After enduring decades of Babylonian exile, the Israelites finally return to their homeland expecting the Temple’s glorious restoration and a return to milk and honey. But their easy fantasies of the Promised Land are quickly displaced by the hardships of Jerusalem. They get discouraged, then pessimistic, then self-centered. They get completely absorbed in scuffing their knees in bended prayer and squatting in piles of ash to fast, investigating divine oracles and dog-earing books of theology, worshipping every time the sanctuary doors open and making every appearance of holiness.
Despite their expressions of piety, rehearsing the movements and motions of religion, the people’s pleas go unmet, their requests unmet. In today’s text from the prophet Isaiah, why won’t God respond to God’s chosen people?
Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout 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. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “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. 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. 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? 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? 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? 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 rear guard. 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, 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. 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. 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.
The people kept looking for God in all the wrong places.
Because they’re hiding from God in Church.
They refuse to live out God’s will.
Fred Craddock imagined a trip to God’s house where, he said, “I was excited to be a first-time visitor to the House of Many Rooms. Angels showed me around and answered my endless questions. The food was heavenly and at bedtime I was shown to a room of my own. My bed was a cloud… [and] I drifted into sleep. Sometime during the night my sleep was interrupted by sounds from the next room. I did not know who was in that room, but somebody was having a bad night. I listened more carefully; maybe it was groaning or moaning accompanied by tossing and turning. At daybreak I heard the person next door move about the room and then step out into the hall. I did the same, wanting to see who it was, and, if appropriate, express regret that the night was so restless. It was God. I was shocked; God restless and unable to sleep, the God who blesses with peace beyond understanding, the God who hushes even a whimpering child? I was speechless. God said, ‘I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep. I know my groaning was a disturbance, but I couldn’t get my mind off all my hurting children down there.’”
It wasn’t that the Israelites had become irreligious, but rather hyper religious. Exhibitionists who fooled themselves into believing that if the hymns are sung in the appropriate key, and if the clergy stole matches the pulpit parament, and if the worship service pantomimes all the correct cultic rituals, then God can be manipulated. But a privatized religion of personal gain is ultimately corrupt; there’s no such thing as Christian self-help; and being devout doesn’t necessary mean you’re holy.
God won’t respond because God can’t be distracted by worshippers going through the motions while children are still hurting. And so the prophet shouts his corrective in the 6th century B.C.E. and in the 21st century: Share your bread, the world will remain hungry until the gluttons among us pass our loaves. Cover the naked, the world will remain stripped bare of dignity until our coat closets are emptied. House the homeless, the world will remain without a permanent address until our second homes are sold and our spare bedrooms are unlocked.
If what you’re after is a return call from God or an answer to your prayers, then start by first “loosening the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free and breaking the yoke.” Start by attending church a little less and working the streets a little more in the name of the one who came to “preach good news to the poor.”