Sunday, March 6, 2016

When My Church Attendance is Dangerously Offensive

“God is offended by religious ritual, however impressive, if it conceals an empty heart and a careless life  God opposes all manifestations of human pride. (Taken from the ESV Study Bible Online “Introduction to Isaiah”)

What are you first thoughts after reading that statement? At first, I’m having flashbacks to sitting in the pew in “big church” in the mid-90s and checking off all of the boxes on the offering envelope. Read Bible daily. Check. Prayed daily. Check. Tithed. Check. Attended Sunday School. Check. Check. Check! Did anyone else have those envelopes?? But in all honesty, the above statement about religious ritual feels like a slap in the face to me. “Empty heart and careless life?” I do not want my life to be characterized by these descriptions. This statement comes from the ESV Study Bible’s introduction to the Old Testament book of Isaiah. In keeping up with the EASTER CHALLENGE of memorizing Isaiah 52:13 53:12 (about the suffering and sacrifice of Christ according to the will of God), I wanted to study more about the themes of the prophetic book of Isaiah. In doing so, I came across a list of the themes of the book of Isaiah, with the statements above being #1 and #3 on the “Theme” list. While reading this list, I landed myself into a whole lot of conviction! Religious ritual?! Certainly my religious pursuits are not ritualistic?! The list printed on my childhood offering envelope is certainly not a bad list, but when those items become religious ritual, they are not pleasing to God. In fact, Scripture explains that religious ritual is offensive to God!

Consider these passages from Isaiah (They’re lengthy, but powerful!). The bold and underlined statements describe ways in which the Israelites acted that the Lord was NOT pleased with, and the italicized statements are promises that the Lord makes to His people when their hearts are turned toward Him in humble obedience.

Isaiah 1:10-17 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations - I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.”

Isaiah 58 Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness 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, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness; If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And 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 dwell in.”

Isaiah 66 Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig's blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.  These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations; I also will choose harsh treatment for them and bring their fears upon them, because when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my eyes and chose that in which I did not delight.”

Basically, within this theme of “religious ritual” in Isaiah, he makes some very strong points:
1.      God is not pleased with godly activities that become ritualistic.
2.    Not only is God not pleased with them, He’s offended by them! These passages from Isaiah prove His disgust with the harsh words that He offers. (These passages remind me of how Jesus spoke of the religious leaders of his day as whitewashed tombs Yikes!)
3.    Because ritualistic behavior is offensive to Him, he won’t listen to those pleas and He will hide His eyes from them. (On the contrary, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word “are the ones to whom He will look! As always, THE LORD OFFERS MERCY! Isaiah 66).
4.    God is concerned about the heart behind all religious things we do.
5.    God knows the heart behind everything we do. We may be able to fool others and even convince ourselves that our devotion is genuine, but he knows our heart’s intent as we perform religious duties.
6.    God wants to wash us and make us clean so that we can be pleasing to Him.
7.    We have an active part in the cleansing. (He commanded the Israelites to “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.”(Isaiah 1) Although we are only cleansed through Christ, we have an active part in the pursuit to be clean before the Lord. As always, THE LORD PROVIDES THE WAY OF OBEDIENCE! He doesn’t just tell us that we should please Him; He tells us how. We aren’t left in the dark about what He desires for His children.
8.    The Lord promises to guide and satisfy the desires of those who offer pure worship, sacrifice, and obedience. He wants us to seek the things in which He delights. They are the ones who will receive refreshment from him, “like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail”(Isaiah 58).

-       READ: Take a look at the New Testament in Matthew 23. Jesus is pretty harsh toward the religious leaders of the day in the same way that Isaiah spoke to the Israelites of his day. The Lord is serious about religious devotion NOT becoming a mere ritual or show.
-       STUDY: Study the theme of religious ritual throughout the Bible. Start with Isaiah.
-       EVALUATE: Evaluate the ways in which you pursue the Lord. Evaluate your prayer life, commitment to Scripture, offering of tithes, worship through music, and involvement with the local church. What is your heart behind your involvement with religious tasks? These tasks are of course NOT bad in themselves, but our heart while doing these things can become hardened through ritualistic behavior rather than freshly seeking the Lord through these things.
-       PRAY: Ask the Lord to show you ways that your pursuit of Him may have become ritualistic. Ask Him to give you a fresh desire to please Him, obey Him, and make sacrifices in order to become more like Him. As the Lord to guard your heart and mind against complacency, apathy, or ritualistic behavior. (For further study on "Spring Cleaning" of your spiritual life, view "Spring Cleaning Assistant for Hire."

I pray that as you head to church tomorrow morning, open your Bible, worship Him through giving and songs, and plead with Him in prayer, your heart will be refreshed, renewed, humbled, encouraged, convicted, and spurred on to further true devotion to Him the kind of sacrificial devotion that pleases Him and sanctifies you!

Always, Jacquelyn 

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