************ Sermon on Isaiah 58:6-7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 11, 2001
"What Real Religion is Like"
On this World Hunger Sunday I want to start with some facts about World Hunger:
On this World Hunger Sunday the Bible reminds us that true religion, religion that is acceptable to God, religion that God receives as pure and faultless, is religion that reaches out in love to the poor and hungry.
- Fact: some 24,000 people die each and every day from world hunger; that works out to one person every 3.6 seconds; 75% of them are children.
- Fact: there are 800 million hungry people in the world.
- Fact: in the United States, 12 million children live in households where people have to skip meals or eat less to make ends meet. That means one in ten households in the U.S. are living with hunger or are at risk of hunger.
- Fact: the main cause of hunger is not a lack of food. Already in 1986 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that there was enough food being produced to supply every person in the world with more than they needed to enjoy a healthy life. Grain production alone supplied enough to enable people to consume 3600 calories a day, 1100 more than the recommended daily requirement. Yet people still die from hunger. Even more startling is the fact that countries we consider "hungry" often have enough food to feed their own populations. For example, India ranks near the top in agricultural exports among the developing countries. In Brazil, the second largest food exporter in the world, 86 million Brazilians are undernourished. Obviously, a shortage of food is not the main cause of hunger.
- Fact: the main cause of hunger is not laziness. Women in the developing world work an average of twelve to sixteen hours a day trying to survive. For their hard work, they earn practically nothing. A Filipino laborer on a plantation earns $1.50 per day for working from sunrise to sunset.
- Fact: the main cause of hunger is not overpopulation. It is true that the countries that suffer from hunger also have a rapidly growing population. But the reason they have more babies is to fight poverty. Children who work represent the labor and income the poor need to survive, especially in old age. Listen to this woman from the African country of Burkino Faso:
"It takes me four hours every day to fetch water and another four hours to collect firewood. Then there are the cattle to care for. I need children to help with the chores. They can also work for other people, and eventually earn and contribute to our income." And what she doesn't mention is that one in four of the children she has will likely die before reaching the age of five. She believes that the more children she has, the more likely is the possibility that she will survive. If you are hungry, big families make sense.
- Fact: a lack of modern agricultural methods is not the cause of hunger. Farmers in industrialized countries depend heavily upon advanced technology to increase their harvests – chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, and irrigation. But the problem in the developing world is not ignorance of these methods. Rather, the problem is that third world farmers can rarely afford even the most basic technological improvements. These farmers are often too poor and powerless to gain access to land, resources and training adapted to their culture and environment. A couple of years ago veterinarian Murray Minnema went to Africa for CRWRC to offer help and advice to herdsmen on how to improve their herds. When the herdsmen realized this meant money in their pocket they were quick to follow what he said.
- Fact: the main cause of hunger is political. In North Korea, untold millions starve because of the government's unwillingness to give up on failed economic policies. In Sudan, millions are threatened with starvation because of an ongoing military conflict which devastates the country's ability to produce food and because the government restricts the flow of emergency relief.
I True Fasting
A Isaiah spoke to Israel about true fasting. When it comes to true fasting or true religion, says Isaiah, "Don't put on an act." "Don't make a show of being righteous." "Let your righteousness be real." That's the message of Isaiah.
You see, Israel's fasting was not real. For, on they day they fasted they did as they pleased rather than what pleased God (vs 3). They exploited their workers (vs 4). They quarreled and fought (vs 4). They humbled themselves for a day, dressed themselves in sackcloth and ashes, and made a big deal out of looking religious (vs 5).
B What is fasting? To put it simply, fasting is abstinence from anything legitimate for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. Normally, fasting is an abstinence from food. But remember what young Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar? Daniel and his three friends abstained from the royal food and wine and limited themselves to vegetables and water (Dan 1:8-14). And, Paul tells us that married couples can decide to abstain from intimate relations for a while (1 Cor 7:5).
Fasting, then, is the laying aside of anything legitimate for a period of time because the believer is seeking to know God in a deeper and fuller way. True fasting is a private act between an individual and God. It is not to be done before men.
C It seems that Isaiah was speaking to a people who made fasting a regular part of their lives. God Himself said,
(Is 58:2) For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways ... They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
Most of us don't fast and have problems realizing the importance the Israelites placed upon it. Before saying anything else, therefore, I want you to realize the important place fasting had in the Israelite worship experience.
As we examine the Biblical record we see many different instances of fasting. For instance, under the law of Moses, the children of Israel were commanded to fast once a year, and this was binding upon that nation and people forever. From morning until evening on the Day of Atonement no one in the land was allowed to have even a bite of food (Lev 16:29f, 23:27-32; Num 29:7). Over the years food was not the only thing the people abstained from on the Day of Atonement; they also abstained from drinking, bathing, anointing themselves with oil or perfume, wearing sandals, or engaging in intimacy.
