Old Testament: Isaiah 58:3-9a (Epiphany 5: Series A)

Reading Time: 7 mins

Isaiah says in summary “liturgical ritual without works is dead” because we render the meaningful worship of God meaningless and even sinful when we do not love our neighbor.

As we continue our Epiphany series asking the question about this man Jesus: “Is this man really God in flesh made manifest?”[1] we explore another text from Isaiah. The context for our reading is the rhetorical unit of Isaiah chapters 56-66. This section refers to outsiders or foreigners as servants who will work the land on behalf of the Israelites (61:5). This is a reversal for the Israelites, who were themselves slaves in foreign lands. Our reading comes in between chapters 56-59 which forms the first major piece of chapters 56-66. The focus of this portion is on the proper observance of God’s covenant stipulations but also on His willingness to forgive those who repent.

In the first five verses of chapter 58, God confronts the people about their abuse of fasting (see Zechariah 7:4-14), which was designed by God to be a time for reflection and repentance for sin (Leviticus 16:29; Matthew 6:16-18). Starting with Israel’s perspective, Isaiah shows how they are confused because, even though they are doing what God asked, they still wonder why He is not acknowledging their works. But like other abuses mentioned in Isaiah (1:11; 29:13), the people are only going through the motions begrudgingly. Fulfilling these obligations for the Lord is a dreadful imposition upon their obviously “too important lives.” But Isaiah’s point is Israel will only have a right relationship with the Lord if they have a right relationship with each other. When God’s people claim to love Him but belittle, put down, and think less of their neighbor, both tables of the Law are broken. Israel had fallen for the old “ex opere operato[2] trap. They thought that in the mere performance of piety and religious service they would be right before God. But this kind of piety and worship is unacceptable to the Lord. So, God “cries out” (verse 1) with “a voice like a trumpet” (see also Exodus 19:19; 20:18-19; Revelation 1:10; 4:1) a word which will most certainly get their attention. This point is only reinforced in verses six through seven where God calls for acts of justice and righteousness, rather than mere lip service. Attempts to get around “justice” and “righteousness” with liturgical rites, no matter how sincere and heartfelt they are, are doomed to fail. They cannot masquerade for true faith in God. Just as Samuel declared to Saul, “Obedience is better than sacrifice, the harkening of God to the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22), so Isaiah declares religious observances cannot “stand in” for doing the right thing (refer to Psalm 15; Micah 6:6-8). Worship and fasting apart from a love toward your neighbor numbs people to the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith (refer to Matthew 23:23) and creates an illusion of spiritual certainty.

Worship and fasting apart from a love toward your neighbor numbs people to the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith and creates an illusion of spiritual certainty.

Much like James states that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), so Isaiah says in summary “liturgical ritual without works is dead” because we render the meaningful worship of God meaningless and even sinful when we do not love our neighbor. Make no mistake about it, this law does not just proclaim our worship empty and fruitless, but this law also leaves us dead in our sins and trespasses. This law rightly proclaims how our works are dead and leave us with no hope because even our pious intentions are stained with sin.

Here we should note, a preacher may be tempted to make the Gospel turn in verses eight and nine thinking this is the obvious move toward Gospel in the text. All of the “your” statements could refer to Jesus and then, consequently, they can refer to us doing Jesus’ works (this is how Isaiah intended it) out in the world to show the Gospel transformation in society as a “response” to the Gospel in our lives. But we should be weary of the dangerous shoals of a social gospel by making the Gospel conditional upon compliance to God’s demands, especially in light of the law in verses three through seven. The Gospel is never a reward for doing the right thing. The Gospel is always the free gift of God in Christ. Only the Gospel makes alive in a way which is “light” and “healing” and “righteousness” and “glory” (verse 8), and the Gospel happens completely apart from any work or worthiness in us at all. The only one who says, “Here I am” (verse 9), to do your will is Jesus Christ for us (Psalm 40:7-10).

