In December 2015, 14 county health workers were tragically gunned down during a work Christmas party in San Bernardino, California. In the flurry of media activity in the days that followed, one newspaper front page stuck out in my mind. It was the New York’s Daily News front page on Thursday, December 3, 2015. Here is what it said:
“God Isn’t Fixing This!”
Isn’t that interesting? Around the outside of this bold headline were tweets from various politicians expressing how their thoughts and prayers were with the victim’s families and encouraging people to pray for the victim’s families.
At the time, this controversial headline divided Americans, but I think there are two statements that this newspaper made— one is untrue and the other is true.
The first statement — the untrue statement — is this: “God’s not doing his job, God is incapable of helping, God doesn’t care — so what’s the point in praying.” This is untrue. God definitely wants to help and his heart breaks for this situation.
The second statement that this paper is making — the true statement — is this: “What’s the point in praying when you have the power to help and you do nothing. You’re religious fervor is meaningless without action!” And I think, on this point, this newspaper is spot on. All the worship and prayer and church services and fasting and meaningless platitudes and liturgy, is actually pointless, useless, good-for-nothing… unless we put it into practice.
Monday is the proof of Sunday.
Religious fervor and meaningless platitudes fall short. Prayer, fasting, church attendance, worship, tithing, bible reading… whatever spiritual discipline you might fancy, (and they are all good things by the way), all mean nothing unless it leads to action. Monday is the proof of Sunday. C.S. Lewis once said:
If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions — if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before — then I think we must suspect that his ‘conversion’ was largely imaginary; Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they change our actual behaviour
You know there was a time in the Bible where the people were so caught up in their religion that they lost sight of God, and what God really wanted them to do. On Sunday, they were doing lots of worshipful, religious things, but on Monday their lives didn’t match up.
God comes along and says, “Your worship means nothing!”
You see, there is a kind of religion that God accepts, and a kind of religion that God rejects. I want to take a look at what God really desires of all people — what true worship really looks like.
A Wake-Up Call From God
There is one chapter in the Bible that provides a huge wake-up call. In Isaiah 58, the people seem to believe they are doing all the right things. They are being very religious.
They think that by fasting they will please God and bring about his favor. They’ve grown up being told that this ancient practice — this pious act — fasting and humbling oneself before God, is good. And it is. But, not on its own.
ISAIAH 58 (The Voice Translation)
The People say to God: Why didn’t You notice how diligently we fasted before You? We humbled ourselves with pious practices and You paid no attention.
God Responds: I have to tell you, on those fasting days,
all you were really seeking was your own pleasure;
Besides you were busy defrauding people and abusing your workers.
Your kind of fasting is pointless, for it only leads to bitter quarrels,
contentious backbiting, and vicious fighting.
You are not fasting today because you want Me to hear your voice.
What kind of a fast do I choose? Is a true fast simply
some religious exercise for making a person feel miserable and woeful?
Is it about how you bow your head (like a bent reed), how you dress (in sackcloth), and where you sit (in a bed of ashes)?
Is this what you call a fast, a day the Eternal One finds good and proper?
No, what I want in a fast is this:
to liberate those tied down and held back by injustice,
to lighten the load of those heavily burdened,
to free the oppressed and shatter every type of oppression.
A fast for Me involves sharing your food with people who have none, giving those who are homeless a space in your home,
Giving clothes to those who need them, and not neglecting your own family.
Then, oh then, your light will break out like the warm, golden rays of arising sun; in an instant, you will be healed. Your rightness will precede and protect you; the glory of the Eternal will follow and defend you.
Then when you do call out, “My God, Where are You?”
The Eternal One will answer, “I am here, I am here.”
If you remove the yoke of oppression from the downtrodden among you,
stop accusing others, and do away with mean and inflammatory speech,
If you make sure that the hungry and oppressed have all that they need, then your light will shine in the darkness,
And even your bleakest moments will be bright as a clear day.
The Eternal One will never leave you;
He will lead you in the way that you should go.
When you feel dried up and worthless,
God will nourish you and give you strength.
And you will grow like a garden lovingly tended;
you will be like a spring whose water never runs out.
you will discover there are people among your own
who can rebuild this broken-down city out of the ancient ruins;
You will firm up its ancient foundations.
and all around, others will call you
“Repairer of Broken Down Walls” and “Rebuilder of Livable Streets.”
Look at Me, God!
The people in Isaiah 58 somehow believe that God is letting them down. They are genuinely confused. They think God isn’t doing his job. It must have been a shock to hear the prophet Isaiah’s strong rebuke of these supposedly faithful acts.
How could God not be pleased? Why isn’t God stoked with us? We’re going to synagogue, we’re fasting and praying… I mean, come on! God… look at us! Look at all the worshipful stuff we are doing! You owe us, God!
But God doesn’t respond and they think, “God isn’t fixing this! God isn’t doing his job!”
What True Religion Looks Like
I think that this passage gives us a whole bunch of things that characterize what true religion looks like. The symptoms of a changed life are not with meaningless acts of religion, but actions that serve others and help to change this world.
I think this passage is extremely helpful for us because it gives us at least 2 really practical things that we can do. This is what real worship looks like. This is what religion that God accepts looks like. Here are the things that God values more than your song-singing:
1. God Wants You to Set People Free
In verse 6, God says,
“This is what I want: to liberate those tied down and held back by injustice, to lighten the load of those heavily burdened, to free the oppressed and shatter every type of oppression.”
