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Going Through The Motions

Isaiah 1:14-18 - "I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts; they have become a burden to Me. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now and let us reason together," says the Lord, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool."

Read all of Isaiah 1.

A lot of people get religious for the holidays. Some people begin going through the motions as early as Thanksgiving, but almost everyone "peaks" at Christmas. Church services are attended, hymns are sung and formal prayers are mouthed. But this religious tokenism is usually over by New Year's Eve--about the same time that the nativity scenes are put away until next year.

Going through the motions is not something new. The ancient kingdom of Judah was involved in this practice, too. In fact, the problem of going through the motions became one of the main themes of the Old Testament prophets. We can see from our text above that God hated the outward religious forms and ceremonies when the heart attitude of the people remained unchanged. Festivals and feasts in that day, like Thanksgiving and Christmas in our day, were not at all pleasing to God because most of the people were just going through religious motions. Since there was no true worship behind the ritual, all the activity of the religious holidays was simply disgusting to God (v14). Even the multiplied prayers, along with the pious display of hands lifted toward heaven, meant nothing to God because it was all just a coverup for unholy attitudes and evil actions. No wonder God said that He would hide His eyes from this kind of piety and turn a deaf ear to this kind of prayer (v15). Has this word of the Lord something to say to us today concerning our Christian holiday celebrations?

Isaiah prophesied in a day of religious apostasy much like our own day. Long gone were the days when the people of Israel faithfully embraced the covenant that God made with their fore-fathers. Instead there was widespread idolatry and immorality throughout the land. The pagan ritual of child sacrifice was not just condoned, but was actually practiced by some of the people. (See 2 Kings 16:3 and 17:17.) Even Ahaz (v1), the King, sacrificed his son to a pagan god. How greatly the people had revolted against God and had turned away from Him to do evil (vs2-4). This is why the Lord had to discipline them and withdraw His blessings from their land (vs5-9). The immorality in Israel at that time was so bad that Isaiah refers to the nation as Sodom and Gomorrah, those wicked cities that God had completely wiped out years before because of immoral practices (v10). And yet most of the people were still going through the motions of so-called worship to the Lord--sacrifices and offerings (v11), pilgrimages to the Temple (v12), burning of incense (v13), attending sacred services (v14), and celebrating the religious holidays with great displays of devotion (vs14-15).

Is not this description of national conditions in Isaiah's day similar to conditions in our nation today? We still have plenty of churches and religious activity. We still use coins engraved "In God we trust." We still pledge that we are "one nation under God." We still take oaths of truthfulness with a hand on the Bible or "with the help of God." We still have our religious declarations and proclamations such as "Year of the Bible" and "National Day of Prayer." And we still have our religious holiday celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But to many Americans all of this activity is just religious tokenism. Where is the faith in God and adherence to the standards of the Bible that once characterized this nation? Where are the Thanksgivings with real thanks directed in genuine faith to the living God? Where are the Christmases whose true emphasis is not on parties and tinsel but on the miracle of the incarnation? Our nation has turned away from God and the biblical standards. Anti-Christian, not post-Christian, is the adjective which more and more describes the true state of affairs in America. The outward religious show is just so much hypocrisy and going through the motions.

How plainly verses 21-23 summarize the conditions of our nation today. Like a harlot, we have given up our moral standards (v21). Many of our helpless poor continue to suffer because of political graft and social injustice (v23). And when we think of the horrors of legalized abortion, we must ask ourselves if we are any better than those who practiced child sacrifice in Isaiah's day! Surely our hands are also "covered in blood" (v15).

What should we do? We must follow the divine directions of verses 16-20. As a nation we must clean up our act (v16). We must not only bring to justice more of those who break the law, but we must bring more justice to those who are truly indigent and needy--those who are being crushed under a system of "justice" that has abandoned God. This does not mean more benefits for the lazy, but less social injustice by the greedy.

Obviously, this is all more easily said than done. In fact, this kind of change is impossible apart from the secret of verse 19. The secret is that we must be "willing and obedient". If we as a nation would be willing to turn back to God and obey the biblical standards, we would find the strength to do what appears impossible. And we would find the blessing of God upon this land (v19). God is not unreasonable. He pleads with us in verse 18 to use our common sense and return to Him. He can forgive our past failures. Even though this nation has become more and more like a modern Sodom and Gomorrah and our national sins appear as glaring indelible stains on a white cloth (v18), God will remove these blemishes if we are willing to change. Just as individual believers have come to know the cleansing truth of verse 18, so nations can experience the forgiveness and blessing of God if they turn to the Lord. The offer of verse 18 is just as good for us today as it was to the ancient kingdom of Judah. But our religious convictions must be more than just an increased effort at going through the motions! God sees the inward motives, not just the outward motions and masks. There must be genuine repentance and obedience before God.

As growing Christians we can pray that our nation would have a change of heart and turn back to God and the biblical standards. Perhaps we should ask ourselves at this point whether we as individual Christians are prepared for a revival. A national revival brings a reawakening to God's people. Do we honestly desire God to change us as individuals? This could be disruptive to our easy way of life and selfish lifestyles! Certain of our apathetic attitudes would have to go. Priorities might have to be rearranged. Our individual value systems would be subject to God's reorganization. Are we as growing Christians really ready for a spiritual revival? Another way to focus this crucial question for each one of us would be as follows: "If God were to start a national revival through me, what area of my life would He begin to work on first?"

As we read the rest of Isaiah chapter 1, we are encouraged by the promise that the Lord gave to Israel. Although He would have to discipline them, He would also restore them. Our gracious Lord is still in the restoring business. His discipline is always more remedial than it is punitive. His promise of restoration for the people of ancient Judah can certainly be applied to the people of America today--a nation that once acknowledged the God of the Bible. Listen to His gracious promise as given in 2 Chronicles 7:14. "If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

During this holiday season we can be truly thankful for the individual leaders in this land who still acknowledge God and follow biblical standards. We can be thankful for every vestige of genuine faith that is still evident in this country. Let us pray that God would begin a great movement towards social justice and righteousness in the hearts of the people of this nation. What a miracle it would be if we could just see our religious holiday celebrations reflecting true godliness and worship, and not just the travesty of going through the motions!
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