By Pastor Jeff Fox-Kline
What comes first, doing good or being good?
I preached yesterday on Isaiah 1:10-17, which I think may be one of my new favorite passages. It’s got the strong command of Micah 6:8 (He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?), but takes it even further by showing us a God who could not care less what we say if we’re not serving our neighbors in their times of distress.
10 Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,[a] who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
That last verse is such a powerful statement.
“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”
As a distillation of God’s countercultural radical love ethic, this verse is simply incredible. Advocacy, partnership, compassion, aid, all wrapped up with a searching for what is truly just. This verse sends us out as a people to do what God wants us to do, and we would do very well to heed it. Not just because of what came before it in the passage, but because our love for God is manifest in our love for our neighbor. We do justice because we love God, not just so we can get in God’s favor (spoiler alert, we’re already there).
But I had someone helpfully and lovingly challenge my sermon today. This person observed that my sermon contained a lot of encouraging people to do justice, serve others, and declaring that this is what makes God happy. And I stand by what I said. To a point. Because they also cut to the chase by saying “The Gospel is not about what you do as much as it is about who you are."
This is correct. Spot on.
To outright declare that God hates our worship if we do not sufficiently serve our neighbors is a reflection of the passage, but is also some degree of hyperbole knowing what we do about the grace revealed to us by Jesus.
We are called to be transformed by the God who calls us and loves us.
So what comes first – serving or transformation?
Jesus’ first words as an adult in Luke call us to service. Jesus’ first words in Mark call us to repentance. Calls us to serve, but it starts with a message of repentance.
Which comes first? Both, I guess. We are transformed by God’s love and we go out and serve. Or in serving, we open ourselves up to a posture of servanthood that then leaves us transformed.
I read the Isaiah text and locked in on verse 17. Service comes first in this reading, leading us to be transformed. But in focusing exclusively on 17 I elided the truth in the verse immediately prior “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes."
Do you see it?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean.
This is a call to transformation. To repent, to turn from our wickedness. Let God enter and make us new. It is not what we do, but who we are. But who we are informs what we do.
What comes first – doing good or being good?
I don’t know. Let’s try for both.