Is This a Day Acceptable to the Lord?

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“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 (Isaiah 58:4-5).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Imagine a world that is cold and silent toward pain and human suffering. Try to envision a place where everything is driven by self-indulgence and life is all about financial profit, business transactions, and the bottom line. A society where politics and government are more about attaining and maintaining power than serving and protecting the nation and citizens. Countless people are being dehumanized. The sanctity of human life is determined by usefulness, cost-benefit analysis, convenience, and the god of choice. In this world there are no prayers, liturgies, hymns, sermons, or Sacraments. And so, love and compassion are rare commodities. This is the world to which Isaiah is called to proclaim God’s Word; too often it is also ours. Is this a day acceptable to the Lord?

As Isaiah 58 begins, the Lord commands His prophet to proclaim the rebellion of His people. Notice how Isaiah describes this rebellion. On the one hand, it seems as if the people are eager to know the ways of the Lord. From all outward appearance, they observe the worship regulations, including fasting, outlined in the Law of Moses, and they observe the Sabbath. But on the other hand, God describes them as rebellious and sinful and their worship as unacceptable.

The people ask God for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them (Isaiah 58:2). They look for God’s deliverance. All this seems to be as God would demand, but something is deeply wrong. What is it?

The people ask, “Why have we fasted, and You see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3). They expect God to reward their fasting and humility. These people do not understand God’s grace and the undeserved promises of redemption through the Servant. They trust in their own works to earn the notice of God. Deliverance, in their thinking, becomes a reward for their religious fervor. Is this a day acceptable to the Lord?

Hardly! Such thinking is arrogant. God is holy, perfect, and separate from everything human—far above all creation. What could any human offer to God to earn His favor and be worthy of His notice? What great human effort could move God? All humanity together cannot offer enough sacrifices or deeds of kindness to move the mind and heart of a holy God. Grace, and grace alone, remains the only reason God shows compassion and concern for anything human. He decides to do so on His own; He loves for His own sake. It is arrogance to think that we could do something so good or great that we could earn His love.

These people of Israel have taken on the attitude of the Pharisee in the temple as he recites the good things he has done to deserve God’s notice and blessing (Luke 18:9-14). In this most important matter, the people have missed the mark; they have sinned. They serve God from selfish motives—hoping to win deliverance. Is this a day acceptable to the Lord?

The attitude of the people is wrong from another perspective, too. It opposes God’s clear message of the vicarious atonement. The Servant suffers for the people. That serves as the basis of God’s declaration of righteousness, the justification of sinners. Isaiah writes, “Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, My Servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).

Human effort cannot earn such blessings, but so many at the time of Isaiah choose to pervert the message, rebel against it, and substitute their own doctrine of blessings earned by human effort. That is rebellion against God and a perversion of God’s expressed and clear Word. Deliverance from sin and death cannot be earned by human effort; it can only come as a free gift of God to repentant sinners.

These people create another idol, a god who rewards their fasting and religious fervor with blessings. This concept of God makes the Lord no different than all the false gods created by their pagan neighbors. In many ancient cultures, when the crops were bad, people believed that their god was angry with them and that they had to appease him. When things were good, they imagined that they had done what the god wanted them to do and that the god was rewarding them.

But a subtle and dangerous difference remains between the gross idolatry of the heathen and the concept of God held by these Jews. The heathen nations fashion statues of wood, stone, or metal and worship them. The idolatry of the Jews is more subtle. Some do bow down to worship the idols of the heathen, but others do not bow down to physical idols. Instead, they worship a god who rewards them for their good effort and punishes them for their evil. He rewards their fasting and notices when they humble themselves. They’ve turned the God of free and faithful grace into a god of works. Is this a day acceptable to the Lord?

This false concept of God continues in our own age and will persist until the end of time. As sinners, we are infected by pride and arrogance. We want to be noticed, and we want our good deeds to be noticed. Even after we know God’s free gift of grace in Christ, we are still influenced by our old sinful nature. We tend to pervert the grace of God and make it into law.

Unfortunately, many Christian churches abandon the God of grace and adopt the concept of a god in heaven who rewards human effort. Others concentrate so much on Christian virtues and behavior that they no longer talk of Christ, the one who delivers us from sin, death, and hell. They fall into the same sin and rebellion as these people who wondered why God had not noticed their fasting and humility.

