Read Isaiah 58:5-9
5 You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
9 Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. (NLT)
When the Christian church reckons it is in a spot of trouble with declining attendances or critical public attack, it reacts in various ways. It reaffirms its traditional beliefs and recognises that popularity is not the name of the game. Or it launches into a counterattack by alerting those disenchanted or critical about the wrongness of their own responses. Or it seeks to engage with ‘outsiders’ via more attractive programmes and better marketing approaches.
Not a lot of that works. Our passage today points to another and better way forward. While there will always be some that will mock and defy Jesus because of his claims to authority, there are others who are simply fed up with the hypocrisy of the church. We may think this is unfair or overstated, but we can’t deny that we don’t always practise what we preach.
God tells his people to not focus on external rituals, mere words and gestures. Act with mercy and justice: this is what God requires. Be the church which consistently does good according to the commands of its master Jesus rather than a tame church captive to whatever politicians are in power at the time. Be a church renowned for its concern for the needy rather than a church renowned for its imagined superiority or suspected bigotry.
It seems that such a church is assured of a bright and God-blessed future.