Okay, so how do we get at a Gospel in this text? Quite simply, we start with the question that needs answering from verse five of our text: Will you call this... a day acceptable to the Lord?” If God says everything we do is empty and hypocritical, then the answer to the question is a rhetorical: No! An “(un)acceptable day to the Lord” would be a more accurate way of describing such worship. Let God’s question serve as the “Gospel handle.” Where is there forgiveness for such an “(un)acceptable day to the Lord?” Or we could ask what the remedy is for such an (un)acceptable day to the Lord?[3] In order to hear the answer we need to figuratively press our ear to the Scripture and listen to something outside our text which is further away. The answer is still in Isaiah, but it is only outside of our prescribed text where we will find the Gospel we so desperately need. Because “Isaiah himself provides the answer just three chapters later. His prophecy of the Messiah-to-come lists among the Savior’s activities this: “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:2). It is an answer echoed by the promised Messiah Himself in a later synagogue sermon in which He claimed He was here on earth “to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:19). This “acceptable year of the Lord” was God’s “fullness of the time” described in Galatians 4:4”[4] and the Jesus we meet in the season of Epiphany. The answer God gives to the question of our need for acceptance comes in the person and work of Jesus. The acceptable work of the Lord “refers to the entire thirty-three-year period of Jesus’ saving work on earth. That acceptable year of the Lord is both the atonement for and the remedy for our “(un)acceptable day(s) to the Lord” described in Isaiah 58:5.”[5]

There is a sermon structure which lends itself quite nicely to a faithful preaching of this text. What is more, it comes from the text of Isaiah itself. Our text has a question that needs to be answered, but the answer requires us to explore a “gospel handle” three chapters later which is still faithfully within the rhetorical unit of Isaiah 56-66. Since this is what is happening in the text, we can use the “Question-Answered” sermon structure.

What this sermon structure does and how it helps the preaching task is it “identifies a significant question for the hearers (in other words, one that cannot be easily answered, and addresses matters which are significant to the hearer) and then theologically considers one or more feasible answers before arriving at a satisfactory resolution.The question must be simple, memorable, and remain constant like a refrain throughout the entire sermon.”[6] The question invites the hearers into processing various answers which are not correct, such as “doing worship ritual correctly” as acceptable to the Lord (ex opere operato) or the opposite extreme of “the social gospel” as the only acceptable thing to the Lord. “The movement toward a faithful answer provides the dynamic progression of the sermon.”[7] I am suggesting a progression for this sermon be the movement from false answers to the question, to a true answer which comes from our “gospel handle,” that is the full answer we need. “The preacher needs to avoid trite false answers that will insult the hearers and he seeks to have a final resolution that proceeds from the gospel.”[8]

I am suggesting a progression for this sermon be the movement from false answers to the question, to a true answer which comes from our “gospel handle,” that is the full answer we need.

To do this structure well,

“The sermon usually opens by depicting the human or textual dilemma that raises the focusing question. The answers are then arranged in a climactic scheme, offering more development to the later answers. In dismissing the false or partial answers, the preacher is clear about the theological reasoning that guides the discussion and thereby teaches the hearers how to think through matters theologically. Along the way, the preacher is careful not to raise distracting issues or to change the question. Finally, the sermon concludes by proclaiming the satisfactory gospel-based answer.”[9]

When I think of the dilemma in this text and its solution, I think of a true story by Mary Ann Bird, from her work entitled “The Whisper Test.” She writes: “I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it. I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others: A little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech. When schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” I would tell them I had fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me. There was, however, a teacher in the second grade whom we all adored, Mrs. Leonard. She was short, round, and happy, a sparkling lady. Annually we had a hearing test... Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn. I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back; things like “The sky is blue,” or “Do you have new shoes?” I waited there for those words that God must have put into her mouth, those seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, “I wish you were my little girl.”[10]

When the question in Isaiah only points out a sad condition we were born in (like sin), we press our ear to the text and God whispers through Isaiah three chapters later a word Jesus fulfills. Jesus does the acceptable things the Lord requires so we might be accepted by God on account of His death and resurrection for us. This was not just the wish of God, but it was the will of God to make you His child on account of Christ alone.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Isaiah 58:3-9a.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 58:3-9a.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 58:3-9a.

Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Jeffrey Pulse Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Isaiah 58:3-9a.


[1] The full song can be found in the Lutheran Service Book (LSB), hymn number 394.

[2] The literal meaning of this Latin phrase is “by the work performed.”

[3] Francis C. Rossow, Gospel Handles Finding New Connections: Old Testament Lessons (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 147.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/thematic/question-answered/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Edward K. Rowell and Joel Sarrault, Fresh Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching from Leadership Journal (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 1997), 8.