Rituals are nurturing practices that allow us to learn about God and be reminded of his most important attributes — his holiness, his love, his omnipotence, his mercy, his omniscience and his forgiveness.
Healthy worship rituals help us to meditate on God’s holy will expressed in the law. And they help us dwell again and again on God’s gracious promises expressed in the gospel. Rituals help us to form helpful habits that feed our faith, and do so on a consistent basis over the long haul.
All this is a good thing — a very good thing!
Yet, there is a danger inherent in rituals. If we’re not cautious about rituals, we can lose the substance of our faith in the midst of carrying out the ritual forms of our faith. Though it looks perfectly healthy and right on cursory examination from the outside, faith becomes an empty shell.
That’s what occurred with the Jews in the days of Isaiah. They were still faithfully carrying out the practices and rituals of their faith. But somewhere in the midst of carrying out their worship rituals, they had lost their love for God and their neighbor. The things most important to God were ignored, while the things most abhorrent to God were affirmed.
God — through Isaiah — suggested that his people needed to seriously evaluate themselves and redefine their rituals, such as fasting. The most important “fast” is not simply to give up eating. It’s to share our food with those who are hungry. It’s to provide travelers with shelter. It is to give clothes to those who lack clothing to wear. It is to bring justice and mercy to those who are oppressed and being treated unjustly.
Making this change was critically important to God. So as a special encouragement to the Jews to redefine their rituals, God also attached promises of grace to his command to do so. He tells the Jews that those who will redefine fasting in this way will see their influence grow. They will experience God’s protection and his blessing on their work. They will see their needs being met. He even promises that health and strength will be the hallmark of the people who “fast” in this new way.
Fast-forward to us, today, already living in a position of great influence, highly secure and protected, not to mention quite wealthy (certainly far beyond needs simply being met), with the best health and medical care in the world. That’s not to mention the even more important spiritual wealth that we possess. Jesus, God’s Son, has given us his righteousness, peace, faithful love, forgiveness, the power to experience a changed life, and the right to call ourselves the children of God with eternal life as our inherited destiny.
Every now and then it’s good for us, as well, to evaluate our hearts and examine our rituals. It’s a healthy exercise to reconsider and, if necessary, redefine. It’s important to make sure that we have not lost the substance of our gratitude and love for God, or buried our love for our neighbor somewhere beneath the ritual rubble that’s supposed to be nurturing our faith.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:6-11, NIV).
Lord, I thank you for your many blessings. You have graciously provided all I need for my body and life, as well as for my heart and soul. Help me to notice the needs of others and willingly seek to serve and generously give to those who need my help and assistance. Help me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Strengthen me to love sacrificially, as you have first loved me.
Our Bible reading for Thursday, September 24, is Isaiah 57:14 – 59:21, Ephesians 3:1-21 and Psalm 111:1-10.
Header image based on "Charity in the dictionary" by Howard Lake, CC By-SA 2.0