This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship in September 2011. There is no audio for this sermon.
Isaiah is a prophet who comes on the scene after a long line of disreputable kings and rulers have reigned over Israel, first as a collective, and then, after the country split, as Judah, or “the Southern Kingdom.” The book begins with God raising charges against Judah. He has witnessed His people act mercilessly and greedily for century after century. It seems, after hundreds of years, that His patience with them is exhausted. He compares them to cities that he obliterated – Sodom and Gomorrah. In this particular passage, it is difficult to find hope of God’s relationship with his people being repaired. He is weary of them. He sounds almost tired out by them.
God wants mutual relationship, not just verbal agreement
The relationship between Israel and God is strained, seemingly beyond hope. God is frustrated and angered by their religious acts. They *do* all the right things when it comes to corporate worship: they gather together. So what is it that causes God to say, “I will not listen”?
Before we answer that question, we need to look at who God is. He defines himself through the challenge he lays before Israel in vs. 17. God is the God who gives voice to the voiceless. He is the God who defends the cause of the defenseless. God is the God who opposes harsh rule. He hates selfish gain. He does not like the idea of preference of any one person or people group over others.
So, Israel is acting out of true hypocrisy, praising God and claiming to love him, while behaving in opposition to him. They come to worship, but they come with blood on their hands. They “do evil.” They do not correct oppression. They do not bring justice to the orphan or plead the widow’s cause. Other passages in Isaiah talk about them taking bribes from wealthy people, pushing poor people out of their land, abusing women and children.
So, after centuries of enduring this destructive behavior, God says to Israel, Enough. I have made you. I have made you to love what I love and hate what I hate and work towards what I work towards. But, instead, you rebel against this. You do not love what I love. You love what I hate. You do not act like you are mine, and so I will let you taste what it is like to not be mine. Timothy Keller explains the situation well in his book, Generous Justice: “If God’s character includes a zeal for justice that leads him to have the tenderest love and closest involvement with the socially weak, then what should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable.” P 8
So what does God mean when he says “seek justice” and “be willing and obedient”? We tend to think of justice as strictly punishing wrongdoing. But that is not how the Bible uses the word. It’s associated with the cause of a person – both to protect them from harm and to do good to them. Justice is active pleading of the case of the oppressed. It is meeting the needs of others and giving generously. We may think of that as “charity,” but that word gives the impression that it is optional. It is not. If we are God’s children, then we are supposed to behave justly. If we are supposed to behave justly, then we must give of our time and resources generously to care for those who cannot care for themselves. To quote Tim Keller again, “… in the Bible [justice/righteousness] refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity. “ p 10
Mutual Relationship with God Means We Pursue Justice For Our Neighbors
Israel was not seeking justice for their neighbors. In fact, they were oppressing each other. Yet, when God confronts them, He does not simply say, “We’re through.” He gives them clear directions regarding how to restore relationship with Him.
In Isaiah’s time, the government and the church were inextricably tied. But now, we are separate. And this is a good thing, that God has been active in working us toward. Now, the church becomes the main place through which God’s care for his creation is demonstrated. In other words, we aren’t off the hook. We are still very much responsible to plead the case of the marginalized, down-trodden, and victimized. To do this, we start locally. Some of us have intentionally moved into impoverished neighborhoods in Richmond to extend justice and hospitality to their neighbors. Others of us are preparing for our careers. You’re involved in campus organizations, and work hard to prepare for your future.
The rest of us live in one of the poorest counties in VA. This county was born out of a long, complicated history of racial discrimination, of slavery, of segregation, of swindling people out of property. But poverty is complicated. Nothing has one simple answer. Yes, many of the people in this county are coming out of a long line of oppression and cruelty. Currently, we have a school system that has more money per student than many others in the state, but just barely scraped by in receiving accreditation. But, there are also a lot of people who are addicts, who are not wise parents, who lack basic skills needed to get a decent job, who have developed a sense of entitlement over time.
Do we wipe our hands of these people because their situation is a complicated mixture of injurious choices they’ve made and systematic oppression done to them? No. We need to think more like God. God is kind to those who don’t deserve his kindness. We are to be the same. There are endless ways we can get involved in the cause of those around us. But pursuing justice for those in need requires that we open our eyes both to the need and to opportunity.
But there are plenty of people in the world who want nothing to do with God who are better at reaching out to the poor and needy than we are. If all God wanted was for us to show generosity to those in need, we could do that. But he calls us to have a broader vision. Our lives are fundamentally broken until we take of the bread of heaven. God calls us to give out of what we have received, to give generously because we receive abundant grace from God.
Pursue Justice Because You Have Received Mercy
Most of us are in the position to oppress the people around us if we are not careful. But all of us were once defenseless as well. Jesus had to become our voice, our defender. Weakness is not limited to the physical level. There is poverty and oppression in the world BECAUSE we have rebelled against God. Because we have severed ourselves from the one who defends us against not only physical harm, but also spiritual harm, we find ourselves motivated by greed, fear, apathy. We find ourselves fighting against famine, draught, flooding. We find that governments and corporations often evolve into a whole that is greedier than the parts that make it up. Thank God, though, that he does not simply send us to exile. Throughout the book of Isaiah, God speaks of a future time hinted at in this passage – a time when all things will be put right, and we will love what God loves, and live in peace.
Until that time, we, too, need someone to speak on our behalf. We need someone to intervene and shape us into people who see the world the way God does – people who defend the defenseless because we are defended. This is why Isaiah doesn’t end in ch 1. Ch 53 is one of the more famous passages in the book, and it describes Jesus, the one who stands between us and the end we deserve as people who have rebelled against God (remember rebelling is not just deciding we won’t be beholden to some distant, cruel deity. It is choosing a life of selfishness, built on the backs of people less powerful). Vs. 6 reads: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on [Christ] the iniquity of us all.”
It is because Christ stands between us and what we have reaped for ourselves that we are able to identify ourselves not with the rebels of vs. 20, but with the obedient ones of vs. 19. We have been cared for and shall be cared for by God because of Christ. We can now come before God to worship without fear, because, in Christ, we are defended, we have an advocate, and we are washed clean and this cleansing points us, not to apathy, but to grateful service and just treatment of those around us.