“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.” So begins Isaiah 58, a strident call to arms and my current favorite chapter in the Bible. “Soldier of the Cross” by Kentucky Thunder comes to mind, and as a matter of fact that record is rocking my soul as I write this. From the sounds of things, this could be one of those chapters that gets violent quickly and sits uncomfortably in the minds of modern, nonviolent people of faith. Gladly however, it doesn’t. Isaiah, a prophet who declares himself “The mouth of the Lord,” goes on to chide people of faith for pious acts empty of real action. “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.” So much sass, Isaiah, I can’t handle it.
“They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” The mouth of the Lord responds pointedly, “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” God asks, sarcastically, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” This biting critique of conventional religiosity rings powerfully thousands of years later. What do your rituals do anyway? From God, this really stings.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:” hold on tight, friends, God’s about to lay it all out, “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 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?” Isaiah reminds us, not at all politely, of the commands that we ignore with empty worship and little else. Working for social justice, to fight oppression, to give of yourself — this is the True Fasting that is the will of God.
When we follow these commands, the mouth of the LORD promises us, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” God makes a promise of support to those who do his work.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
God calls all those who claim to follow him in this chapter to a more profound understanding of the Sabbath. To fast is not simply to be penitent and sleep in faux humility on beds of sackcloth, but to reach out into our communities with a liberatory hand. Isaiah’s demand is explicit — those who worship the God of Abraham must be noisy in their faith and in their commitment to justice. We don’t have another option. This burns me up inside. The language here cannot be ignored, yet I ignore it every day. God’s command to serve not only the people of Swarthmore College, but the world at large, is a weight that I can’t quite bear. I fail to love my neighbors continually, I get caught in my own interests and lose track of what it means to be a servant of God.
So what can I do? My laughable efforts at serving justice — always flawed fundamentally by my basic, broken humanness — can’t possibly be what God expects of me. And yet, based on the above text, God’s promise is to strengthen my frame before opposition and to steady my hands as I strain at the knots of the yoke of oppression. I suppose I just have to keep working.
Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to your people their rebellion and to the Empire its sins.