A token gesture rarely has a positive connotation with it. It feels fake, like someone is doing their duty and not a very costly one. The reason we don’t like token gestures lies in relationship, or the lack of it. You feel like you’re not worth a genuine action. And superficial religion is full of them.
This is a devotion taken from Isaiah 1:10-20. Here are the devotions for Isaiah 1:1-9 and Isaiah 1:21-31.
Superficial religion is made up of token gestures
Isn’t superficial religion full of token gestures? You give money to church, go when it suits you, but never genuinely spend time with God?
That’s what the Israelites were doing. They were performing religious actions, but their hearts weren’t loving and submitting to God.
And God hates token gestures. He hates the notion of being bought with sacrifices:
10 Hear Yahweh’s word, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
11 “What are the multitude of your sacrifices to me?”, says Yahweh.
“I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed animals.
I don’t delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs,
or of male goats.
Superficial religion is made up of checkbox rituals
God is also fed up with the ceremonies that the Israelites are performing, but not meaning:
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has required this at your hand, to trample my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings.
Incense is an abomination to me.
New moons, Sabbaths, and convocations —
I can’t stand evil assemblies.
14 My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts.
They are a burden to me.
I am weary of bearing them.
Isn’t the idea of God putting up with you frightening? We as humans hate feeling like a burden on others, that other people are putting up with us for the sake of something or someone else.
I say ‘the idea of God putting up with you’, but don’t for a moment jump straight to applying the passage to your own life, because Jesus’s coming and dying has changed how we are to relate to God.
The consequences of superficial religion
Back to the passage, God makes some promises to the Israelites, his people, in light of their token gestures with no genuine relationship. He promises to ignore them:
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you.
Yes, when you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.
Is God being unjust here? By no means! Would you listen to someone’s cries for help if that someone was an unrepentant serial killer? Their ‘hands are full of blood’ because they haven’t done what is good.
What repenting from superficial religion looks like
If they repented and genuinely started following and loving God, things would be different. This is what God requires of his people and has always required of them:
16 Wash yourselves. Make yourself clean.
Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes.
Cease to do evil.
17 Learn to do well.
Relieve the oppressed.
Defend the fatherless.
Plead for the widow.”
Remember, it’s not that God won’t save you if you don’t do these things. God has already saved you if you trust in Jesus.
And here’s a thing I think most Christians forget:
God had already saved the Israelites (from Egypt) when he put these requirements on them.
It’s the way it has always been. God saves and then asks you to live in light of that salvation.
The crucial spiritual problem
But still there is this conundrum: How can the following ever become true?
18 “Come now, and let’s reason together,” says Yahweh:
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
You know this to be true in your own life, as you aren’t perfect.
And yet God doesn’t lie. How can Israel ever be saved from itself? They’ve shown pretty clearly that they can’t do the following:
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you will be devoured with the sword;
for the Yahweh’s mouth has spoken it.”
This is the big problem that runs through the whole Old Testament. You’ve probably felt it in your life too, the problem of ‘How can God love me? How can he accept me? I’m so awful!’
The answer lies in Jesus. Just remember that the Israelites were in the dark about that. All they knew was that God had it sorted, as he’d fulfilled his promises in the past and so shown himself to be trustworthy.
No wonder angels longed to look into what we know now!
Isn’t the ‘superficial religion’ required?
Now, just before we get to a key idea of the passage, let me answer this question:
‘God commanded these rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies. Why does he hate them now? Isn’t that unfair?’
He doesn’t hate them IF they are symbolic of what is going on in their hearts. If they loved God they would be doing good AND doing the religious requirements God set out for them. But they are only performing superficial religious actions, not genuine ones.
Application for today
For us this means having a relationship with Jesus, trusting that his death and resurrection are what save us from God’s wrath against the evil within us. This is because in these last days God has revealed himself to us in Christ. He saved us not because of the righteous things we’ve done, but by his mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The way we express the truth of us being saved is by submitting to what he says, even when we don’t like it.
It also means not just performing religious deeds, like going to church on a Sunday, giving to charity or volunteering to serve the church in various ways. We need to do these things, but if we think they will appease God’s anger against the sins we’ve done, then instead they will make God want to vomit.