Isaiah 58:1-9

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on February 5th, 2017.

How many of us would love to have a congregation that God described as a people who “seek me and delight to know my ways…they delight to draw near to God.” (Isaiah 58:2)? This congregation would certainly fill the pews and sing, joyously, week in and week out. They would be attentive listeners to our sermons, and they would pray diligently during the times of communal prayer. It would be easy to show up every week with a fresh word to tell these people because they would surely deposit praise upon praise on us following each service. Isaiah’s congregation has returned from exile and resides once again in Jerusalem – this is a people happy to worship. However, even the best of churches have those people who continually wonder why they’re doing all of this wonderful worship and yet God is not heaping praise and reward on them. This is not to say that these churches are selfish and self-righteous, but rather that we have been formed into people who expect our great efforts to be rewarded in ways congruent with our own expectations. If I put in a hard day’s work, I would expect a payment equal to that work. Worship, though, is not about us. At least it is not about performing in order that I may receive some due payment from God. This is what God speaks to the people in Jerusalem through the mouth of Isaiah. This is what God is speaking to us today.

If worship is not about our own performance, what is it really about? In his book You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith imagines an understanding of worship that is more about what God does to us and in us in the place of worship than it is about our performance. The liturgical formation that occurs through this time, then, is significant because it helps us begin to embody a new way in the world. Rightly ordered worship changes us in ways we often do not recognize. One such way it will change us can be seen in God’s words to the people in Isaiah: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (Isaiah 58:3b-4a). Thus, one approach to a sermon can be to highlight in what way Isaiah contrasts the people’s understanding of their worship through fasting with God’s contradictory understanding of fasting. However, it would be important to emphasize Isaiah’s point that rightly ordered worship forms and changes us to be people who are as Micah said last week: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

A more explicit way of making this point is to highlight the oft-rift between our praise of God and our way of life. That is to say, many of us are good at saying we want God to come into our lives and to be ever-present. How many of us, though, are equally ready for God’s presence to change us in ways that allow us to “share bread [your] bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into [your] house…” (Isaiah 58: 7a)? If worship is – as James K. A. Smith articulates – more about what God does to us then would it not make sense that fasting in order to say you fasted is missing the mark? Rightly ordered worship is that which turns us away from our own concerns and toward the concerns of God, which according to this passage in Isaiah sound remarkably like Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount that we are given as the Gospel parallel text in the lectionary this week (and last). With the Lenten season approaching this would be a great time to preach on how worship prepares us to be a people who are capable of fasting according to God’s instruction.

If you have chosen to preach throughout the Sermon on the Mount for these weeks it is provided by the lectionary then take this opportunity to mull over God’s words through Isaiah 58. Jesus’s instruction in the Sermon on the Mount is not easily lived. The people of Judah thought they were living according to God’s instruction because they were fasting, but as we see it was evident to God that their intentions were ill-formed. How many times have we read the Sermon on the Mount and said, “Yes. This is right and good!” but gone on about our lives per usual. Let the beginning of Isaiah 58 be your words as you speak to your congregation. I have noticed just in my lifetime that sermons on sin have decreased exponentially from what they used to be, but that does not mean we are free to leave them out. I am not saying to harp on sin in such a way to inspire guilt, but to ask yourself and your congregations to be uncomfortable with the reality of sin. If the call for Judah is to hear how their self-righteous worship has made them a rebellious people perhaps we should look to our own worship. Better, though, perhaps we should look to our lives to see if we are a people who are “gracious, merciful, and righteous.” (Psalm 112: 4) in order that we might know our worship is true and from God.


Brett Holmes
Pastoral Resident
First Baptist Church Richmond, VA





Tags:worship, formation, fasting, preparation

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>