Who Is Going To Care?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? —Isaiah 58:6

As our care groups are thinking through how to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond, we all face a temptation. Let’s face it honestly today, and let’s get past it together.

What is the temptation? At the end of the gospel of Luke, Jesus says to his followers that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed in his name to all nations. For that purpose, he says, “You will be clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48). So, the disciples can be weak, they can be tired, and that’s okay. Jesus will strengthen them. But what happens next is surprising. As the book of Acts opens up, what are those disciples talking about? Are they asking Jesus to clothe them with his power to spread repentance and forgiveness? No. What they ask him is this: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They were changing the subject. In a way, it was understandable. The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would create a world where everyone would sit under his own vine and his own fig tree, and no one would make them afraid (Micah 4:4). The Bible itself spoke of a wonderful new world of peace and plenty, with nothing to fear. And the Messiah had come in Jesus. But there’s the temptation. It’s in these two scenarios as we look at our own futures today: proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to everyone versus settling down under our own vine and fig trees. Outward gospel expansion with its risks and unknowns versus enjoying our own blessing in our own familiar surroundings. Now, which of those two gets the gravitational pull of our hearts? That’s the temptation. I feel it. Do you?

Real Christianity is Jesus Community Mission – in that order. Jesus first, because he’s exploding with mercy for exhausted, guilty people. Then Community, because we experience him best together. But the temptation is to stop at Jesus and Community. That’s tempting, because it’s Mission that bumps up against our selfishness and our fears and our limitations. It’s so understandable to sit down under our own vines and fig trees and call it the kingdom of God. It’s so understandable to go to church to sing to Jesus and enjoy one another in community and get some teaching on how to live under our vines and fig trees in a more biblical way. But that kind of Christianity is a temptation. If we do Christianity without Mission, it doesn’t matter how devoted we are. Unless we are serving others and benefiting others and helping others and evangelizing others, Jesus has a problem with our devotion. That’s what he’s saying here in Isaiah 58. We could plant a new church on every block of every city in the world today, but if those churches would be self-serving, Jesus would have a problem with it. How could he bless something so opposite to his own heart? What’s the most famous verse in the entire Bible? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” (John 3:16). We happen to live in a universe where ultimate reality is not cold, dark, blank space. We live in a universe where ultimate reality is a divine heart of sacrificial love for the undeserving. When that mighty heart of God came down among us, it was Jesus. The Bible sums up his life this way: “He went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) – all the way to the cross. The Bible draws out the obvious implication for us: “The love of Christ overwhelms us when we reflect that if one man has died for all, then all should be dead; and the reason he died for all was so that the living should no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised to life for them” (2 Corinthians 5:14, JB). The gospel is why a heart of sacrificial love is where Jesus shows up and gets involved. That’s what Isaiah 58 is saying. Let’s think it through.

Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins. —Isaiah 58:1

God tells Isaiah the prophet to get up in the people’s faces, loud and clear, about their sin. Things must be really bad. What are they doing that’s so horrible?

Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God. —Isaiah 58:2

If you moved to Nashville and found a church where the people were seeking God daily and delighting to know his ways and so forth, you might think, “I just found my new church home.” But it’s possible for so much to be right, even while God can see there’s something wrong. What then is going wrong? Look what the people are thinking about God, under these good surface appearances:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” —Isaiah 58:3a

They’re frustrated with God. Have you ever heard someone say, “Yeah, I tried Jesus. But it didn’t work for me”? There’s always a reason for that. Whenever we think that doing Christianity is a way to obligate God, it can’t work. Grace is God’s only way. What does God see in their religion – not in their disobedience but in their obedience – that he finds so offensive he doesn’t want to get involved?

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
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 58:3a-5

How can the real Jesus bless false appearances? But where is the hypocrisy here? It’s obeying God in one way – fasting – in order to evade obeying God in other ways. And compared with correcting oppression and wrong, fasting isn’t all that hard. You can do it in a day, and get back to normal. It doesn’t really demand much. It doesn’t actually change anything. But it looks serious – to us, anyway. What then does God want to see in us?

