2. Obedience or sacrifice
God knows, and he and not the circumstances, has your and my situation in his hand and you can turn to him and ask him for help. In the face of this encounter with God, Isaiah falls to the ground like dead and that is a reaction that runs through the Bible. Wherever people meet God, they think they must die because God is so great and so holy and they realize that they cannot exist before him.
I don’t know if that’s the picture we have of God or if we didn’t make him so small and put it in a box and just let him out, have a say, ask him for something if it suits us. I think we need an encounter with God like that. And I don’t mean that we have a picture of God where we are only afraid of him and think he is an evil God. There is such a thing and enough people also have such a picture of God. Then the other side is missing. With Isaiah it becomes clear that God is not interested in getting us ready, but He wants the best for us. That’s why he raises Isaiah in his grace, that’s why Jesus comes to earth to die for our guilt on the cross that if we accept that, we can call him friend and meet God. The book of Isaiah mysteriously deals with this announced savior and repeatedly shows God’s real intentions and how much God loves us. This is the second good news that we saw last week that God wants to save people and enable relationships.
But: Today our tendency is often that we have made God so small and the story of Isaiah wants to shake us up. The picture that Isaiah paints that we saw last week is so different. And maybe it is a good thing to have this picture in the back of our minds when we talk to and about God, rather than just this lovely little blond Jesus boy who does not harm a fly. This is the image of what the Jews thought of God in Isaiah’s time.
Prophets have often been instructed by God to point out people’s grievances, and Isaiah does just that. And that is why Isaiah’s calling story is not at the very beginning of the book, where one might think it starts, but God’s words to his people, because they are the center of the message and because God struggles for his people to come to him reverses:
|1 The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. 2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. 3 The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’ crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.|
Knowing the word is the same as at the beginning of the Bible when it said: Adam recognized Eve. This does not mean that Adam has now read a lot of books about women and about Eve and now knows a lot about her, but is about an intensive relationship and community. And the same thing is what God longs for and what He created us for. And we notice something in it: God’s heartbeat, because he doesn’t care if people don’t want to know anything about him. It does something to him. It’s not like some people think that God doesn’t care about them. On the contrary, God loves us humans and he struggles for us. About living with us.
God had made a covenant with his people of Israel so that everyone should see how good God is from their cooperation. But the people of Israel left him. And this is expressed in two points, which Isaiah elaborates on and which, like two lines, run through the whole book of Isaiah: One is that the people no longer trust God but rather run after other idols and on their own wisdom, their own thoughts. We’ll look at that next week. Today is about a second topic. I once called it obedience or sacrifice, and during the preparation I noticed that it should actually be called relationship or sacrifice. It is a little more religious, pious. But both issues are just as relevant for us today as they were for the people of Israel. We will take a look at what God accuses his people of and what the problem is, what God actually wants from us humans and what this obedience thing is about, as the topic is called this morning.
So what does God blame his people for?:
1. The charge
Imagine if someone would get up here this morning and say: In the name of God, all your services, your house circles, your youth, your prayers, your sacrament celebration, I hate that, I can’t take it anymore. Wow, how now? That was exactly the situation at that time, only that it was bad about the religious center. Around the temple in Jerusalem. So as if we were the Christian center of Germany, had millions of viewers on the stream and a church service of several thousand people.
|11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. 12 When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them . 15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.|
Later God renews his criticism. Then it is not the temple but other forms:
|2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. 3 Wherefore have we fasted, say they , and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. 4 Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him ? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?|
|13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men|
The Israelites were proud of their temple. After all, it was still going smoothly for them, not like in the northern kingdom. But God criticizes here that it is only about forms that they adhere to, but their hearts are very far away from him. Fear of him is only a learned commandment. I have to fear and please God, so I do it through the sacrifices, as I was told, and then it’s good. And when I have done that, I have a right to have God good to me now. Then I graciously made God available. That is religion. This is how the religions of our world work. I am gracious to the gods through my performance and make them available to me so that they will do me good.
And you know, we are in the same danger as people back then. A few years ago, when we got a picture for our church for the future, it was one of two words with which God addressed our church: religiosity and the other was comfort. It is like Isaiah that God also wants to shake us up.
Religiousness can have very different forms: Religiousness can be that I think I can earn heaven. It’s an attitude that I’m actually quite good, especially compared to many others. Perhaps I will also do my pious duties. I go to church, pray, donate, even baptized.
