Isaiah’s first oracle began with a shocking and unsettling word from God. What could they now do, pierced to the heart by God’s indictment?


Repent, O My People

What God really wanted was not to stand there accusing and making people feel terrible.

The Lord’s desire was to bring God’s people to confession and healing.

This is, in its way, an ancient intervention, right here. These people were in denial, and God was having a heavy-duty truth session.

It is no different today.

God knows when you and I really need conviction of sin is. We are not going to move forward until we accept responsibility, not blame others, but accept our own responsibility and culpability, acknowledge how wrong and bad our own sin is—our own wrecked relationship with God, and with that person, or those people, or even against God’s creation in some way.

God wants us to notice the engine light on our soul and take ourselves in to the master mechanic to find out what is going on under the hood.

What is God looking for?

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.

Isaiah 1:16-17 (NRSV)
By William S. Rose (1810-1873) – Images from Neumeister Kunstauktionen, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23057718

These six directives God outlined have to do with basic heart decisions, undergoing a change of our whole way of thinking that will result in a change in the entire direction of our lives. Throughout scripture, this basic heart and mind change is called repentance: a radical turning away from sin and towards God, and it is a key element of saving faith.

Repentance and faith go together. It is a prerequisite, a necessary condition for salvation because there can be no genuine turning to the Lord in faith without an accompanying turning away of sin.

True Repentance

True repentance involves three important steps.

Conviction

Becoming convinced, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that what you and I have done–or not done–constitutes sin, it was wrong and we now hate it as God hates it, Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.

Isaiah did not hold back: sinful nation, loaded with guilt, evildoers, given to corruption, Sodom and Gomorrah, worthy only of destruction. Why did the people not see it? Because they had gotten used to the lack of justice, the success of the oppressors, the suffering of the oppressed.

And that is often why you and I do not see our own sin. We simply got used to it.

The Pharisee and the Publican (Le pharisien et le publicain) by James Tissot, 1886-94, Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum

Rationalization

We become calloused in a particular area of our lives, so that we are no longer sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin. We end up rationalizing: explaining why the sin was not sin, or why the sin was defensible, or why the sin is really not as bad as it seems.

All of us, whether we consider ourselves believers or not, are equally susceptible to becoming hard‑hearted towards conviction.

Contrition

Confession of sin is the second step, with no attempt to excuse it or justify it, accompanied by the experience of sorrow that we have offended God and broken fellowship with God.

But sometimes people stall out here, and it is possibly one of the reasons why we shy away from conviction, why we try to tell ourselves it is okay, everything is working, it is no big deal. Because the deep hurt that comes with contrition can turn into something darker,

Remorse

You and I can get stuck in that awful feeling of knowing that we are sinning, or that we have sinned. We are disgusted and discouraged with ourselves, but there is no commitment to change. The apostle Paul talked about this dark pit.

Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. 

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret,

but worldly grief produces death

For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter.

The Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 7:9-11 (NRSV)

Remorse, if it does not lead to repentance, is not a godly response to conviction; it will lead to despair.

Regret

With regret, you and I certainly are sorry about the consequences of our sin, unhappy that we got caught, but there is no decision to change. This will harden you and me to the process of conviction, as we grow accustomed to the consequences, grow accustomed to the feeling of regret, but also of moving on, telling ourselves that “I am just that way.”

There is nowhere to go with these kinds of feelings, regret and remorse. They are just pits. Only godly contrition has a forward motion to it.

Conversion

Resolving, deeply, to turn away from sin and turn towards God through Christ is the third step, coupled with a willingness to make restitution whenever possible. Cease to do evil, says the Lord, learn to do good.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Conversion_of_Saint_Paul_by_Caravaggio_(Rome)#/media/File:Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1).jpg | By Caravaggio – Self-scanned, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15219516

Fruit of Repentance

Look back at God’s six directives—these would be the fruit of repentance in Isaiah’s audience, and they are the fruit of repentance today as well.

Should Christians care about social justice?

Well,what did God instruct?

  1. Seek justice.
  2. Rescue the oppressed.
  3. Defend the orphan.
  4. Plead for the widow.

Just those four changes would have turned their society upside down.

And these are no less difficult times today. Hunger and poverty are on the rise, the middle class margin is vanishing at an alarming rate. Any of you who are involved with homeless missions, soup kitchens, food banks, you see it. These tough times.

Keith Ellison at a soup kitchen, Washington, D.C. Image has been altered for exposure | By Keith Ellison from Minneapolis, USA – Congressman Ellison chopping onions at a DC soup kitchen, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3357842

Throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, scripture teaches that social justice should be a natural product of our relationship with God. In fact James, Jesus’ own brother, as well as the Apostle John talked a lot about the importance of proving our faith through taking care of people.

Who needs help near you?

  • A single parent
  • Someone who is struggling to get food on the table 
  • A young family with little time to run errands, or do chores
  • An older neighbor who has trouble getting around,
  • A school teacher in need of budget and volunteers,
  • Workers to clean up in the parks, rivers, and beaches,
  • Animal shelters and rescues
  • Our local jails and assisted living centers,
  • Food Banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters
  • Libraries, clinics, volunteer centers, social services

The list goes on . . .

In what ways can you and I seek justice in our own families, churches, and communities? What are you and I willing to do to help the weak and the oppressed, or to bring oppressors to justice?

Who could help us stay accountable to our answers to these questions? 

Even here, when you and I have made it through conviction and contrition, we can get stalled out at actual conversion when we do not follow through with our good intentions. We have good feelings from the good intentions, and maybe some half‑hearted attempts at change, without paying any of the cost of real change.

God calls us to repent again and again as we are convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit.

We may even need to repent of our own half-hearted repentance! 

Being willing to take God seriously on this is a sign that we are responding to God’s reforming of our character to be more like the Lord.


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