Tim Keller says that justice is the grand symptom of real faith. If you want to do a little check on whether your heart is aligned with the heart of God, ask this question: Do you have a burning desire to stand up for the cause of the oppressed and marginalized in our society?
Who are the people in our society who don’t get a fair go? And who’s cause are you taking up? Who are you lending your voice to? In 2019, we have never been better equipped to actually make a difference and Christians should be leading the way. When was the last time you lent your voice to the voiceless? When was the last time you signed a petition or wrote to a politician? We are called to make a difference.
One of my favorite true stories of how a small group of people stood up against injustice, and made a big difference is this.
Tony Campolo, an evangelist and lecturer in sociology at Eastern College in the USA set an assignment in which he asked how a small group of Christians could bring about significant social change. These students focused upon the unethical practices of a massive multinational company called Gulf and Western Corporation, who were exploiting workers in the impoverished country of Haiti.
Here is the plan they came up with. Along with their professor, Tony Campolo, each student purchased a one share in Gulf and Western and showed up to the annual general meeting. As shareholders they were entitled to have a say in the running of the company, and each were entitled, by law to speak for five minutes at the annual general meeting.
One by one, each student stood up, read passages from the Bible that condemned injustice, then asked why Gulf and Western was treating the people of Haiti unjustly. They wanted the company to address the issue of low wages for the sugar workers, to do something about the fact that they’d made the country more and more dependent on a single crop, and to provide education and medical services for the people.
The purpose was to shame the directors into action, and believe it or not, it worked. The directors of Gulf and Western invited the students to meet to talk the issues over. Eighteen months later Gulf and Western released a plan to act in a socially responsible way. They would set aside substantial amounts of quality land to produce food for the Haitian people, and would institute a variety of educational programs that included working with Eastern University to develop a new university that would train teachers, lawyers, nurses, and engineers. Over the next five years Gulf and Western spent half a billion dollars following through on their plans. And the lives of thousands were dramatically improved.
Now that is the kind of worship that God loves. It lives to set people free. So the challenge that I have for you today is this: What cause are you behind? Who are you standing up for? To whom are you lending your voice?
God Wants You to Love, Serve and Help the Poor
In verse 7, God says, “ A fast for Me involves sharing your food with people who have none, giving those who are homeless a space in your home, giving clothes to those who need them”
Tim Keller says, “A life poured out for the needs of the poor is an inevitable sign of connection with God,” because God’s heart is for the poor. Poverty and helping the poor are mentioned over 2000 times in the Bible, making it the second most discussed topic in the Bible. In fact, there is no way you can have the reality of God’s character in your life unless you are giving away your stuff and your money. Money is quantifiable. It’s concrete. It’s measurable. How much of it do you give away from your abundance?
The Heart Behind True Religion
Live to free others and love, serve and help the poor. This is the kind of religion that God loves and accepts. Your worship counts for little if your life does not reflect the heart of God for the poor and oppressed.
That said, I want to be clear on this. Often when we hear messages like this, we can feel guilty about our lack of action. But your motivation for doing these things must be love and not guilt. Guilt will not lead to a lasting change, but love… love can.
The things we do for God must always be our loving response to God — not our quest for acceptance by God, because that is not even necessary (we already have the full acceptance of God). Our good deeds can actually become part of our misguided religious fervor if we are not careful. It can become religious box-ticking.
The Promise of True Religion
The great thing about Isaiah 58 is that it is full of promises of what God will do if we spend our lives on behalf of the poor, oppressed and marginalize as part of our normal response to what God has done for us. There are a whole lot of If/Then statements — If you do this, then God will respond with that. These promises are awesome. And here they are:
Verse 10: If you make sure that the hungry and oppressed have all that they need, then your light will shine in the darkness, And even your bleakest moments will be bright as a clear day.
Your darkness will become light. What an awesome promise. This makes perfect sense, when we turn our attention to the plight of others, it causes us to not be so absorbed in our own mess, and also helps us to realize that we are, in many ways, blessed.
Verse 11: If you make sure that the hungry and oppressed have all that they need, then the Eternal One will never leave you; He will lead you in the way that you should go. When you feel dried up and worthless, God will nourish you and give you strength.
He will never leave you, he will show you what to do, he will give you strength — a three-in-one promise. Some of us spend a lot of energy trying to work out what God wants us to do. Well I think a great place to start is to live our lives trying to set the world right on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
Verse 12: You will firm up its ancient foundations. And all around, others will call you “Repairer of Broken Down Walls” and “Rebuilder of Livable Streets.”
You will repair and restore broken people and cities. What an incredible promise. Wouldn’t it be good if Christians were known for what they build up rather than what they tear down? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were known as people who restore and repair and rebuild broken and hurting people in our broken and hurting cities?
The Last Word
So, back to where we began — with this headline: “God isn’t fixing this”
You know, you could pray a thousand prayers that the poor would be helped. You could sing a thousand worship songs that God would administer justice. You could listen to a thousand sermons on how God calls us to spend our lives on behalf of the poor and oppressed. You could fast a thousand days that God would save the nation, but if that’s all you do, in the end, you may very well think to yourself, “God isn’t fixing this.”
God put the tools in your hands, the money in your pocket and the ideas in your head. You are his hands and his feet and voice in the world, now go and do, after all, isn’t that what God did for us? He sets the example for us. God punched a hole in the roof of the world and climbed in. Now, who’s world will you climb into and help? We can easily fall into our quaint traditions, our religious fervor, and our nostalgic customs.
But the proof that Sunday is really real, is found on Monday.
Previously published on medium
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Photo credit: Daily News — Thursday, December 3, 2015