In a slightly different way it is less about heaven than about God blessing me for what I do. If we have done something where we know that God does not like it, then we just pray a little more or we donate a little more , or we help others a little bit more. Or we just work a little harder in the community. Or like people back then, there are things that we know very well that they don’t like God, but that’s what we want. And then instead we do a lot in other areas and think that we can now compensate for the other. And then we think that now God is satisfied with us and will bless us and we may get angry if he doesn’t.
We live in a performance society. It is not difficult for us to do something. Johannes Hartl said we love fast doing solutions in our society. Go step 1,2,3, and then you will succeed. Because then I don’t have to deal with the fact that maybe something is wrong one level down. That something is wrong with my heart.
Or it may be that we do things in our religious life that have no content but are simply tradition. There is a good, but also a bad side of tradition. We go to church on Sundays because that’s how it is done. We just pray before dinner and then we do our duty. We also donate, we are pious. We are happy about the beautiful music and the sermon was so nice again. But woe, someone is destroying our beautiful tradition. Then we get upset. The service was not quite as it was for me, then we complain. We didn’t really care about the content of the service, where God wanted to speak to us, we’d rather keep that away from us. Sometimes these are just small nuances. We can be good at keeping God internally at a distance through all these superficial things. And we may secretly notice that God wants our hearts, but we don’t want that, maybe is it too tiring for us, or we are afraid of everything that comes out, and therefore we prefer to keep God at a distance. But God is amazingly unimpressed by all of our pious accomplishment. And Jesus criticizes precisely this point about the Pharisees (Luke 11,39):
|39 And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.|
All the good, because praying, reading the Bible, attending a church service, donating, helping out are not bad, but all of this can be a substitute for a deep relationship with Jesus or an escape from Jesus and his speech in your life. The degree is so narrow, we can have an appearance of piety as quickly as Paul writes to Timothy (2 Tim. 3: 5) but at a distance from God. And ultimately, only you and of course God can judge how it really looks inside you.
2. What does God want from us?
We take another look at Chapter 58 of Isaiah, which has already started:
|6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? 8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward. 9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am . If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; 10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: 11 And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. 12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. 13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it .|
At first glance, that sounds like a whole series of things that we should do. But let’s take a closer look: God wants us to take him seriously. And yes, it is correct that doing also belongs to belief, because belief always has an impact on the outside. And what we see here are signs of holistic behavior, which does not exclude individual areas. God is a God who is close to people’s hearts. He wants people to be free, this applies to you as well as others, where we impose burdens, ourselves or others, what God does not want, where we keep people small, where we point a finger at others and look down on them with contempt and talk about them. God cares about justice. He wants people to treat each other as valuable people, no matter what skin color they have. That we take care of each other and not take advantage of each other.
If we take a step back, away from all of God’s calls: What an ingenious picture of life that God has for us humans!
God says if we live like this we will be like an irrigated garden and a spring that never dries up, that always has enough for others. But an irrigated garden, a spring, has something to do with the inside, it comes from the inside. And this inside is the key to all of this. That’s why Isaiah ends up at the central point, the Sabbath. We have repeatedly spoken in the last sermons that the Sabbath was the central expression of the relationship of the Israelites to God. By telling them through Isaiah that God should pay attention to this Sabbath and how they live it, God tells them to pay attention to their relationship with him. A sign of misunderstood piety is when we cannot calm down internally. If we rely on our own strength instead of God. If we don’t take time for him, whether on Sunday or during the week. When our priorities are different. What I find so brilliant is what God promises us, namely that he wants to be our source, from which water can then flow to others. Where it is a natural movement and not an effort to live outside. Where God promises us joy. And where we should look forward to spending time with him. It is what God wants us to do, that we enjoy him, time with him, relationship with him, not distance and pious achievement. It is about the relationship with us, with you and with me.
How your heart is determined, you see in your relationships. How you deal with yourself, whether God’s love for you comes in the way you are with yourself. How you deal with others, whether God’s love reaches you through others, in your thoughts and your actions, and how you deal with God, how you live your relationship with him, whether it is characterized by distance or by joy in him.
Now I just mentioned that belief has an impact. The core is the relationship with him, but, and that sounds through Isaiah, God wants us to live as He wants. And that’s why I want to go into that again at the end
3. What does obedience have to do with our faith?
Jesus says:(John 14.10)
|If you love me, you will keep my commandments|
Many people have an impression of the Christian belief that it is about keeping rules, what I have to do and what I have to leave. We have just seen that God is concerned with something completely different, namely relationship. Jesus does not say here either: If you keep my commandments, I love you. No, he loves you 100% and you can’t do anything about it, no matter how impossible you act. Jesus loves you 100%, so much so that he came to this world to show us that. So much so that he died on the cross for our guilt, all that where we didn’t follow God’s commandments.
