Scripture Text: Isaiah 58:6-12
Sermon based off of: The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Vol. 7: The Prophets II
My friends, I really only have one question for today. “What is good enough for God?” We come to worship on most Sundays. We give our offerings…however generous or not they may be. We pray…at least at church…hopefully more. Some of us go to bible studies, and some of us even study the bible at home. We donate food and money to mission projects. And some of us even give of our time and effort to support other programs, to make sure the church is maintained and operates weekly, and to serve those in our community.
But the question remains: Is that Good enough for God?”
P1: There he goes, doing it again. Questioning our faith.
Trying to make us feel guilty because we’re not embracing every charity case in the community.
P2: I’m so tired of being made to feel guilty every time I come to church.
I don’t come to church to feel guilty.
I come to church to give me a “feel good message” to get me through next week.
P3: What’s he saying? We’re not doing enough? I’ve done more than anybody else in this church for years
– since before he was born. I’ve done my fair share. Somebody else needs to do it.
P4: “What’s good enough for God?” I think what he really means is,
“What’s good enough for the pastor.” And what about him?
What if he isn’t good enough for the congregation?
The prophet Isaiah is addressing religious people who do all the right things: They fast. They observe the Sabbath. They pray. All of which – at that time, and even today – is believed to draw one close to God. Fasting was especially believed to attract God’s attention. That God would be more likely to grant you your wishes – I mean “prayers” – if you fasted. And so the people fast. Yet God doesn’t seem to notice them. God doesn’t seem to care. In fact, God is completely silent. The people feel left in the dark. Abandoned by God. And they begin to wonder:
“Why? Why isn’t God responding?
We’re doing everything right God.
Following all the proper rituals.
Praying all the proper prayers.
Avoiding work on the Sabbath.
Just like you commanded.
Isn’t all of that enough?
Is it not good enough, God?”
Being a prophet, Isaiah gets to speak for God. And so Isaiah tells the people – the “church members” of that day – “No! It’s not enough! It’s not enough for you just to fast, just to say your prayers, or just to keep the Sabbath.”
And so, God – through Isaiah – redefines the meaning of a fast.
No longer is it about sackcloth and ashes.
No longer is it about starvation to serve your own spirituality.
No longer will your religious practices prove your piety.
Instead… the new kind of fast that God calls for is to “release wicked restraints, untying the ropes of the yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke.”
The new fast that God calls for is NOT about abstaining from bread, but is about, “sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family.”
P1: I liked it better when we had Pastor Joe.
Friendly, easy-going, older guy, who made you feel good all the time,
and didn’t have too many new ideas or expectations.
P2: We do enough around here.
We’ve done plenty in the past.
We used to let that Alcoholics Anonymous Group meet here –
but then we asked them to leave when they didn’t properly clean up.
Plus, they could have stolen something. After all, they are addicts.
We have to be careful about who we let in our church.
P3: We donate plenty of money to those special offerings every year.
And we are always giving money to those homeless youth.
What more does he want?
P4: Isn’t that what we pay him to do?
To do the ministry for us?
He is the MINISTER after all.
Which actually leads me to a second question for you.
“What would it look like if this church took up the kind of fast that Isaiah is talking about?”
What would our congregation begin to look like?
Would we have homeless people – especially homeless
teenagers – sleeping on our pews in the winter?
Would we have neighborhood children coming here after school
every week – where they find loving mentors and security they
may not have elsewhere?
Would we open our doors to people who have never set foot in
any church before – much less our church?
And if we did, how would we treat them?
The people who are poor, people who are homeless and hungry,
single parents, people of color, people with addictions, people
with mental illness, people who don’t look, act, or even think
like us? Because these are the people that Isaiah is talking about.
Will we choose the kind of fast that God commands in Isaiah?
It’s NOT a question of if we are ABLE to do it or not. It’s a question of whether we are bible-believing Christians or not.
It’s a question of whether we trust in the grace of God or not. It’s a question of whether we take the Word of God – Jesus Christ – seriously or not? It’s a question of whether we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us or not? It’s a question of whether we WANT to be Disciples of Christ or not.
P1: Here we go again! – More new ideas for us to do. I’m just not comfortable talking to “those people.” How do we know that they’re not dangerous? How do we know they won’t try to hurt us or one of the kids in the church? We have to keep them safe.