We are all tempted to exchange the grace of God for the delusion of works. We find it very difficult to give up the belief that we can earn God’s favor through our own merit and effort. Only regular repentance turns us away from our efforts toward God’s mercy. Only regular repentance turns our pharisaical boast about how much we have done for God to the humble plea of the publican, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

God does not build the Church upon human effort. Instead, by His grace, He builds the Church upon Christ and His saving work. Without Christ, no one can find deliverance from sin or death. Without Christ, religion becomes idolatry, rebellion, and perversion. No religious fervor or pious life can earn the blessings only God can give by grace. Every human work, even the most noble is flawed.

When confronted with the harsh demands of God’s holy law, Old Adam can make only one of two false choices. Either the soul deflects the harsh demands of God’s law and becomes self-righteous, or he abandons all hope and despairs. The people of Isaiah’s day choose the first of the two false choices. They believe that they can do what God demands and God will reward them for their goodness and devout fasting. But such people do not understand the depth of their sin. They do not know that their righteousness is only a sham and hypocritical.

God demands perfect obedience; no human can comply. The people take pride in their fasting, but as devout as their fasting may appear, it is not sincere. They still retain the desire to exploit their works. They still do as they please, not as the Lord demands. Their fasting ends in quarrels, strife, and brawling. These hearts and lives have not been changed by the worship of the Lord. No compassion, generosity, humility, or love marks their lives. They remain combative, arrogant, selfish, and greedy. Yet they imagine that God will reward them for their religious fasting and devotion.

By nature, we are all combative, arrogant, selfish, and greedy. These are fruits of the sinful nature for which the Christ suffered and died. God wants to transform human hearts so that they are loving, humble, generous, and kind. That transformation comes only when the Spirit works within us and we believe in the God of grace. But sadly, even after we believe, we retain our sinful nature and so often fall into quarrels, strife, and greed. Our transformation will not be complete until we enter the glory of heaven. Here on earth, we struggle against the tendencies of our own sinful nature and wrestle sometimes hard and long to do as God desires. When we fail, we turn to God for forgiveness and find in His love and grace the strength to continue the fight against the sin within.

Without Christ, God accepts no human effort (Hebrews 11:6), no matter how good it appears. With Christ, human effort comes to the favorable attention of God, who forgives our failings. God sees the blood of His own Son instead of the stain of believer’s sin. Then, by virtue of His love for sinners in Christ, God empowers His faithful to persist in their struggle against sin and in their efforts to life as He desires. Here, in the Servant, Christ, you will find a day acceptable to the Lord!

Having exposed the hypocrisy of those who refuse His grace and seek to earn His blessings by their religious effort, the Lord turns to provide a positive example of what He wants from His people.

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? (Isaiah 58:6-7).

God’s people are not to be hypocrites but sincere believers who show their faith by their actions. The writer to the Hebrews writes, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (11:6). Those who trust in the Lord recognize the wonderful blessings they have received from His gracious hand. They have no illusions about earning God’s blessings by their behavior, even if their efforts correspond to the description in these verses. They are so grateful for the undeserved gifts of God that they desire to show their gratitude by their activity. Believers who know that they have forgiveness, life, and salvation only through the grace of God desire to thank God by their actions.

The Lord of grace promises wonderful blessings to those who trust in Him and who accept the forgiveness, life, and salvation He provides through Christ:

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” (Isaiah 58:8-9)

When true sincere faith and trust in God’s grace capture the hearts of the sinners, it motivates us to do good works in God’s name. Then a special relationship exists between God and His believers. When faith enters our hearts, we become God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). As ambassadors of the Lord who reconciles sinners by His Servant, Christ, we proclaim the Gospel, wherever and whenever we go.

As we trust in Christ, proclaim the Gospel, and live godly lives, the Lord goes with us. The righteousness of God, which has been imparted to us by faith, directs our paths. While the righteousness of the people goes before, the glory of the Lord follows. We are surrounded by the care and concern of the Lord.

As God’s saints move through life, we pray. The Lord encourages us to call upon Him in our needs (Psalm 50:15; 91:15), and He promises to hear our prayers. A special relationship exists between the Lord and His believers. He always encourages us to bring our troubles to Him. He promises to be present at every difficult turn in the road with His help. He pledges to answer us in our needs, “Here am I.” What a comfort! We can cast our cares upon Him, and He will listen.

Is this a day acceptable to the Lord? It most certainly is. For Jesus Christ has done everything necessary to make it so. “He made Himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). He performed the perfect fast (Matthew 4:1-11), loosed the bonds of sin and wickedness, freed those oppressed by demons or evil men, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked.

You go and do likewise. Your neighbor needs your love and care. Not to earn God’s favor, Jesus already has. For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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