Imagine a son who stole something from his father’s business. If, after spending everything, he returns to the father and sincerely asks for forgiveness, the father has the right to forgive him. But that’s not all. The accounts are not yet balanced. Someone has to pay for the stolen things. God does that for us. It enables us as humans to relate to God again. Sin and the perfect God did not go together. But now that he has paid for himself, you have spoken fairly in his eyes.
But this example also shows why obedience is important. Love is also shown in the fact that I take someone seriously in what is important to them, what is important to them, what they want. Apart from the fact that it is good to take a holy God seriously and that God’s motivation is even more so that if we take him seriously, he will be fine, that he knows how life works and us and our fellow human beings from wanting to go to ruin. Just as parents have an overview and children do not understand everything yet, and if my child plays nicely on the railroad tracks, I will still tell him that it should get out of there to protect it. But it’s always about the relationship behind it as the core of the whole. God wants a relationship that is undisturbed and he gives us an earthly example of it. When we think of our own family, we find that our relationship will never change: We are always the son or daughter of our parents. But the community can change depending on how we behave with each other. It can be wonderful or destroyed. Our decisions and behavior have an impact on our community. When we do something that our parents don’t want, it disrupts the relationship. The same applies to God: If we do not obey, there is something between him and us. We then notice that. We have a bad conscience, there is distance. It is not always the case with our parents that what they want is good. That is the difference to God. God tells his people that he cannot end their fasting days and that he does not hear their prayers because they hold on to their sins and because this guilt is like a wall between God and them. But God wants our relationship to be undisturbed, so this wake-up call goes to His people to repent, repent and leave their sins, and turn their hearts back to God. Jesus cleared the way for this.
Imagine I tell my daughter to do homework, she comes out afterwards, Papa, I have painted a picture for you. Sweet, ok. But actually I didn’t want her to paint me a picture, but to do her homework. Sometimes in our lives we do what God doesn’t like and make sacrifices in return. That we can forego something or do a lot of good for him. God says you don’t need that. It’s not about pious lip service, it’s not about sacrifice, it’s not about keeping the rules. It’s about the relationship and about taking God seriously in what he says.
I would like to do this again very concretely and you can apply the example to all other areas of your life. But I take this example because I keep seeing that people don’t take God so seriously at this point and have all kinds of excuses. The message of the book of Isaiah is that God wants to save us humans. When God tells us to tell everyone about His offer of salvation, I can react differently. I can feel it as a joy and an appreciation that God is giving me such an important assignment, or as pressure. Maybe that’s not good news for me because I can’t feel such joy about God with all my heart. I always talked about an ice cream parlor where there was free ice cream for all children on the last day before the winter break and I told everyone I liked. But if that’s not the case for me, then I shouldn’t just push it away and feel it as a burden, but first start with my relationship with God and ask myself: Must you why don’t I feel that way? Why is there no joy there? Why isn’t there this water source that gushes to other people?
Some say I can’t do it or it’s hard for me. I try, but I keep failing, also transferred to other areas of our lives. And I can understand that so well. Some then wonder if God still loves and wants to use them. And they withdraw from God. Others talk out and say that’s only for certain people. Not for me. And they invest in other areas. It is nothing more than sacrifice, wanting to compensate for what I said earlier.
But how can I deal with it? The same in all other areas? If you realize this morning, you have distanced yourself from God. Or maybe you have always thought that faith is just that, living in traditions, and today you are realizing for the first time that it is something completely different, namely a relationship with God and not any sacrifices that you make? The reaction that God wants is for us to open ourselves up to him. That we come to him with everything that is in us, honestly hold our hearts out to him and ask him for change and help. That we develop a heart that says: I want to live in a relationship with you. And I want what is important to you to be important to me. And where that is not yet the case or where I can not get it, I do not want to close myself to you, but I need your help that you change me.
And I invite you to just listen to what is in there during the next song.
I said earlier that only God and you can really judge that. And if you notice that there is distance, there is more this belief in performance than this belief in relationships, then take the next song as a prayer to clear out guilt that stands between God and you and to hold your life completely new to God. He loves you and he longs for you, not for your performance.