P2: Why are we so focused on bringing in those people? What about all the people that have left the church since he got here? Why isn’t the pastor focused on bringing them back?
P3: Who is he to question if I take the bible seriously or not? I’m a good person. And I don’t have to prove it by helping serve homeless people in my church. I believe in Jesus. I was always taught that was enough.
P4: We’ve had homeless people here before. We’ve had people with mental illness here before. They never stick around. They always end up going somewhere else. Why are we so focused on helping them when we need to be attracting young families who can donate money to the church, keep the building open, and run our programs for us? After all, most of us are on a fixed income.
“What is good enough for God? What is a fast that is acceptable
to God?” I know that these questions are difficult and
challenging. It’s not easy to change when you don’t have to. It’s
not easy to do things in a new way when the old way always
seemed to work before. But nowhere in scripture does it ever say
that following Jesus will be easy. In fact, Jesus admits that being
his faithful disciple will be difficult. Even the actual Disciples
who followed Jesus ran away when Jesus got to the cross. Jesus
never promised us the journey of faith would be easy. Jesus only
promised us that we would never be alone on the journey of
faith. Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ will always be
Isaiah goes on to argue that if we do this, then good things will happen: “…if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, then your light will shine in the darkness, and then your gloom will be like the noon. The LORD will guide you continually and provide for you, even in the parched places…You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry.”
P1: When we tried to run a program for neighborhood kids before, they wrecked the place and things went missing. I think they may have taken those things.
P2: How are we going to fund this? There’s not enough money in the budget to take care of all these people. What about the members’ needs? How will we pay for our beloved building? How will we pay for staff to do these things for us?
P3: I just don’t think that this church is meeting my needs anymore. Doesn’t he know that if he keeps this up, more people are going to leave?
P4: What good is being a faithful Disciple gonna be when the bank account runs dry? What’s God going to do then? Make money magically appear?
My friends, I don’t have to write sermons to say that we – as
Christians – are called to step outside our comfort zones and
bring justice to those around us. All I have to do is read the
scriptures. It’s clearly there in black and white. And even when I
do all the fancy interpretation using the original Hebrew… the
call to do justice is even stronger than it is in English. So, I
invite you all to think seriously what Isaiah is saying to us here:
What is good enough for God?
What are the signs of our faithfulness to God?
What is the new fast that this congregation – that ALL who
profess faith in Christ – is called to do?
P1: Well, I faithfully come to worship every Sunday. And frankly, I’m not getting much out of it anymore. Maybe I should shop for a church that offers what I like, that sings the hymns I know, and that preaches sermons that don’t make me uncomfortable.
P2: I faithfully give my regular donation every week. And frankly, I’m not getting much of a return on my investment. Maybe I should shop for a church that meets my needs.
P3: I faithfully taught Sunday School for 10 years. I’ve done my fair share. Someone else needs to step up. I’m too old to be doing this stuff anymore. Besides, when are people going to celebrate and venerate me like we did our elders when we were kids? Maybe I need to shop for a church where they focus on the people inside the church – those who have put in their time and effort – instead of those outside the church who haven’t earned it.
P4: I wonder if what I am I doing IS good enough for God? And am I doing it faithfully? If I’m not doing enough, will I have enough courage and energy to do more? Could I start by just eating dinner at the Welcome Table on Tuesday night? Maybe that will help me to break out of my comfort zone? I heard 40 people are showing up each night. Nearly all of them are people from outside the church. Is God doing something new here? Despite all the upset, all the change, all those who left – maybe we’re not dying after all.
Perhaps we are resurrecting. Perhaps God is watering the seeds we have planted, and now we are starting to grow like the garden Isaiah spoke about. And I have a choice to make: I can either stay in the tomb of how things “used to be” or emerge from the womb as the new life that is becoming. (pause) …And I want to know how it feels to truly live again.
(Prays) Dear Jesus, call me out of the grave I have dug for myself. You are the resurrection and the life. No one comes to God, except through you. And so, I’m NOT asking you to come into MY heart and MY life. Instead, call me to come into YOUR heart and YOUR life. Make me into a faithful Disciple, following you wherever you go: to the poor, to the broken, to the outcast, …even to the cross. AMEN.