And then we talked about what to do during those times-how we can stay faithful when we don't feel like God is listening. Sometimes we need to walk by faith, based on what God's taught us in the past, knowing that he's not really absent. He's just asking us to trust him right now. In the words of Denise, we just "keep on keeping on."
Certainly we all experience these times. In my experience, they are a part of a normal Christian life. So we can continue to seek him, continue to worship him, continue to thank him, continue to obey him. I grow uniquely during these times, and my rediscovery of the wonder and awe of serving God helps me to relate to people who don't yet have a relationship with God.
There are a couple of other things we can do:
- Replace faith with legalism and ritual. Go to church a lot. Serve a lot. Do all the right things. Even make additional rules. That we obey.
- Walk away. God's not around anyway so we might as well do whatever we want.
Sometimes these experiences come about because we've already walked away from God. God is loving and patient. He is compassionate and forgiving. But at some point, if we reject him and his plans for our lives, we just won't sense his presence anymore. We won't hear his voice. It will be like he isn't even there.
But he is. Watching. Waiting. Planning his next move of redemption. He wants to draw us to himself.
And that's where we are in Isaiah. The people have walked away from God. They have rebelled. Big time. And yet they pretend everything's okay, and they continue to offer sacrifices, to observe feast days designed to remind them of God's holiness and what He's done in the past.
They have replaced faith and worship with ritualism. And God says, "I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . . I can't bear your evil assemblies . . . They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread our your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you . . ." (Isaiah 1:11-15).
I'm tired of watching you go through the motions of worship and service, but not really worshiping me or serving me. I see what you do when no one else is looking.
Do you want my presence? Do you want to hear my voice? Stop doing wrong and learn to do right.
Encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless.
Plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
These aren't the things we normally think of when we think "doing right."
I don't read The Message very often, but I like what Eugene Peterson writes here:
Quit your worship charades. I can't stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can't stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You've worn me out!
I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I'll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I'll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you've been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up. Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don't have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong. Learn to do good.
Work for justice. Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.
Yeah. And that's where the Israelites are at this point. And God says to his prophet Isaiah, "I've had enough."
Come now, let us reason together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. They they are as red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land. But if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.
It's not too late, says the Lord to Isaiah. Turn to me. Obey me, and I will bless you. But if you resist and rebel, I will remove my blessing and protection from you. You will be eaten up by the nations around you.
And we know the story. The people of Judah "resist and rebel." They are taken into captivity. The prophets speak, and the people say, "Yeah, yeah. We've heard that before. But where is God?" And so they do whatever they want until God just stops talking, and there is complete silence for 400 years.
I try to picture what that's like for the people of Israel, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were promised so much, who experienced the greatness of God and ultimately rejected him. I try to picture what life was like when Jesus was born. Here are these people, they've returned to Israel, but now they're ruled by Romans. And the Pharisees.
They're waiting for the Promised One of Israel to return to deliver them oppression. They're waiting for Jesus, but they don't even recognize him when he shows up. He is present, but they don't see him. He doesn't say the things they want him to say, or do the things they want him to do, and so it's like he's not even there.
And I think we are a little bit like them. If we've experienced God's presence, if we've seen him move in our lives, but then we get busy, doing "God's stuff" and "our stuff," or we decide it doesn't matter and we live our own lives, on our own terms. But God compassionate and patient, slow to anger, abounding in love.
And so here we are this Christmas. Reading Isaiah. Thinking about Jesus' birth. And his life. And his death. Wanting to hear God's voice, wanting to experience his presence during the Christmas season.
Will we take the time to listen?