Blogging the Bible 188 – Isaiah 28-31 – Religion without faith?

God doesn’t seem to have much time for religion, except where it’s moved and inspired by faith. Then he’s ready and waiting.

There are a few points in these chapters where this theme comes through.

Keep the focus on the big picture

The first (as I read it) is in 28:13, where the prophet denounces the priests and prophets who do not understand God’s Word.

13 Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them,
“Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little;”
in order that they may go, and fall backward,
and be broken, and snared, and taken. (Isa 28:13)

I think the reference is to the taking and abusing of God’s word, taking it as if it were a list of rules or separate aphorisms, without grasping that it’s part of a much bigger whole – the grand story of God’s work with his people, without which none of the fragments can be properly understood. The tragedy is that when the priests and prophets have lost sight of the big picture, the people who rely upon them cannot see it clearly either – and so the nation moves on toward judgement.

Don’t speak without thinking and feeling

Then there’s a clearer reference to formal prayer and worship, coming from the lips without touching the heart.

13 The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
14 so I will again do
amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden. (Isa 29:13, 14)

These words stand as a warning for all of us – religion can be dangerous when it becomes a formal habit. It then tends to insulate and isolate us from the realities of life and even the truth of God. Again, this superficial religion is deadly to wisdom and understanding – because it has no reality below the top veneer, it cannot sustain thought or inform decisions. For that, and for full life, we need depth.

Let God challenge you – especially where it hurts

The last of the three passages that struck me is a bit different, and it puts the blame this time on the people, who want to tame their religion.

8 Go now, write it before them on a tablet,
and inscribe it in a book,
so that it may be for the time to come
as a witness forever.
9 For they are a rebellious people,
faithless children,
children who will not hear
the instruction of the LORD;
10 who say to the seers, “Do not see”;
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
prophesy illusions,
11 leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”

The passage goes on to chart the disastrous consequences of not listening to the uncomfortable bits of what God says.

At my ordination retreat, Bishop David Jenkins challenged us always to remember that the calling of the priest is ‘to comfort the distressed, and to distress the comfortable’.

Whenever people tell me that ‘you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ one of the things that I try to pluck up the courage to ask them is ‘who challenges you to change?’ When we try to set our own individualised rules for which bits of faith and the Bible we take seriously, we have no help to get out of our comfort zone and be changed.

But without change, we have no faith. Without change and growth, we have no life. Without God’s challenge, heard through others, we have no direction for change.

So let’s keep faith real, and let God challenge us as he comes to our rescue.

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