Worship and Work (Isaiah 1ff.)
Isaiah begins by insisting that religious rituals nauseate God when accompanied by sinful living:
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.… Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.… I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Is. 1:11–17)
Later, he repeats God’s complaint. “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Is. 29:13). The catastrophe coming upon the nation is a direct result of its oppression of workers and lack of provision for those in economic need.
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.… Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Is. 58:1–8)
In our world today in which our daily work seems disconnected from our weekend worship, God says, “No, if you know my Law and love me, you will not mistreat workers in the workplace.” Isaiah knew from personal experience that a genuine vision of God changes our lives, including how we live as Christians in the workplace.
How does this work? Again and again, Isaiah gives us a vision of God, high and lifted up above all gods:
- “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary.” (Is. 8:13-14)
- God’s unequaled power and might are tempered by his compassion for his people: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary…his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” (Is. 40:27-40)
- “I am God, and also henceforth I am He; there is no one who can deliver from my hand; I work and who can hinder it?.” (Is. 43:13)
- “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.” (Is. 44:6-7)
- “Listen to me, O Jacob… I am He; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens.” (Is. 48:12-14)
We may tremble at God’s power and might, but we are drawn into his compassion for us. In response, we worship him, living our lives around the clock in the light of God’s desire that we reflect his concern for justice and righteousness. Our work and our worship are bound together by our view of the Holy One. Our understanding of who God is will change the way we work, the way we play, and the way we view and treat people who could benefit from our work.
The integral connection of our work and the practical application of our worship also show up in the stories of two kings the prophet used to highlight the place of trusting God in the workplace. Both Ahaz and Hezekiah had leadership responsibilities in Judah as monarchs. Both faced terrifying enemies bent on the destruction of their nation and the city of Jerusalem. Both had the opportunity to believe God’s word through the prophet Isaiah that God would not allow the nation to fall to the enemy. In fact, God’s word to Ahaz was that what the terrified king most feared would not take place, but “if you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Is. 7:9). Ahaz refused to trust God for deliverance, turning instead to an imprudent alliance with Assyria.
A generation later, Hezekiah faced an even more formidable enemy and Isaiah assured him that God would not allow the city to fall to Sennacherib’s armies. Hezekiah chose to believe God, and “then the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineva” (Is. 37:36-37a).
In these two stories, Isaiah highlights for us the contrast between faith in God (the basis of our worship) and fear of those who threaten us. The workplace is one location where we face the choice between faith and fear. Where is our Lord when we are at work? He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Is. 7:14), even in the workplace. What we believe about the character of God will determine whether we will “stand firm in faith” or if we will be overcome by fear of those who may have the power to do us harm. Worship or work not emanating from a true vision of who God is and what God has promised is not true worship or work at all.