
fasting is representative of all of their spiritual disciplines and exercises (we could add contemplative prayer)
– in spite of all they were doing to get God’s attention he had not seen or noticed them – He had not come through for them

Verses 3b-5, Diagnosis – a contradiction

The next two stanzas begin with “Behold” – the Lord is saying, “Look!” At what?
– look at yourselves – at what you are doing

  • “Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire”
    – if they were seeking God, how is it that what they found was exactly what they had desired?
  • “And drive hard all of your workers” – business as usual and it included the exploitation of others
  • “Behold, you fast for contention” – there was no correlation between their religious devotion and real life
    – I was once asked to mediate between two men on a Sunday morning who got into fist fight after the service in the church parking lot
    – we need to be aware of the shallow stirring of religious emotions in church, because they do not last very long
  • “You do not fast like today . . .” – their complaint had been, “You do not see . . . You do not notice” and now God says, “You do not fast like this if you want your voice to be heard on high”
    Question: How do we get our voice to be “heard on high”?
    According to Jesus, we cannot expect a reward beyond our physical and social environment if when we fast we “put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men” (Mt. 6:16)
    – our prayer and fasting have to be directed to our “Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:18)

Now we can see the problem more clearly:
– they wanted the experience God as an “add-on” to a life that was already pleasure-filled
– in the meantime, their complacence and complicity regarding injustice, poverty, and hunger revealed their lack of interest in God’s ways (even though they supposedly “delight to know” his ways, v. 2)
Walter Brueggmann observes that the word “delight” appears twice in verse 2, and says, “They loved worship”
– perhaps they had even taken God into their hearts–but only as a renter and not as the Owner
– we give renters the room we never use

Verses 6-9a, The First Conditional Clause – “If/Then” (the “if” is implied in vv. 6-7)

Verses 6-7, Lighten the burden of the laborer, liberate the oppressed and share your stuff with those in need

Verses 8-9a, “Then . . . Then”
– then they will get what they desired–God’s attention and nearness

“Here I am” is a radical declaration – it reverses normal call and answer formula of scripture where God calls and a person answers (e.g., Ge. 22:1; Ex. 3:4; 1 Sam. 3:4; Isa. 6:8)
– in answering God with “Here I am,” people were presenting themselves to him
– but here it is God who promises to present himself to them–a remarkable response to what they hoped to attain through their spiritual quest

Verses 9b-12, The Second Conditional Clause

v. 10, “And if you give yourself” – this is a true fast – it entails a real sacrifice
v. 12, “Those from among you will rebuild” – there is an irony here: the resources to rebuild come to us when we share what we have with people in need
– it is because the rebuilding project involves the whole community
– the vision of the future is a shared future – everyone owns it

This poem hit me hard
– I could choose to isolate myself from everyone and in solitude seek God in scripture, worship, prayer, and silent contemplation
– doing that, I might catch glimpses of him (or what I would mistake for glimpses of him), but my light would never “break out like the dawn” and I would never experience all that my soul desires

Verses 13-14, The Third Conditional Clause

The Sabbath is a neglected spiritual exercise (but we have been waking up to it)

13, “And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable”
– we need to learn how to honor the day, honor the present moment and open our hearts to all that is within it
– we have no Sabbath (no day when the marketplace is shut down) and with our iphone and ipads, we have no place to rest
Jon Kabit-Zinn points out that the new capabilities that our technological gadgets give us, allow us to do more things in less time, and as a consequence create new demands and expectations that we must meet in less time
Zinn wonders, “We will never be out of touch with the world. But will we ever be in touch with ourselves?”
– and, of course, we ask, “with God?”

The Sabbath forces us to stop and be in our day rather than merely passing thru it
– it sets aside time for total devotion to God – to concentrate our awareness on him
– it can also be a time to ask ourselves what we want out of life
(But keep asking the question, digging below our first and superficial answers, until we get down to the soul issues such as joy and contentment
Such things cannot be bought, but they can be lost in the attempt to get ourselves “set for life”
– what if we were to measure our wealth by our level of contentment?

14, “Then you will take delight in the LORD”
– enjoyment of God is possible, but it comes as the result of a proper quest

CONC: This poem raises the challenge of Christian spirituality:

Our progress moves in one direction, but along two different paths

  • The first path leads directly to God
  • The second path leads directly to others

The mystery is that we find they are not two paths, but one (Mt. 25:40)

One objection to contemplative spirituality is that we are not doing any good in the world if we leave it to go on an individualistic spiritual journey to God
– but to be drawn away from others in order to spend time with God is one- half of the model of Jesus left us
– we leave the company of others only to return, empowered (see Lk. 4:14)
– we adopt Mary’s role so we are able to take on Martha’s role

God wants us to accept the position in which he has placed us: between himself and others
– Jesus must prove to those without faith that he can be trusted
How? By changing the life of an ordinary person (such as yours or mine)

So we get on the path that leads directly to God and if we have any success, it is his success in winning our hearts – as Owner
– then we find that we are compelled, not by an external rule or commandment, but by an inner urgency that we experience as our own and that we we cannot shut out or ignore:

  • a single mom whose car has broken down and has no way to get her kids to school or herself to work
  • that dirty, scary man walking down street, talking into the air
  • a child who is trapped nearby, living in the nightmare of sexual slavery

Our spiritual quest turns into obedience, not to a legal code but to an inner demand that makes us jump up and say, “I must do something about this!”
– when on the path that leads directly to God, his words “pass into flesh and blood” (Helmut Thielicke)

Let’s make sure that we–those of us who have found a spiritual home in Reflexion–are on both paths
– as individuals in our daily life and as a spiritual community in our lives together

To that end, I offer the prayer I said the morning last week when reading through Isaiah 58:

Lord Jesus, give us the awareness You have always had toward people in need.
Draw our attention to those we can help, those that You want us to help.
This world is so full of poverty and pain that we could quickly exhaust our resources
without making any difference.
Please use us strategically according to Your wisdom.
We do not need to see the results, but only what it is that You are asking us to do.
Please keep us near You and in You, because if You’re pleased with us,
then we’re not concerned about what anyone else says or thinks of us.

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