The biblical message for living during troubling times is clear and specific. We must love God and serve our neighbors. The question of who our neighbors are is also clearly defined. Isaiah expands upon these themes and clarifies what we must do to see a positive difference in our world. Following this advice will improve our personal lives as well.
When I was a teenager, I had questions about the Bible and how much of its wisdom to take seriously. It’s not uncommon for young people to question and wonder about religious matters.
What was less clear to me then but has blared like a trumpet to me in my older years is that we should rejoice and be glad when young people question such things! The church should celebrate these youth simply because they care enough to ask questions.
The more common pattern among our young is that they are not interested in discussions about biblical values. Worse yet, many of their peers are ignorant beyond their disinterest. That was true then and it is true now.
Sadly, this lack of interest in biblical things is growing throughout our population and is a uniting theme between young and old. If you have ever watched the popular quiz show Jeopardy! you might have noticed that categories involving the Bible are usually the last to be called, and the highly intellectual contestants often fail to do well on the subject. Given the state of affairs in our nation’s religious and spiritual life, we should not be surprised, but we should be troubled. The educational role of the church is in desperate need.
Here, there is a role for many of us. The reality of biblical illiteracy began long before I was young. The Bible itself records a time when the book of Deuteronomy was lost. On more than one occasion, Jesus exclaimed to his followers, “Do you not understand?” What might Jesus say to people who seldom open their Bibles? These trends are more troubling than a teenager’s attitude of reluctant acceptance. Many of us learn through pondering, questioning, and wonderment.
As a teenager my questions were not because I did not believe but because I wanted to understand more deeply. Paul prays for us in his letter to the Ephesians that we may have the power to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
As a teenager, I could also be argumentative with a touch of orneriness. Not all these qualities were productive or positive. As a teenage image of myself might have said, “Let’s get real.”
Isaiah 58 takes me on this little jaunt down memory lane because these words made good sense in the deepest part of my teenage angst. They are specific and clear, and I have never questioned them. The call to justice and service was evident to me then, and this same call remains obvious to me now. These are things we all can do:
- share bread with the hungry,
- bring the homeless into our homes and churches,
- provide clothing, and
- stop pointing the finger and start speaking words of peacemaking.
Then there are the aspects of this reading that we need to work at together so that justice can roll down like an ever-flowing stream:
- loosen the bonds of wickedness,
- undo the thongs of the yoke, and
- free the oppressed and break every yoke.
Having worked at these things over a lifetime, I have discovered that our collective justice-making efforts expand when we become active in acts of service and kindness. Justice comes when we share our wealth of time, money, and resources (i.e., bread) with others and learn to know their names and stories. In this way, the invitation becomes a call, which becomes a life-changing commitment and is life-giving. Indeed, it is possible for light to overwhelm the darkness and to shine like the noonday sun.
A spiritual practice I began as a teenager and have continued for more than 50 years is fasting. My mode and method of fasting have changed and adapted, but the practice as a spiritual discipline has remained constant. Thus, I have firsthand experience with the criticisms found in our reading from Isaiah.
The spirit of fasting
Fasting as an idea is simple and easy. In real-time experience, we might discover how easy it is to quarrel with and oppress others. In our discomfort, we might not be the kind and generous souls we pretend to be in the abstract. I can honestly say that I have never struck another person with my fists during a fasting period, but I haven’t always been kind and considerate.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline has, as its heart, a yearning for humility. Its purpose is to turn our full attention to God and God’s wishes. We are invited in our discomfort and need to understand the needs of others better, especially those who might be hungry—not as a spiritual behavior, but because they don’t have any bread.
Spiritual fasting might enable us to identify our limitations more clearly. None of us can provide all the bread that the hungry are seeking. Our understanding of our limitations might show us the value of strengthening our reliance on scripture, prayer, or relationships that help.
Isaiah 58 forms the perfect backbone for solidifying the union between Anabaptist views and Pietism. These two worldviews, which have shaped the Church of the Brethren into its unique position in Christendom, are found in Isaiah’s message. We cannot do justice work alone, nor can we develop sincere piety without practicing it fervently.
Our world provides many examples of bogus piety, and it is tempting to discuss these at length. We should avoid such temptations and develop our own pious lives more honestly.
Spiritual practices for us all
Once upon a time, a newly installed pastor preached a first sermon from Isaiah 58. The pastor fasted 48 hours before the Sunday service to be spiritually prepared. Fasting was a surprisingly easy task until the time arrived for the sermon. Suddenly light-headed and with stomach growling, the pastor struggled to start and finish the sermon without much content in the middle.
Worse yet, an emotionally needy person requested a prayer meeting in the pastor’s study along with several deacons following the worship service. The pastor found it nearly impossible to focus attention on the tasks at hand, and the prayer offered was curt, defensive, and devoid of empathy.
Imagine that this pastor is you. What is the spiritual lesson for you to learn?
If you conclude that eating a good breakfast before the Sunday service is the prime lesson, I will encourage you to keep thinking. I would encourage you to continue fasting before preaching—not only on the following Sunday but for the next 10 years—before concluding whether this practice is suitable for you or not.
In this way, you will have plenty of time and experience to justify an informed decision. Yes, you will likely fail a few more times, but failing in the biblical sense is not often a disappointment. The kind of commitment that I’m suggesting will reveal devotion and pave the way for humility to take control. Then we might separate our true pious selves from ego and power-driven desires.
Isaiah’s words are rich and authentic, and nowhere does the prophet suggest they are easy. The call of God remains upon us, and who are we to tell God to choose someone else, when God’s inviting heart yearns to hear from us, “Here I am.” When we respond in this way from the depth of humility, we are pushed toward our most excellent possibilities. It will be like the dawning of a new day.
Duane Grady is a retired Church of the Brethren minister living in Goshen, Indiana.