We also read of the people of Israel fasting during national emergencies. For instance, when there was battle between Israel and Benjamin, some forty thousand Israelites were cut down on the battlefield.
(Judg 20:26) Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD.When the Moabites, Ammonites, and others combined against Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, in battle, we are told that he
(2Chr 20:3-4) ... inquired of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. (4) The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.
I have to mention Nineveh. A reluctant Jonah announced that Nineveh had forty days to repent or it would be destroyed. Remember what happened? The result was nothing short of amazing:
(Jonah 3:5-9) The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (6) When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (7) Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. (8) But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. (9) Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."
In addition to these examples of public fasting, the Bible also mentions that of many pious individuals. When his child by Bathsheba became sick, we are told that
(2Sam 12:16) David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground.When Nehemiah was informed that the remnant of the people who survived the exile were in "great trouble and disgrace" and that the "wall of Jerusalem (was) broken down, and its gates ... burned with fire" he responded with mourning, fasting, and praying (Neh 1:3-4). When Daniel wanted Israel to be delivered from the Exile He pleaded with God in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes (Dan 9:3).
What was true for the Old Testament saints was also true of those in the New Testament. Anna, for instance, spent much time "fasting and praying" (Lk 2:37). When the church at Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first preaching tour, they did so only after a period of prayer and fasting (Acts 13:3). Indeed, on any important occasion, when faced with any vital decision, the early church always seemed to engage in fasting. Nor can we forget the example of the Lord Jesus. Need I remind you that He fasted for forty days and nights when He was in the wilderness being tempted of the devil?!
D So those people in Isaiah's day spent time in fasting. But Isaiah tells us that God was not impressed with their show of religious behavior. Why? Because it was only a show. Yes, they fasted. But they fasted before men. Their desire was not to deepen their relationship with God. Their desire was to earn God's favor. They thought that they were gaining God's favor by wailing and praying, wearing sackcloth, and postponing their meals until after sundown. Listen to verse 3:
(Is 58:3) 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?'They expected God to notice their fasting and reward them for it. And they complained when He didn't.
In the same way, people in our circles can think that they gain God's favor when they "go to church" twice, or even once, a week; when they pray; when they attend youth group meetings or church school or catechism; when they join a Bible Study; when they send their children to a Christian school, when they memorize their Sunday School verses. But why do we do this? Do we do this thinking God owes us one then? Or do we do this because we want to deepen our relationship with Him? God is not impressed, He is never impressed, when we put on a show before men. God is not impressed, He is never impressed, with mere religious behavior.
II Love Your Neighbor
A Do you know what impresses and pleases God? What impresses and pleases God is love. God pays no attention to prayers and fasting, to worship and singing, to Bible Study attendance and Christian Education, to learning your Sunday School lesson, if there is no love. You see, our prayers and fasting, our worship and singing, our Bible Study attendance and Christian Education means something only if we show love.
According to Isaiah, true fasting, true religion, means that the love of God and Christ must flow through us and to our neighbor. True fasting, true religion means loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Listen to what verses 6 & 7 say about true fasting, true religion:
(Is 58:6-7) "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (7) Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
And, we see that what impresses God is repentance. True fasting, true religion means a change of direction. Look at Nineveh. King and people fasted and called each other to "give up their evil ways and their violence." In the same way Isaiah calls the people of Israel to "loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke."
B God wants us to have true religion. He wants us to engage in true fasting. He wants us to repent of our sin. And, on this World Hunger Sunday, He wants us to share our blessings with the poor and hungry. Need I remind you that God has blessed us with so much. He does not want us to feel guilty about all the blessings that we have. Instead, God wants us to share with those who have so little.
This morning our boys and girls handed in their Peter Fish and Jars of Blessing. On behalf of the world's hungry, I want to say thank you. Thank you, boys and girls, for giving money to those who are poor and hungry. And, as a congregation, we put money in the offering this morning for the work of CRWRC with the hungry.
But love for the hungry is not something we are to show for just the 5 or 6 weeks of the year that we put money in our Peter Fish or in our jars of blessing or in the offering for CRWRC. Rather, we are to love our neighbor every week of the year.
God calls all of us to true fasting, true religion.
What is true fasting, true religion?
Within the context of knowing and loving Jesus, true fasting, true religion, means repenting of sin. True fasting, true religion, means loving your neighbor and feeding the hungry. Or, as James puts it,
(James 1:27) Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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