I never call customer service unless it's important. Something vital to my life has to stop working before I’ll risk navigating the dire swamp of a customer service phone tree. Those calls are almost always frustrating for a simple reason: There is a disparity of urgency.
On my end of the line, there’s a certain level of desperation. Let’s call it, “high.” On the other end of the line, there is a certain level of concern. We’ll just call that “low.” This differential is the reason I don’t believe them when they tell me this one thing. They say it every time. “Your call is very important to us.”
No. No, it’s not! Say what you like. Loudly declare how important I am as a customer. Print up brass plaques enumerating your company commitment to excellent customer service. Tell me over and over again. I still don’t believe you. Why? Because it is not the things you say that let me know I matter to you. It’s how you treat me.
You've had this experience, right? Unexpectedly, God feels the same way.
Why isn’t God showing up?
In chapter 58 of the book of Isaiah, God goes on a bit of a rant. God’s people have lodged a complaint. “Why have we fasted, but You have not seen,” they say. “We have denied ourselves, but You haven’t noticed!” They are doing all the right things – keeping Sabbath, honoring the feasts, saying the right prayers at the right time – and their experience is that God is not coming through for them. What gives?
God replies, “Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high.”
Sure, the people are being very religious, but when it comes to business, when it comes to folks around them, they are not living in a way God desires. In fact, God seems to be saying the way they are living toward their neighbors is undermining, even invalidating, their very careful religious practice. By segregating their spiritual from the secular, they came to believe they were honoring God, while at the same time ignoring, demeaning, hurting, even oppressing the people around them.
God gets even more specific: “Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?
This is the life God was calling Israel to. God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt and then asked them to be liberators. This is also the life God is calling us to, through Jesus.
Jesus echoed Isaiah 58 in his own mission statement in Luke 4:17-19. “The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him, and unrolling the scroll, He found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When will we stop missing the point?
In the church, we’ve majored in getting everyone to heaven. We’ve focused on making sure everyone is behaving correctly. Our study of Scripture is intended to help us police doctrinal accuracy. When we draw lines in the sand, it’s about moral behavior and right belief. Yet, Jesus lists neither of these in his personal mission statement. Doesn’t that strike you as important?
When Israel complained that God wasn’t showing up for them, in spite of how carefully they were practicing their religion, God’s response wasn’t for them to sing more worship songs, or hold more prayer meetings, or open more seminaries to make sure everyone’s doctrine was right on track. The response was that they were professing love for God, but they were not living out love for people.
It was John who later showed us this connection. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen, cannot love the God he has not seen. And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother.” (1st John 4:20-21)
Our love for God is manifested in our practical, daily, love for people. This is not news, right? This makes intuitive sense. This is why, when the cable company tells us, “Your call is very important to us,” we don’t believe them. Cable companies don’t generally treat people like they matter. Not on the phone. Not on service calls. How they treat us tells us the truth.
This is why so much of the world is rejecting Christianity right now. They get it, too. We say we’re all about love, that we worship a God who is loving, but they are not experiencing us as loving, merciful, gracious people. So, they’re just calling shenanigans on the whole thing. Well, it’s not just non-Christians judging the church in this way. It’s also God. That’s the point of Isaiah 58. God was telling Israel that their worship – their Biblical worship – was not working. It wasn’t expressing love for God, because it wasn’t backed up by love for people.
There have been a number of reformations in the history of the church. Usually, they have been about theology. The church in America today needs another reformation, but not a reformation about theology. We’re up to our ears in sermons, commentaries, blog posts, and discussions about right theology. The church in America needs a reformation in our love for our neighbors. We need a renewal in our passion for the poor. We need an anointing on our ability to listen to the experiences of others, so that we can understand them before we ever preach to them. We need to practice the mission Jesus identified in that synagogue on a dusty Sabbath morning. Good news to the poor. Freedom to the captives. Sight to the blind. Freedom to the oppressed.
People who saw and interacted with Jesus – even people who didn’t understand his teaching, or agree with his worldview – admitted that something wonderful was happening. When was the last time you heard that said about the church?
Marc Alan Schelske writes about life at the intersection of grace and growth at MarcAlanSchelske.com. He is the teaching elder at Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon where he has served for 18 years. He's the author of Discovering Your Authentic Core Values. Marc is a husband, dad of two, speaker, writer, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist who drinks tea & rides a motorcycle. You can follow him on Twitter at @Schelske
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