Today’s message is a “combo-special,” weaving spiritual vitality themes from three lectionary readings, the first of which is Isaiah 1:1,10-20. All of today’s material helps combat the threat of summer slumber and August apathy.
Many people characterize the Old Testament as a harsh realm, burdened with horrendous judgments and ruinous rules, warped by a suffocating ritualism. These are valid characterization in many instances but that’s not the final word today. Brace yourself, because bursting through Jerusalem’s great Temple walls and across the faces of horrified Levitical priests is God’s proclamation to the Prophet Isaiah. Hint: Today’s ultimate message is nothing like what we associate with the stereotypical “do this or die” message rampant in the Old Testament.
Isaiah’s shocker is that God was fed up with the sacrificial cult of the privileged bureaucrats, whose priestly oligarchy suffocated ancient Judaism. God had an entirely different plan that turned the Old Testament and its world upside-down: “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11b). God here denounces excessive, formal religion and detests killing for the sake of sacrificial magic. God’s declaration marked a monumental change in religion; no longer were sacrifices acceptable.
Rather than sacrifice, God instilled in both ancient and modern followers a mandate for a magnificent spiritual life, a status that transforms faith from a blood-soaked altar of butchered animals into a life of redemptive, spiritual vitality. No amount of ritualistic religion substitutes for transformed thoughts and actions. Isaiah attests that God’s once vital people had substituted hypocrisy for love and diverse evils for truth. All this confirms that even a fine-tuned ancient religion can decay. As to a faith decaying, let’s not reproduce the mistakes that doomed the religion that both God and Isaiah criticized.
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-15 elevates enlightened faith, which helps people avoid bad religion. Legitimate faith is the spark of spirituality, the heavenly force driving upward and onward, away from the perils of captivity within deficient religion. Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32-40 set the priority: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke12:34). Those who claim to be people of faith cherish goodness and justice rather than hate and divisiveness. The core Gospel message of loving God and neighbor rise above all other concerns, a lesson that the Christian church has continually struggled to implement.
Step out in faith. Be ready to do what it takes to engage people wherever they are and share with them God’s love and truth. Use the latest, most effective tools and technologies to get peoples’ attention and hold it as God redeems them. Churches can avoid the death spiral of musty, inbred social clubs, which withdraw from the world and ignore God’s transformative Spirit. Rather than resisting change or simply tolerating it, thriving churches joyfully embrace challenges and adapt.
Jesus further encourages us to “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (Luke 12:35). This means that we strive to be proactive and adaptive, not passive and regressive. Having a lit lamp means that you’re awake and using the light as a guide. Sadly, many people are sleepwalking in the dark, biologically alive but sterile or dead internally. If you carry God’s light then you’ll illuminate a path for yourself and perhaps even for those around you.
Are you spiritually conscious? “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes, truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them” (Luke 12:37). What an amazing promise, that when we, God’s servants, keep watch then the Almighty will meet our preparedness with wondrous blessings. Why do so many people fail in this process? Fear. Ignorance. Anger. Yes, and added to this unholy trinity is a toxic cocktail of diversions and distractions. Be ready and receptive to God’s presence.
Being a church leader or having decades of church attendance on your résumé doesn’t ensure spiritual health. Nor is it productive to show-up fifty-two Sundays a year only to coast blithely through the liturgical motions without actively managing your spiritual health. To achieve soul health requires maintaining a healthy spiritual lifestyle outside of the church sanctuary as much as inside it.
Jesus’ encouragement to be awake and watchful can help you prepare for anything. Your part is to remain alert and vigilant, ready to perceive challenges before they overtake you. It is worth the effort because you don’t want to be caught unaware and unprepared when the hour of testing and peril arrive. As with the returning master in Jesus’ parable, God wants to empower you to be ready. Being wakeful also helps you confront any challenges in a manner that ensures overcoming life’s obstacles.
Are you ready to increase your level of spiritual engagement? If not, then are you at least willing to get ready? God’s Sprit seeks to encourage and equip you for whatever life presents you. No one else can do this for you; no one can carry you there. Also realize that cherished rituals and church traditions only play a limited role in developing spiritual health. It is ultimately your responsibility to create a vibrant, enthusiastic life, one guided by the presence of God’s Spirit flowing from the inside out. Perhaps it’s time to clean house, and not wait for a catastrophe to grab your attention. Get ready and get real. I assure you that God will bless you with the best possible life.