Our message weaves a theme inspired from three of the lectionary readings, the first of which is Isaiah 1:1,10-20. Today’s message is a bit stark and gritty but this isn’t all bad because we’re pushing against summer slumber and August apathy.
Some call the Old Testament a dark realm, burdened with traditions and ruinous rules, and warped by ancient Judaism’s suffocating ritualism. However, bursting through Jerusalem’s great Temple walls and across the faces of horrified Levitical priests is God’s proclamation to Isaiah, who shares the key to true life. Hint: The 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 mania controlled ancient Judaism. God has a different plan: “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isaiah 1:11b). God denounces excessive, formal religion and detests killing for the sake of sacrificial magic. This is a brutal truth with many implications, many of which we’ve forgotten. Rather than sacrifice, God wants spiritual life, a state that transforms faith from a blood-soaked altar into life-cleansing redemption. No amount of ritualistic religion substitutes for transformed thought and action. Isaiah attests that God’s once vital people had substituted hypocrisy for love, justice and truth. All this confirms that even a fine-tuned religion can decay. Let’s not repeat that mistake.
In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-15 elevates enlightened faith, which helps people avoid hollow religion. Legitimate faith is the spark of spirituality, the heavenly force driving us upward and onward, away from the perils of captivity even within our beloved religious institutions. Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32-40 help us prioritize: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke12:34). Our goal must involve valuing goodness and justice, among many other virtues. Step out in faith today. Be ready to do what it takes to engage people wherever they are and share with them the hope of heaven. Use tools and technologies to get peoples’ attention and hold it as God redeems them. Churches can avoid the death spiral of becoming elitist social clubs, withdrawn from the world and ignoring God’s wishes. Thriving churches embrace change and adapt, as do all successful life forms. To avoid God’s Spirit, either through negligence or inattention, is the same as choosing death. God wants us to choose wisely and live.
Jesus encourages us to “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (Luke 12:35). This means that we strive to be active and adaptive, not passive and regressive. What holds us back? Fear? Ignorance? Anger? Yes, and all the more so within a toxic cocktail of diversions and distractions. Having a lit lamp means that we’re awake and using the light as a guide. Sadly, many people are sleepwalking, awake biologically and more-or-less functioning but they are dead on the inside (that is, they are not spiritually awakened and there is a void in their souls).
Depending upon church doesn’t ensure spiritual vitality. Nor is it productive to show-up fifty-two Sundays a year only to coast blithely through the motions without maintaining a healthy spiritual lifestyle elsewhere. No wonder the church has lost relevance and that people feel better about taking Johnny to softball practice on Sunday mornings than to church. Healthy churches function roughly similar to a back country adventure guide, helping people to navigate challenges while also enjoying the journey. Are you ready? If not, then are you at least willing to get ready? God’s Sprit seeks to encourage. So, be ready to accept the bounty of blessings sure to come.
Jesus’ example can help us prepare for anything. Our part is to remain alert and awake, ready to perceive trouble coming before it arrives. It is worth the effort because we don’t want to be caught unaware and unprepared when our hour comes. As with the returning master in Jesus’ parable, God wants to empower us to be ready. Being wakeful also helps us confront that soul thief who seeks to destroy our faith.
Cherished rituals and traditions only play a limited role in developing spiritual health. It is each person’s 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 that robber in Jesus’ story to do it for us. Get ready and get real. I guarantee you that there’s no other way to achieve the enduring joy you seek.