As a kid I played this game called "charades". It is a game in which you cannot speak, but have to act out titles to songs, movies, etc. The other team members have to guess what you are trying to act out in a limited amount of time. If you are successful in your "acting", your team is able to guess the name of the movie or song. If not, the other team has a chance to "steal" the points by answering themselves. We could get into some rip-roaring times with this game - laughing up a storm with some of the silly ways people tried to act out things like "Gone With The Wind", or "White Christmas". Charades is a fun game, but when we begin to live life like it was a game of charades, we are simply giving a "pretense" of living one way, while we are really living quite another. As kids, we'd "pretend" to be soldiers, parents, cops, and even robbers. We'd act out our imagination's creation. It was a fun time as kids, but when our imagination is what guides us into adulthood, we can find we are living by "pretense" rather than much substance. The problem with this is that without substance, we really don't have much of a foundation upon which to build a reliable and trustworthy life.
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 evil doings 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. (Isaiah 1:16-17 MSG)
Although this message was first written to one-half of the nation of Israel known as the Kingdom of Judah during a time when Egypt and Assyria were coming down hard on them in an attempt to take all of their lands and place all of their people into subservient roles, we can take a lesson or two from this passage. First and foremost, let me set the stage for us. God is a holy God and as such, he cannot allow sin to remain "unchecked" - it must be dealt with. We have our own "free-will", so we are "free" to choose to live obediently to the will of God, or we can choose our own direction in life. The choice is ours - God will not override our choices. Whenever we choose to live by our own directives, we run into this issue of compromise and eventually drift into sinful deeds. These deeds require God's judgment - for sin must be judged. This is the truth proclaimed throughout scripture - hence, Christ had to come as the perfect sacrifice for our sin - his blood shed on our behalf brought an acceptable "covering" for our sin. Where there is a sin nature, there will be sin's activity. God's plan is for us to submit our will to his, lessening the desire to pursue this sinful activity.
One of the ways we think we have this sin nature and desire to do our own thing all "worked out" in life is revealed in some of the "charades" we engage in. This is the purpose of our passage today - to stop the charades. If you look closely, there is this "laundry list" of "activities", "actions", and "aspirations" we attempt, but which fall short of accomplishing what the blood of Jesus accomplishes. All our conferences, religious meetings, church attendance, and the like are nice, but they don't accomplish our salvation - they don't cover our sin and they don't change our sin nature. They are "religious pursuits" - activities designed to make us "think" we are moving in the right direction, but they are simply a "pretense" of the real deal! God's response to the religious pursuits is to remind us of how far short we are still falling of living right! He responds back to Judah with the words, "You still are tearing people to pieces..." In other words, they were saying one thing, but doing another. Church attendance alone doesn't make people "good" - it makes them "religious"!
We need a life-change to occur and this happens through recognition of our need. I think the words spoken through Isaiah to Judah those many years ago ring clearly to us, as well. It is time for us to recognize our "hands are dirty". We need to "clean up our act", but we are powerless to do it alone. We need to "say no" to wrong in our lives, and begin to pursue the things God declares to be profitable. We pursue all manner of things in this life which we view as "profitable", but in the end the actual "return" on those things is quite minimal. The call of this passage is to repentance. This was the purpose of Isaiah's prophecy to Judah (and in turn, to us). Come to a place of recognizing "our best" is not good enough. Lay down the "pretense" of religion and come into a place of practicing the things God says are important in life. But...don't do it in a vacuum. We need Jesus in the right place in our lives, or all these actions of "good" are simply just hollow actions.
Too many times we get focused on the actions of "doing good" and forget that we need to have "good" at the center of our being FIRST. The only way to have "good" in the center of our being is to welcome Christ into that place. When we do this, we find our actions take on new meaning - they aren't religious pursuits, but extensions of his grace and love through us. We come into a place of "replicating" his acceptance of us, complete with our sin, and begin to show this same mercy and love to others. In this way, our ability to practice justice, help the homeless, stand up for the defenseless, etc., takes on "real" meaning. Anything less is just a charade! This is what Isaiah wanted us to understand - pretense is not what God desires - he wants connection. We have no chance of getting this "right" until we make that connection. Just sayin!