Isaiah 58: 1-9 (page 617 in our pew Bibles). God condemns our hypocrisy in seeking him yet at the same time ignoring his commands. A lot of us, including a lot of ministers, are in constant danger of being functional atheists. just like the ancient Israelites as the words of Isaiah describes it. By which I mean that the words, creeds, prayers, sacraments, and hymns, appear to leave no impact on their character or nature or outlook whatsoever.
1 Corinthians 2: 1-16 (page 952 in our pew Bibles) Christians come to an awareness of the wisdom of God through the gift of the Spirit of God. It is a Spiritual gift and not something we work for. Rather it is to be prayed for.
Matthew 5: 13-20 (page 810 in our pew Bibles) There is no compromise in Matthew's gospel which can be very appealing as well as disturbing. We are called to be different, and part of this difference is to practice righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the pharisees. Jesus came not to destroy but to fulfill the law and the prophets, and He interprets the law even more rigorously for his followers in the sermon on the mount.
In Isaiah we have what could be one of the most insightful pieces on the difference Jesus makes to religious practices written hundreds of years before Jesus was born.
It is not the religious practice itself that has any validity of its own but the Spirit of the practice that has practical consequences that underlies it.
Verses 6 -8 of today’s except from Chapter 58 very clear. The practice of fasting is not rejected but the true Spirit behind it is expressed only through the “doing” of righteousness.
The practice of fasting is useless unless it is backed by a reaching out to the oppressed, practicing Justice expressed as sharing our bread with the hungry.
This is a profound insight as we will be entering the period of Lent soon which is a period of fasting.
The lesson we might take from this is not that the practice of fasting has died out, not just in secular society but also within the churches as well – and this is a bad thing. If we interpret Isaiah correctly, God doesn’t care whether we fast quite so much as he cares as to whether we practice his sense of justice, the spiritual underpinning of the fasting process.
Jesus himself has no problem in fasting. Jesus says in Matthew 6:17 “When you fast” not if you fast but then goes on to decry those who do so in the wrong Spirit, for public recognition rather tha anything real or godly.
So what is Jesus and Isaiah both arguing for? It is personal integrity – thought, word and deed going together. Our faith must have practical outcomes or it is, as Jesus described it – hypocrisy.
That is a Greek word that means you are an actor because our faith is an act and our religious practices are empty. There must be real life consequences.
It is just as Jesus said in Matthew “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored. It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet”.
Jesus then explains his whole relationship with the law that echoes exactly what Isaiah said. Jesus did not come to get rid of the law – he came to fulfil it and to reveal the spiritual underpinning of the law as the most important thing.
This was the very core of his fight with the Sadducees and Pharisees, who amplified exacting devotion to religious practices like fasting and ritual purity above all things.
The best example of that I think is when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath and the religious people thought that was terrible because Jesus had broken the strict Sabbath observance law and “worked” on the Sabbath.
The sermon on the mount is reckoned to be some of the finest Spiritual truths ever uttered but if you read on to the end of this chapter in Matthew you will notice something which can hit people rather hard.
You just need to look on Jesus’ next teaching on the law that says “Thou shalt not kill or murder”.
Jesus explains the spiritual underpinning of this law and says that even if you’ve ever been angry it is exactly the same in God’s eyes.
Jesus makes it much tougher and by the time you have got to the end of chapter five you are certain that God’s righteousness and purity, which underpins the law is so Holy that you probably fall short of it every day of your life.
This is why Christianity says that (1 John 1:8) “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”.
The standard set by God is so high that we constantly miss that high standard and we are all sinners. The word we translate as sin in the new testament is hamartia which means “missing the mark” falling short of the standard.
But in our reading from 1 Corinthians we have the answer to that problem. God’s standards of purity are so high that we all miss and we all deserve God’s judgement. But God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to take the judgement on all of us, on himself and die in our place instead.
Faith in His love for us revealed on the cross as Paul writes is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Don’t put your faith in worldly wisdom, which has no power, put your faith in the Love and promises and action of God who expressed his wisdom in Jesus Christ on the cross who died that we might live.