A week ago, I posted my contemplations on Isaiah 58. I have some upcoming opportunities to speak on the nature of the West Valley church plant – and in honesty, the picture of true kingdom living from Isaiah 58 is burned into my soul and causing surreal ache and repentance. I can’t even think about church planting without the hope of being ‘restorers of the streets’ – as Isaiah describes it.
This morning, I was reading more of Keller’s The Reason for God – Belief in an Age of Skepticism. He directly alluded to and extrapolated from Isaiah 58 as he considered the skeptic’s frequent objection that “the church is responsible for so much injustice.” With gentle biblical and intellectual prowess, Keller agreed, though he acknnowledged that the very reason we can critique the church’s actions in history is because Christ and the prophets did the very same thing. They were the first to critique the oppression and blindness of the religious establishment! According to the historian C. John Summerville, “even strong secular critics of Christianity are really using resources from within it to denounce it.” For example, Jesus’s sermon on the Mount is a major critique of the religious, not the irreligious!
Then Keller turned to Isaiah 58. Remember, it’s a chapter that presents a relatively good picture of those who fast and humble themselves before God in personal devotion, etc. THEN, the Lord rebukes such personal piety on the grounds that he required fasting that rather looked like “loosing the chains of injustice and setting the oppressed free…”
Timothy Keller: “What were the prophets and Jesus criticizing? They were not against prayer and fasting and obedience to God’s directions for life. The tendency of religious people, however, is to use spiritual and ethical observance as a lever to gain power over others and over God, appeasing him through ritual and good works. This leads both to an emphasis on external religious forms as well as greed, materialism, and oppression in social arrangements. Those who believe they have pleased God by the quality of their devotion and moral goodness naturally feel that they and their group deserve deference and power over others. The God of Jesus and the prophets, however, saves completely by grace. He cannot be manipulated by religion and moral perfomance – he can only be reached through repentance, through the giving up of power… In Jesus’ and the prophets’ critique, self-righteous religion is always marked by insensitivity to issues of social justice, while true faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and marginalized.” – p.60, The Reason for God, Dutton Press, 2008 –
Yes, the church has historically been stained by its involvement in (at worst) oppression of the weak or (more simply) blindness to the broken in deference toward its own happiness and image. Yes, it happens due to sinful hearts. BUT, that is where religion has been unfortunately gospel-less and filled with strength rather than an awareness of our constant grace-dependent weakness.
SO, may the ‘restorer of the streets’ version of true fasting and true gospel-religion be all-consuming as we pray for the identity of a church that is in embryo and soon to meet the world. Will we be concerned for all whom God has providentially placed in our demographic (hispanic, indian, hindu, goth, homosexual, historically churched, evangelical, young, old, transplant, PA Dutch, wealthy, poor, skateboarding, single parent, skeptic, angry, indifferent, happy, healthy, sick…)?
If we will, than we have no clue the kind of church that God will create!!! All we know is that it’ll have something to do with the people on our street (Isaiah 58:12) and it will have everything to do with showing forth a gospel of a God who longs to weep with the weak and bind up the broken.
Yes, the church has historically oppressed or ignored while clinging to personal piety… but that is not the end of the story!