1Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images that you made for yourselves; 27therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
These might be two of the hardest passages of Scripture for Christians in churches today to live into. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, not just denouncing injustice but rejecting the worship and adoration of the unjust. This is a hard hard word to hear. This passage actually gives us what one might call the thesis statement of the prophets, right worship, justice and love for neighbor are all so intimately interwoven that we can’t meaningfully do one without the other.
In the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the stories from the start of the Kinghood of David and on, we see a repeated cycle. The powerful upper classes of society become wealthy and complacent. They fall out of their trust and relationship with God. They turn to worshiping idols. And they abuse the poor, the stranger and the vulnerable. Isaiah brings together all the different prophets when he tells us that these three pieces rise and fall together. When we trust God with our lives we live justly, we worship truly and we treat others well (and doing all of these things probably also means we are not unjustly rich either). But when we begin to fail in one of these we tend to lose the others. Wealth drives us to protect wealth by turning to other gods who make false promises. It drives us to abuse others to grow and defend that wealth. It’s a vicious cycle that plays out again and again. Even wise Solomon lapsed into idolatry and injustice in his complacent life of luxury, conscripting Israelites to build a massive temple to God even as he set up idolatrous altars around the kingdom.
While few of us would consider ourselves rich that is because we are usually comparing ourselves to others in the very narrow world of middle class (and higher) American culture. When we set our possessions and lives against the global community, all people everywhere, we realize that we are actually sitting not just towards the top of the global pile but actually at its peak. This makes these passages quite a bit more worrying. What seems to be a comfortable middle in the United States and the industrialized world looks palatial and extravagant to much of the world.
These passages remind us that our worship can’t exist in a vacuum. Never, in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, has God separated out our worship and our lives. We have to back our songs of praise with mercy and our justice must be rooted in our worship. We can’t have one without the other. The two hold us in balance and help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. These passages help to keep us honest before God.
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
When moderate Christians talk about judgment we often feel uncomfortable. When we read passages where God threatens or enacts some kind of judgment we might even feel embarrassed. Like hanging around an older relative who’s started to say awkward things in public. We have this subtext of “Oh God, you don’t mean that.” Jesus and mercy and forgiveness and love are the whole story now. Judgment is some sort of historical holdover.
But this isn’t really a whole answer. Ultimately, we don’t want to go to either extreme, completely ignoring words of judgment in Scripture or making them the central or even only thing we talk about. But this leaves us in a hard place. People just generally have a hard time finding balance between two contradictory positions. So what do we do?
Well we have to remember something important right out of the gate. We have a very different perspective on judgment in this time and place because we are living very comfortable lives. God’s judgment looks like an unnecessary burden. But there are places in the world where horrific things are happening. Where people strive and struggle and do their best and then something awful happens. Something or someone takes what little they had away. There is weeping, bleeding, bone deep brokenness being inflicted on the world and if God is God that has to matter.
We see this so rarely around us because we are blessed to be in a place of deep safety. But much of the world needs judgment, needs the profound intervention of God and God’s people which says “this evil which has happened and continues to happen is not right and will not continue forever” Thousands and thousands of children under five die each day from poverty and hunger. Girls seeking an education to free them from poverty are harassed and abducted and killed. Millions go hungry when we have enough food to feed the world twice over. If Jesus is who we believe He is then we cannot call ourselves his followers and say that these things go unnoticed by God and will be allowed to go on forever. We cannot be uninvolved.
What is even more amazing is what Jesus claims here. The distant infinite cosmic, mountaintop and creation, heights and depths and stars in the sky God took on flesh at Bethlehem. God incarnate. But Jesus goes a step further. Because Jesus didn’t just take on the human condition of one first century dusty peasant rabbi but here in Matthew 25 he takes on all the human condition. Everywhere someone suffers and hurts, every time someone is struck or beaten or broken down, Jesus is there.
God stakes God’s self on and in humans. Jesus says if you want to see me, know me, serve me, go find the broken and the hungry and there I’ll be. When we fix our eyes on Jesus in worship Jesus points beyond himself and back into the world, reminding us of our brothers and sisters in need. When we serve our brothers and sisters in need and look into their eyes we see Jesus staring back at us.
This is the first of our 30 Hour Famine devotionals. As we joined together in fasting, prayer and service for those who suffer in poverty and hunger we also dove into some of the harder passages of Scripture that call us to serve God’s people. I will add our actual discussion video to the end of this post as it becomes available. Donations for 30 Hour Famine have not ended and you can still contribute here to help HVBC Youth address hunger and starvation in the world! www.tinyurl.com/hvbcfamine2014
When churches talk about helping those in need we often find ourselves stepping back to discuss the bigger question of faith and works. After all many of us, and Baptists especially, take the framework of our faith from Paul’s discussion of faith and works in Romans. Paul says things like “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Later major thinkers like Martin Luther took this even further making sola fide or his doctrine of “faith alone” a central piece of his theology, a Protestant theological heritage many of us share.
Unfortunately this often becomes a conversation killer. It’s the shut down conversation move. A lot of folks, with good intentions, end up using this thinking to throw the brakes on involvement in the community or service to others. It even becomes a put down we throw on other Christians. We invoke this argument to make ourselves feel better about not being involved. If they’re trying so hard at works they must not have faith. (This is of course a great big straw man version of this argument, written so you can see the problem in a paragraph or less, but you see where its coming from.)
But this problem isn’t new at all. When Paul wrote Romans he was still living in a church that was both literally and culturally Jewish. The oldest, earliest and most influential leaders, churches and thinkers in the early Church were all Jewish. And what they passed on to the Gentiles was still full of Jewish influence (and for good reason of course, Jesus himself was Jewish and understood himself as flowing out of Judaism). But something tricky happens here. The particular brand of Jewishness that was being passed on didn’t just contain many of the great things of 1st century Judaism but was also laced with that “yeast of the Pharisees” Jesus himself had warned against. This kind of Jewishness took “works” which for them meant very specific Jewish cultural elements (like circumcision, sacrifices, following the calendar of feasts and holy days and a very calculating petty version of tithing) and made them the center of salvation. They turned Judaism’s center from the people’s relationship with God and the lives of holiness He created in them to a narrow racial/cultural definition of salvation.
This got passed on to some of the early Gentile converts. Missionaries and evangelists other than Paul were spreading a Gospel which included Jesus but also (contrary to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) insisted that Gentiles take on all these cultural markers of Judaism to be saved. In light of all that its not surprising that Paul comes out pretty strongly against works and for faith when he writes his letter to the Romans.
Christians took Paul’s letters and their response to these specific “works” and started to take them to extremes. They made a version of the Gospel where God’s salvation was totally set apart from the things Jesus commanded us to do. So we see this pendulum swinging. God lays out commandments for life and justice and worship and over time people bend them towards one extreme or another and then back again.
So if we stop at Romans we don’t realize that we’re only getting half a conversation. To see a whole cycle we have to flip over to James chapter 2.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
James is a corrective, bringing us back to the middle. Our trust and our worship are important, when we try and separate them out from our service and God’s justice in the world it’s a bit like a dissection. We only find out how deeply connected they are when we start cutting those connections and find the pain, damage and suffering that follows.
Our love of God and our service to others are interwoven so tightly we can’t tear them apart. We see Jesus in the faces of those we serve, we have our hearts widened and deepened, when we carry God’s love into the world through our actions. We have the strength, the compassion and the courage to serve because we have been caught in God’s love and are being transformed by His holiness. When we neglect the poor we are not just callous but failing those whom God loves and died for. When our faith and worship fails we are no longer rooted in the source of our strength and our true hope for change.