There’s nothing more discouraging than a March snow that covers up the burgeoning signs of spring. (Well, I guess an April snow might be even more discouraging. . . please, let us be spared that one!) Today’s snow didn’t cancel church services (COVID-19 had already taken care of that), but the last Ohio snow storm nearly a month ago did that, barreling in on Ash Wednesday afternoon and dumping a messy mix of rain, ice, and snow. I’d been preparing to preach that evening, and the words of the liturgy and sermon text have stayed with me. Psalms 41 and 51, Isaiah 58—these are ancient words, “holy words, long preserved for our walk in this world” and they “resound with God’s own heart.” (Are you humming the tune yet, or hearing Michael W. Smith’s voice in your head?) These ancient words invite us to submission—to come to Scripture with open hearts, to be changed by our encounter with the Word and with the Lord of the Word. (I invite you to pause and read those two psalms and Isaiah 58.)
The ancient words that began my journey through Lent this year (Isaiah 58) came first to a people who found themselves in a decisive, future-shaping moment in their life together. The dreadful darkness of exile was over, they were back in their land, and as the process of physical rebuilding was moving forward, they faced an identity crisis. Just what kind of people would they be? What kind of corporate life would they build? Would their life as the people of God be shaped by the ancient words, or by the free-floating anxieties of their day and the worldviews and habits of the surrounding cultures? Would their walk in this world resound with the music of God’s own heart?
In that decisive moment, the ancient words come to Israel first as judgment (vs. 1–5). It’s not unusual for an Old Testament prophetic message to begin with a thundering call to attention. But here it is not the prophet who shouts, but the Lord himself. He calls for a shofar—the instrument used to announce urgent warnings of impending disaster. This crisis, however, is not military, not an external threat, but internal. Yahweh is making a public announcement of his people’s spiritual condition: “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (v. 1b, NRSV). This dreadful divine diagnosis is made more shocking by what follows. We expect to hear a description of gross, overt turning away from the Lord—but instead it’s a snapshot of an extremely religious people who seem to be devoted to God. And yet the Lord diagnoses them as rebellious and sinful. What is wrong in this picture?
Their true condition, from God’s perspective, is a result of distorted delight. Delight is the passionate direction of one’s heart toward someone or something. It is the deep, genuine pleasure you take in something valuable, precious, and cherished. It is what grandparents feel the first time they hold a new grandchild. It’s what lights up the groom’s face when he catches that first glimpse of his bride at the back of the church. It’s our little dog Coco when she figures out it is Friday morning, which means a w-a-l-k in the p-a-r-k, and her tail is wagging furiously and every hair in her scruffy coat seems to come alive with happy energy. Sheer delight!
On the surface, the religious life of the people seems to indicate that they have an appropriate and well-placed delight: “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways” (v. 2). In fact, they’re so devoted that they have become annoyed that God isn’t more impressed with their devotion, especially their fasts. They ask petulantly: “Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?” (v. 3, MSG). In other words, “Where is our reward for doing the right religious behaviors?” It seems that their “delight” in worship has become a pragmatic and self-focused means to an end. There’s a tiny key phrase that reveals the distortion in their delight. It is found in the second half of verse 2: “as if.” Israel seeks God and delights in his ways as if they were a righteous people, as if they were committed to God’s justice. The implication is that they are not, in fact, that kind of people. And Yahweh responds with severe frankness to their whining about his lack of response: “I’ll tell you why [I’m not impressed]! It’s because you are fasting to please [delight] yourselves” (v. 3, NLT). Their delight is displaced and therefore distorted.
There’s a deep disconnect between the people’s highly satisfied self-evaluation of their religious behaviors and Yahweh’s assessment of them. The Lord says to them, “Your fasts are nothing more than ‘going through the motions of penance’” (v. 5, NLT). And how has the Lord made this diagnosis? What are the presenting symptoms of their disease? “Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling?” (vs. 3-4). Injustice in their civic and social life, bitterness and vicious disputes in their communal life—these things negate the sincerity of their worship. Tragically, there is nothing in their life together that sets them apart from the larger culture, nothing that marks them as a people after God’s own heart.
In his infinite grace and mercy, the Lord does not leave his people in their deplorable condition, but offers them a solution to the problem of their distorted delight. He says to them, “Let me define for you the kind of worship I want from my people” (v. 6). If you sense a bit of an edge in the Lord’s voice at this point, it is perhaps understandable—what he’s about to tell them is not new information! From Moses to the pre-exilic prophets, God’s spokesmen have detailed over and over again what Yahweh is about to say—and Israel’s previous failure to live this way is what landed them in exile in the first place.
The Lord offers the solution for their distorted delight in a series of three IF-THEN sequences, detailing both his expectations and his promises. Interestingly enough, it’s not until the third sequence (vs. 13–14) that the Lord touches on overtly “religious” behavior (Sabbath practices). In the first two sequences, God calls them to reverse their current social practices and their current internal dysfunction. On the “if” side of the ledger, we see what true worship (true delight) consists of: (1) IF (implicit) you practice my kind of fasts: “to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. . . sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families” (vs. 6–7, MSG). (2) “IF you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out. . .” (vs. 9–10). (3) “IF you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy (delight!), God’s holy day as a day of celebration, if you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there. . .” (v. 13).
If God’s people choose this kind of God-pleasing worship, THEN we will experience the full, abundant, delight-full existence that he longs to give us. Listen to the catalogue of delightful descriptions found on the promise side of the solution to distorted delight: salvation, healed wounds, protection (v. 8); answered prayer (v. 9); light to replace darkness (v. 10); constant refreshing and abundant vitality (v. 11); the chance to be rebuilders and restorers of brokenness (v. 12); and (wait for it!) delight in the Lord (v. 14)! This is a new word, even more intense and “delightful” than the one used previously in the chapter. It has an almost playful sense to it—to delight luxuriously, to revel in something or someone, to laugh and enjoy. This is Coco’s joy in her Friday walk magnified exponentially!
Walter Brueggemann sums up nicely the call of these ancient words: “The true delight (v. 14) does not follow from our interests (v. 13). Judaism is invited to give up little interests for the sake of large delights.” Not just ancient Judaism, but every one of us who submits to the ancient words is invited to this—and especially during this season of Lent—to give up distorted delights and small interests for the large delight of following Jesus into cruciform living, dying, and living again. First, we must see clearly and name boldly the “little interests” that are “sin and rebellion” in the eyes of God. Whether it is our toleration of injustice and oppression in the social fabric of our culture, or our tendency to quarreling and slander within the community of faith, or our willingness to allow distorted delights in our personal lives, the first step is to acknowledge those things and to see them through God’s eyes for what they are. Brutal, no-holds-barred honesty is required of us, rooted in a complete submission to the illuminating light of Spirit and Word. Second, we must match that honesty with true repentance. The mark of the Cross that we received to open the Lenten season must be made manifest in conduct that is aligned with the will and character of God. The words that were spoken as ashes were imposed, “Repent and believe the gospel,” invite us to much more than mere intellectual assent to some theological proposition. They call us to a life transformed and re-shaped by the cruciform gospel of Jesus.