March 6, 2019
Isaiah 58:1-12 (NIV)
58 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Lent is a season observed by the church (the overall church) every year. It begins today, with Ash Wednesday, as we are celebrating here, tonight, and it culminates with the celebration of Easter. And while Easter is the high point of the Christian year, and it’s a day during which we pull out all the stops as we celebrate the risen Christ, the celebration rings hollow if we don’t walk the difficult journey of Lent first. And so we gather to begin this journey together. During Lent, we are invited, we are called, to enter into a season of reflection, of deep introspection into our relationship with Christ. To ask, What does it mean to be a Christ-follower? What does Christ ask of us?
During this season, it is common for people to “give up something for Lent.” The Christian word for this discipline is fasting, the focus of our scripture today. Fasting is meant to call us to think of God when we want that thing that we gave up, and it’s meant to remind us that nothing but God really satisfies. When we think of fasting, we often think of some type of food, perhaps a treat that we tend to overindulge in anyway. But fasting can also involve other things, like giving up TV, or really any number of things.
And the point of fasting is never to feel an emptiness, but rather to allow God to fill us.
But there is a danger here. Do we let the ritual get in the way of the reason for the ritual? Do we focus on that chocolate, or that coffee, or that video game itself? Are we tempted to think that God wants us to deprive ourselves of things we enjoy? Do we inadvertently focus on what we are “giving up” rather than allow ourselves to be draw to what we are making room for, what our fast is supposed to remind us of?
So just what “fast” does God want? As we heard in the scripture passage a moment ago, the prophet Isaiah tells us. Isaiah had clear and strong words for his audience then, and I believe these are words we need to hear today as well.
At the very beginning of our passage, God commands Isaiah to “raise his voice like a trumpet” as he gives God’s message to the people. You’ve heard a trumpet before, haven’t you? A trumpet’s sound is bright, brash, clear, it stands out among all other instruments, across any surrounding noise.
And whether it’s loud or soft, it’s not subtle, and it’s unmistakable. So right off the bat, we know that God’s word on this is meant to be heard.
Next in our passage, God instructs Isaiah to tell the people what is wrong with their lives, to confront them with their sins. Because, you see, the people have been busy doing things about God. They have been worshiping and studying about God, and they have been fasting. But they also recognize that something about what they are doing is not pleasing God. To all appearances, they are right-living and are following God’s laws. And to their credit, they do recognize there is still some kind of disconnect between their actions and what God desires.
And so, as God’s people often do, as we often do, they complain to God. Now, don’t get me wrong, God wants us to know we can be open with him, and God can handle our complaints. And, sometimes we forget, or choose to forget, that God already knows what we’re thinking, what’s on our hearts, anyway. And so God’s people have asked God, what’s the right thing to do? They love to say that God is on their side. But. But, they complain, and they say, how come we’re doing all the right things, but you still don’t seem to notice?
And you know, when you ask God a question, God will answer it.
God’s answer may not have been what they were expecting, though, because based on the way they asked their question, they seemed to think they were doing everything right and that it was God who was unfaithful, that it could somehow be God who wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain.
And so, God instructs Isaiah to lay it out for them. He says, sure you fast. But even while you are fasting and worshiping and claiming my name, you’re being unfair to your employees. You bicker and fight. You put on a good show, you say you know me, but you don’t change your hearts. Your actions don’t reflect the intent of my instructions. And so your show is just that. A show.
You see, the people have been expecting recognition, something else earthly. Something the people around them would recognize as a sign of a job well done. The bottom line is that the people are doing everything for some ulterior motive. They are expecting something in return.
But, to give them credit, they do recognize that something is still missing.
The next section of our passage describes what kind of fast God does desire. And it lists several things: break the chains of injustice, share food with the hungry, care for the homeless and sick, stop blaming victims, stop gossiping, be open to our own families. And it would tempting to think, oh, okay. That’s what we need to do. There are more things we need to do. But if we leave it there, we’re still back in the same place. Actions, good actions that help people, but actions just for the sake of doing them. To think that’s the answer is to miss the point of scripture. To think that we just need to add to our to-do list for God, even if we do all those good things, still leaves us empty.
Interestingly, in the Message version of today’s scripture, this next section is titled, “A Full Life in the Emptiest of Places.”
God’s answer, God’s solution, is clear. Share, don’t turn away, be generous. In short, give yourself.
That’s very different from a to-do list, isn’t it? Get outside yourself. Give yourself. Open yourself. Demonstrate the intent of God’s instruction. And do it for God, for no other reason than because you love God.
I want you to think for a moment about the Good Samaritan. The irreligious, uncouth, unclean, avoided one. Picture with me that scene that Jesus describes so well. And picture the one who was able to see what the otherwise good, otherwise virtuous eyes had missed.
The Bible tells us, and then, then, your light will rise in the darkness. The Message says, “Your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.” Isn’t that beautiful? And scripture promises that God will be with us. God will show us. God doesn’t just toss us out on our own; God is with us.
And when we do this, when we truly give ourselves, God gives us what we really seek. A full life, even in the emptiest of places, and the satisfaction that we long for, that we are designed for.
God doesn’t want just actions. God wants our hearts changed for him, for our actions driven by our love of him. God knows that we have to get outside ourselves, we have to get beyond ourselves, that we have to begin living for God and stop playing at religion before we will be truly satisfied
Now, hear me well. I’m not saying that fasting is bad. I’m saying, scripture is saying, that fasting should be a sign of our inner working with God, an expression of our repentance and our desire to let God work in us. And the things we do should be the result of being changed by God. These signs—our fasting, our deeds—are not just for showing; they are an indicator of God’s work in us.
So, what is the meaning of Lent? What is the prophet Isaiah telling us? That God wants more than what we offer only out of convenience. That we are self-absorbed and to our own detriment. That God sees right through religiosity, that God wants more than just show, that God wants repentance so that he can transform us. That if we are faithful, we will find hope. That if we are honest with God, we will find strength.
That if we strive to please God, to honor God, then we will find true joy in the Lord.
You know, there is a kind of raw holiness to Ash Wednesday, and I love that. Everything is laid bare. God, our God who loves us so very much, invites us to come before him and lay our needs, our hearts, our brokenness before him. And God will meet us there.
When we think of healing, we usually think of physical healing, healing from an illness, or even healing from an addiction. But God also offers healing of our souls, of the broken places within us. In a few moments, we will have an opportunity to come to this altar and seek healing, and God will be there with us.
Is there something that you want God to do for you, or in you, or through you? Do you want healing in your life? Healing for your body? Healing for your soul? Healing of your brokenness? Has God shown you that you need him? Do you want God to make you clean, to heal you? God won’t turn his back on you—God will make a fresh start in you and through you.
What is God saying to you? Turn your heart toward God, and listen. What do you need to “give up” so that God can give you the fullness you long for? God is ready to speak to you.