“The Fast that God Chooses” Mission and Mercy March
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-7
We often evaluate our spiritual health and the vitality of our spiritual lives through individualized acts of devotion to God like Bible reading and prayer. But is this really the best way to assess your walk in faith with the living Lord? Isaiah 58 offers a critique against such a way of evaluating your spirituality. It shows us that God doesn’t desire religious performance or piety but righteous practices of mercy and justice.
#1: What we think God wants
God calls Israel out for fasting and humbling themselves, pretending these are deeds of righteousness when they are nothing more than external, outward religious performances. Ultimately the people did these things for themselves, not the Lord. But God saw right through it. He knew that their deeds were self-serving because the people hoped to receive a reward from God because of what they did. That was exactly their problem. They thought they knew what God wanted but they really had no idea. The same may be true of us. When we focus so much on our performances and our piety, our motions and our emotions, we lose sight of what God has made clear.
#2: What God really wants
God says that the fast chooses is for Israel to pursue lives of mercy and justice. Justice is not only about giving punishment to the guilty but also giving protection to the vulnerable. The reason God is so concerned that everybody is shown mercy and justice is because he has made us all in his image. Every single creature, whether covenanted to him in faith or not, are image bearers of God. And this image is what assures each person value, worthy and dignity. This is why we should work for and care for the justice of all people. This is why it is our cause and our concern to speak against practices and attitudes that promote injustice, inequality and inhumanity.
But who specifically are those in need? From Isaiah 58:6-7, Isaiah 1:16-17 and Zechariah 7:9-10 we see that at the very least God identifies seven groups of people: the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the orphans, the widows, the immigrants and the poor. The point is that God has a heart for those who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised, deprived and destitute. To look after the interests of such people is at the heart of God. This is the way we obey the fast that God has chosen. Christians need to ask who the needy are and what their needs are. Until we start asking these kinds of questions, we won’t begin looking to answer them.
#3: How we do what he wants
We do what God wants when we begin identifying with those in need. But how can we do that? We must first understand the lengths God went to identify with us. In Isaiah 58:7 God tells his people to do three things: to feed the hungry, to provide hospitality to the homeless, and to clothe the naked. Later in Matthew 25 Jesus picks this up and says that those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and clothe the naked have done it to him. He says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Jesus identifies himself so closely with those in need that to serve them is to serve him. The God of the Bible is a God who identifies with us!
Now remember that in ancient religions such a thing was unspeakable. The gods always identified with the rich and powerful, not the poor and lowly. And yet the Son of God does the very opposite. In fact he goes even further and does something even more outrageous and offensive. The gospel is that the Son of God identified himself with mankind so intimately and so personally that our sins and our guilt actually became his. Our trespasses and failures were cast on him as if they were his all along. And in exchange for what we gave him, he gave us his righteousness so that we could be forgiven. When we believe and understand that Jesus identified himself this closely with us, it begins to change us. We start to identify with others and minister to them in mercy and justice. In fact, we desire to identify with them because Jesus identified with us. This is when it becomes clear to us that what pleases God is not religious performance and piety but righteous practices of mercy and justice. Then it becomes the fast that we choose.
Group Discussion Questions
- Share something you found either interesting, memorable, convicting, confusing or challenging about the passage/sermon.
- Why do we tend to evaluate our spirituality based on things like religious performances and piety rather than practices of mercy and justice?
- Spend time reflecting aloud on these questions: What does mercy and justice look like in the relational spheres you’re connected to? What does mercy and justice look in your community? In your country? In the world? What does mercy and justice look in light of the coronavirus and those suffering in so many ways around the world?
- How can you begin to identify with those in need and be changed to live a life of mercy and justice? What’s the difference between doing acts of mercy and justice and becoming an agent of mercy and justice?