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

The most powerful argument in all the world for relieving suffering is the gospel. Only the gospel tells us that God saw our sin and our misery and cared about us and got involved at infinite cost to himself. Only the gospel tells us that we didn’t have to qualify for God’s help. Only the gospel has the power to change how we see the whole world. Only the gospel can make us the presence of Jesus himself in the world today. If you don’t believe the gospel, you can still be a wonderful human being, and you probably are. Many unbelievers make this a better world, as Christians always should. But there is this difference. If you are an unbeliever, you have a choice. You can define your own ultimate reality and live your own way. You might live for the benefit of others, or you might not. I hope you will. But if you choose not to, your own principles allow you that choice. But a Christian has no choice. A Christian must make the world a better place, because of who God is. What is God saying here? The religion he considers true religion helps people. Can you see that here? The true indicator of how we really see God is how we treat other people. That’s what Isaiah is saying.

The gospel’s vision of God is why Christian history is full of examples of believers serving others. For example, George Whitefield, the Anglican evangelist, founded an orphanage and started what eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. William Wilberforce, another Anglican, led the political fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Henri Dunant, a Christian businessman, inspired the founding of The Red Cross. Lord Shaftesbury in Britain, a born again Christian, persuaded Parliament to abolish the sixteen-hour workday and outlaw the employment of women in the mines who were pushing 200-pound coal carts and children even as young as four working twelve to fourteen hours a day in the mines. Shaftesbury’s family motto was “Love, Serve.” Many Christians in this country were abolitionists by gospel conviction, including Jonathan Blanchard, president of Wheaton College, where Jani and I studied. William Booth, a Methodist preacher, founded the Salvation Army to help the urban poor. Florence Nightingale was a Christian who believed she literally heard the voice of God call her to be a nurse and care for the sick and suffering. Her work in the Crimean war reduced the death rate among wounded soldiers from 42 percent to 2 percent. Arthur Broome, an Anglican pastor, saw horses being beaten as they tried to pull impossible loads on slippery pavement at the docks in London and founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Josephine Butler, a devout Christian, fought for the humane treatment of prostitutes under arrest. Why have Christians had a tender conscience for the undeserving and the unfortunate? Because of the power of the gospel to get us thinking out beyond ourselves and start caring about others. John Piper said it well: “We care about all suffering now, and especially eternal suffering later.” We care, because God cares. He cares about you. He cares about me. He cares about everyone around us. Let that sink in.

When it does sink in, and we act on it, God does not leave us high and dry. He does not ask us to step out in faith without backing us up. What then does God then promise us? Isaiah is not saying we can earn blessing from God. He is saying, “This is where the gracious blessing of God is experienced. Jump in!”

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.”
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. —Isaiah 58:8-14

Again, God isn’t saying we can leverage him or obligate him. But when our hearts beat with his heart, he draws near. “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” Do you want God to answer your prayers? Be his answer to someone else’s prayers. Do you want God to be near you? Get close to someone who needs you. Let’s see the temptation to a self-centered lifestyle as a temptation. Let’s get past such a small trust in God for our own needs that we perceive our lives as a grim struggle for bare survival. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). Our Father is caring for us, so that we will care for others. It’s okay to ask about margin and space. But I hope that isn’t the first question we ask. I hope it’s the seventh or eighth question we ask, because God says we will be “like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.” So let’s work hard and serve others and get tired, and then we’ll die and go to heaven – all of it the gracious gift of God to us, the undeserving. When we’ve given ourselves and are tired and spent, it’s not as though something has gone wrong. We haven’t miscalculated. We’re just living the Christian life.

The mega-fact of human history is that God came down among us in Jesus. And Jesus wept. So will we. So do we. This is good. This is part of our redemption. C. S. Lewis wrote,

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — your heart will not be broken; it will become unbreakable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.

Here is where we can all begin to live on mission – right from our homes. We don’t need to host a big event down at the Ryman. We can start by opening our homes serving people, befriending people, listening to people, feeding people really good food, treating them well, especially the people we’ve been ignoring. They won’t always be considerate. They will break our stuff. Their kids will misbehave. But we’re talking about the love of God that went to the cross. Do we care about people? Do we care that people without the Savior are going to hell? I know we do. Let’s prove it. And God will keep every promise to us here in Isaiah 58.

We have decisions to make and work to do. We will make the real Jesus non-ignorable. It’s why God raised this church up. It’s why he has blessed us so much. Let’s just keep taking it one step at a time, trusting the Lord for strength. He will show us what he can do for a church that cares the way he does.