Isa. 1.8-20 — God isn’t interested in religion. He wants a relationship.

The people have injured God’s heart in their callous rebellion. Despite what they have done, though, you can still hear the affection in his voice for his beloved people. He loves them down to the depths, and in the depths they are. They’re like an empty hut at the end of harvest, or a city under siege. The joy is gone, and all that remains is deterioration and hopelessness. But he hasn’t given up on them quite yet. He would do anything to turn them back, and he has tried, but they have spurned both his blessings designed to pull them to him, and his disciplining troubles, to bring them to him. He has sent prophets to warn them and guide them back. All this has been ignored. All that’s left is destruction that they have brought on themselves. After all, he has promised both himself and the world that he will not allow things to get so bad again as they did in the days of Noah, so God has to take his stand. Despite what some thought, or what it might have looked like, God has treated them with mercy. They could easily have been wiped from the face of the earth, had it not been for his sustaining hand. For now God has spared some survivors so that the nation and their spiritual lives can be rebuilt.

They have to listen up, though. It’s not an easy road back, and most don’t even want to come back. But God wants them. He’ll only stop trying when there is no more hope. He tells them what the problem is.

“Your religion is worthless. Religion is worthless. It’s just your way of avoiding God. You create all these rituals and rules and ethical systems, and it makes you feel good about yourself. You don’t feel as guilty because you think you’re a pretty good person, and by your own efforts you make yourself useful to the world and think you’re now acceptable to God. You think you can reconcile with me through your own goodness? You don’t get it. I’m after heartfelt devotion. Without the heart it’s not worship, but only a play with a script. Going through the motions doesn’t count for anything. I never asked for religious ritual. I asked for religious ritual invested with meaning and engaging the heart. So stop with your religious practices. Big religious shows combined with inward emptiness are worthless. They’re so hypocritical they’re actually making me sick. Instead of being the joy of a love relationship, like a daughter who lives far away coming to visit, your worship is more like a burden to be endured that makes a person weary and grumpy.  I’m not even going answer your prayers any more, or even listen—not while your lives are so messed up through rebellion against me.”

“Here’s what you must do: make the necessary changes. Turn around and start living differently. I’ve done all I can do. The presents are waiting for you, but you have to come home. Turn back to me and I will welcome you with open arms. I’m not asking for more prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance. Here’s what I’m looking for: do what’s right, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the orphans, and help widows. I want you back, but not in all your filth. If you’re interested in reconciliation, I’ll do it, but you have to do it too. Whatever happened, despite its horror, it is completely forgivable. Completely. I’ll even pay the price for it. Just come home! The blessing now rests in your hands. I’ve done my part, and I’m holding this out to you like a Christmas gift. All you have to do is take it. Take it. But you have to be willing, and obedient. Please take it, and you will eat the good things of the land. And if you don’t, there’s nothing else I can do for you. You’ll get swallowed alive.”

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