“The Importance of Ritual”

Scripture – Isaiah 58:1-9

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, February 5, 2023


An unconscious ritual had taken over her life. Author Tish Harrison Warren says it began to dawn on her when she questioned – of all things – making her bed. She never made the bed, but became intrigued to discover the practices of others.

She found that “Some made it daily, first thing, zealously. Some, like herself, never made it. Some thought it was preposterous to even consider making it, while others thought not making the bed was akin to not brushing your teeth or not paying your taxes – something meriting disgust, if not jail time.”1

As she pondered why people had a morning ritual of making their bed – even though they would unmake it again at the end of the day – it dawned on her that she had her own ritual first thing after waking. In place of bed making, she had a smartphone ritual.

While the cobwebs were clearing, she reached for her smartphone. “Like digital caffeine, it would prod her foggy brain into coherence and activity. Before getting out of bed, she would check her email, scroll through the news, glance at Facebook or Twitter.”2 Her morning ritual was no more than ten minutes, but every day began with technology.

Once she became aware of her morning ritual, she began to notice that screen time was seeping into every empty moment of the day. She felt distracted when her children asked for milk or a snack. They were interrupting her while she skimmed an article. She would sneak in five minutes online as her children ate lunch. After returning from an errand, she would sit in the driveway looking at news on her phone. Later, before going to bed, she would check the screen again.3

Without realizing it, she had gradually created a ritual. She used her ritual as a distraction from time to reflect, from time to be fully present in the moment, from time to ponder ‘what ifs.’

After becoming aware that her morning ritual with her smartphone set the tone for much of her day, she decided to try something different. She created an alternative ritual. Rather than grabbing her smartphone as soon as her eyes opened, she made her bed. Over time, she began to realize that it helped to bring a bit of order to a messy room.

After making her bed, she spent time sitting. Some days she would read a few verses of Scripture. Some days she would read a prayer. Most days she would say the Lord’s Prayer and invite God into her day.

She would “lay out her worries, her hopes, and her questions before God, spread them out like the stretched out sheets on her bed. She would pray for her work and family, for decisions, for a meeting scheduled later in the day. But mostly, she would invite God into her day and just sit in silence.”4

If we scrutinize our behavior, we begin to recognize habits and routines that influence the mood and manner of our days. Our conscious and unconscious rituals alter what we see and shape how we act. They “shape our loves, our desires, and ultimately who we are and what we worship.”5

Today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah may appear to be precisely the wrong text for today’s sermon. The prophet sounds as if he is calling people of faith to reject religious rituals. It may sound as if he is telling people that they have a choice: either perform religious rituals or obey God by treating others with love and respect.

To set the scene, we dial back the date to the year 525 BCE. After living for decades as exiles in Babylon, the Hebrew people have trudged back to their dilapidated houses and crumbling buildings. They have begun to rebuild their homes and reconstruct their community, yet life remains an uphill struggle and God seems eerily absent. Each day is an exhausting endeavor.

The people become testy and grumble that they should be flourishing because they are devoted to worshiping God by fasting and performing rituals of penitence. Yet Isaiah makes it clear that what they believe is faithful devotion woefully misses the mark. God is unmoved by their religious rituals. And not simply unmoved, but outraged.

Speaking through Isaiah, God says, “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near.” God seems to be reaching the limits of divine patience.

The people protest: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Once more on God’s behalf, the prophet says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and fight with one another. Your fasting will not make your voice heard.”

Then, the prophet spells out what God desires: “Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke…let the oppressed go free…share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.”

Writing in The Christian Century, Steve Thorngate says: There is a tendency to see in this text not only a fierce call to treat workers with dignity, share food with the hungry, and invite the homeless in, but also a general rejection of religious ritual.”6

However, our passage does not say that ritual is wrong. It says that ritual becomes empty, even counter-productive, if it does not lead to right thinking and acting; or worse, if it becomes a substitute for doing the right thing.

Commenting on this passage, theologian Shai Held says that some religious rituals are “a hoax we try to perpetrate on God… (In effect, some say) We will give You worship, but You just mind your own business. Your place is the church, the synagogue, or the mosque; stay out of our workplaces and our voting stations.”7

Again, ritual is not the problem. The issue is whether ritual leads to love or indifference.

On Sundays, we participate in a liturgy, which is a ritualized form of worship. It is a weekly habit designed to help us draw nearer to our Creator, to shape our way of interpreting the events of life and to teach us how to live in harmony with the Divine Spirit.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer together is one of our weekly rituals. But if you speak the words without thinking about them and you do not practice forgiveness the other six days of the week, it becomes an empty ritual. Today we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. If you go through the motions with no thought of God’s love for the world, it becomes an empty ritual. Prayers before a meal can be a moment of heartfelt gratitude or simply pleasant sounding words strung together but leading nowhere.

We need rituals that encourage us to feel loved and supported, and nudge us to love and support others. We need rituals that remind us of the gift of life and moments of joy and beauty. We need rituals that spur us to take an honest look at ourselves and then make needed changes in our thinking and acting. We need rituals that encourage us to question the messages of culture that lead to greed, indifference, and injustice. We need rituals that encourage us to listen for the Spirit of love that seeks to infuse our being and permeate our world.

It’s not really a question of whether or not you have rituals, it is a matter of identifying the rituals you have. When Tish Harrison Warren examined her daily habits as rituals, she experienced an epiphany. Her “daily practices were malforming her, making her less alive, less human, less able to give and receive love. Changing her ritual…pointed her toward a more beautiful way of being-in-the-world.”8

Today, can you replay your rituals starting with the way you begin your day and proceeding through each hour so that you can drop the ones that misshape you and create new ones that refine you? And may the rituals of our worship that we share together be imbued with meaning and power, and may they sculpt us into the people God dreams we can become.



  1. Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2016), p. 26.
  2. Ibid, p. 27.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, p. 28.
  5. Ibid, p. 30.
  6. Steve Thorngate, “Ritual and Justice Don’t Exist in a Push-Pull Relationship,” The Christian Century, January 30, 2023.
  7. Shai Held, The Christian Century, August 14, 2019.
  8. Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary, p. 31.