Hello friends, and happy Monday. Another week begins. A week of uncertainty in the U.S. as many are still in lockdown - such as us in California, and others are beginning to come out of lockdown, and wondering if it is safe to do so. Regardless of your situation, I want to encourage us all to remember that God is our ever-present refuge. Whether you are locked down and antsy, or being released back into work and other situations, the safest place we have in all of the earth is in the refuge of God Almighty. Go back to Psalms 46 again and again this week if your heart tries to stray into fear, frustration, anxiety and other tough emotions.
Today's Bible readings are Numbers 11, Psalms 48, Isaiah 1, and Hebrews 9. Tomorrow we will continue our series on the Perseverance of the Saints, but today our topic is a more basic and central topic: Is God pleased by our religious activities. Most people would probably answer 'yes,' to that question, but the answer isn't quite as cut and dried as that, as Isaiah 1 is about to show us. Dictionary.com gives a definition of religion as, "the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith." And Merriam Webster's second definition of religion is, "a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices." So in the eyes of many, religion is a ritual observation of faith in one's beliefs, attitudes and practices. The basic question of religion in almost all of its forms is this, "What can I do to please God?" Or, if one's faith is polytheistic, "what can I do to please the gods?" Most of those who are not Bible-believing Christians would assume that Christianity is much the same as that - basically a set of dos and don'ts (as typified in the Ten Commandments), mixed with the call of Jesus to love people, mixed with going to church regularly enough to keep God and the pastor/priest/rector/bishop/whatever happy. Is that what God requires? Let's read Isaiah 1 and find out!
Here's the pertinent part for us to review again:
“What are all your sacrifices to me?”
asks the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams
and the fat of well-fed cattle;
I have no desire for the blood of bulls,
lambs, or male goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who requires this from you—
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing useless offerings.
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons and Sabbaths,
and the calling of solemn assemblies—
I cannot stand iniquity with a festival.
14 I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals.
They have become a burden to me;
I am tired of putting up with them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will refuse to look at you;
even if you offer countless prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
What's the deal here? A good observant Jewish person, upon hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah, would probably be thunderstruck, thinking, "I thought God liked us to pray, and go to times of worship, and make offerings and celebrate the festivals of the Bible and sacrifice animals?!" And the issue here is that God is NOT pleased with outward and external works of religion that are not accompanied by inward heart change, repentance, the no-compromise embrace of the truth of God's Word, the practice of biblical justice/love and compassion and relationship with Him. Put it another way, God does not want us to merely go to church and then live however else we want to live otherwise. God is not pleased by our church attendance, our offerings, our outward religious practices, our sacrifices or our worship if we are not transformed followers of His bringing His Kingdom and His ways to the world. You don't just have to take my word for it, or Isaiah's either, because this theme permeates Scripture:
I hate, I despise, your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
22 Even if you offer me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
Wow - God can HATE church assemblies?! That's fairly mind-blowing. What is the problem here - we see it a little bit in vs 24, and more clearly a few verses earlier:
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.
God cares deeply about the poor and the oppressed - He cares deeply about justice, and He calls His people to care deeply about the same things He cares about!
10 “I wish one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would no longer kindle a useless fire on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Armies, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.
One more bit of evidence, from Isaiah 58:
Tell my people their transgression
and the house of Jacob their sins.
2 They seek me day after day
and delight to know my ways,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not abandon the justice of their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments;
they delight in the nearness of God.”
3 “Why have we fasted, but you have not seen?
We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed!”
“Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast,
and oppress all your workers.
4 You fast with contention and strife
to strike viciously with your fist.
You cannot fast as you do today,
hoping to make your voice heard on high.
5 Will the fast I choose be like this:
A day for a person to deny himself,
to bow his head like a reed,
and to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Isn’t this the fast I choose:
To break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the ropes of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free,
and to tear off every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the poor and homeless into your house,
to clothe the naked when you see him,
and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will appear like the dawn,
and your recovery will come quickly.
Your righteousness will go before you,
and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
Our conclusion is this: God does not merely call people to be religious and to engage in the trappings of religion - going to church, giving offerings, worshipping, praying, etc. Yes - those things are good and Godly and Holy, and profitable - but, unaccompanied by a life transformed by Jesus, they are empty and hollow and meaningless. We are not saved by offerings, or church attendance, or sacrifices, or ANY external act of religion. Rather, we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone. As saved followers of Jesus, our lives are to be characterized by transformation, by love and mercy, justice for the oppressed, acts of kindness to all, and intimate abiding with Jesus, His Spirit, and His Word. Apart from those things, the external trappings of religion like church attendance, giving offerings, etc - don't really matter. God is not looking for church attenders - as good as that is - but followers of Jesus who exemplify God's call in Isaiah 1:
Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves.
Remove your evil deeds from my sight.
Stop doing evil.
17 Learn to do what is good.
Correct the oppressor.
Defend the rights of the fatherless.
Plead the widow’s cause
18 “Come, let’s settle this,” says the Lord.
“Though your sins are scarlet,
they will be as white as snow;
though they are crimson red,
they will be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land.
As a closing, let's ponder this wisdom from the book of James:
26 If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
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