Chosen Fast

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho

February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-14

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet 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 to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Last week, we heard calls from the prophet Micah to seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
We also heard the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, where he challenged people to go out and make the world match God’s intention for it.
Isaiah is speaking in a different location and context than either Micah or Jesus, but the message is similar. For Isaiah, what you do in worship is all well and good, but if it doesn’t carry over into the rest of your life, then it is empty.

And we may have a hard time connecting to this passage, because we don’t lie down in sackcloth and ashes. We don’t fast that often, I suspect. Perhaps some of us will give up something for Lent, and the youth will be fasting for 30 hours to raise money for hunger relief programs, but fasting is not our regular practice.

But our worship practices apply here too.  I suspect today Isaiah would say, “do you think God really cares that you just built a multimillion dollar worship warehouse with a big sound system when you have done nothing to feed the hungry poor in your neighborhood? Do you think your battles over praise bands, pipe organs, and choir robes are the battles that God wants us to be fighting?”

Isaiah doesn’t suggest that what we do in worship doesn’t matter. We can be as creative as we’d like to transform our worship spaces and our worship practices. But if this worship isn’t, in turn, transforming us, then it is an empty fast and not the fast that God would choose.

Isaiah’s community had some real reasons to seek God’s forgiveness and be transformed by their worship, for they had abandoned the covenant and the ways of their God and ended up in exile. They needed deliverance from captivity and bondage.
Yet the people were going through the motions of fasting, repentance, dust and ashes, but were not changing the way they lived.

Isaiah even accuses them of serving only their own interest on fast day and makes it clear that this is NOT the fast that God chooses.
What God wants in our repentance and in the religious acts that surround repentance, is spelled out pretty clearly. We are to seek the welfare of our community by fighting injustice, setting free the captives, sharing our bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the homeless poor into our homes.

Sadly for us, what God wants from us is often far from what we are willing to offer to God. Next month, we’ll enter the church season of Lent, when many people give up something from their lives as a Lenten practice. And perhaps giving up caffeine, or chocolate, or brussel sprouts might bring you closer to God, but how many of us have decided that for Lent we’re going to invite the homeless poor into our homes? How many of us have decided to actively seek justice as our Lenten practice? Is this not the fast that God would choose?

There is a dichotomy in our Isaiah passage between selfish concerns and the concerns of the community. If our repentance is self-serving, worshipping God so that God will do something for us, it will not bring us closer to God.

The repentance God wants is free of the anxiety of selfish concerns. It asks us to freely give to help those in our community, with no concerns for how we will benefit. Because, here is the truth.

All of our benefits come from God.

They do not come about because of our own actions.

This is the mystery of grace. In grace, we are freed to live more fully in community with our fellow brothers and sisters.

We can freely give to others, working for justice in our communities and across the world, because God has already given to us.
In the fast that God chooses, “we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.” (Thomas W. Currie in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 2, page 4).

Do our acts of repentance help us see the people we meet as God’s other beloved children? Do our acts of repentance help us see how our society has broken down, reflected in the reality of widespread hunger, homelessness, violence, and oppression? Do our acts of repentance call us to change our relationship to the world around us? Do our acts of repentance call us to reconciliation with others in the Body of Christ?

Reconciliation is what we are called to as the church, even with people to whom we don’t particularly want to be reconciled.

Nobody claims this reconciliation is going to be easy. But it is worth it.

We aren’t fasting for the sake of fasting, or suffering for the sake of suffering. We can only offer the repentance God wants when we realize that how we treat one another—here in this building and out in the community—how we treat one another is directly related to how God treats us.

The language in this passage is conditional.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

Let me be clear…God’s love for us is not conditional, but our ability to receive God’s blessings is. How our acts of worship, sacrifice, repentance, and offering translate into action in the world have a direct effect on how we are able to receive God’s blessings. If the community around us suffers, we suffer too. We can’t receive God’s blessings in isolation from the community.
But the conditional language in this passage—the “if you do this, then this will happen”—is ultimately language of hope. Isaiah does have harsh words for those whose religious practices are empty. But when our religious practice sends us out the door as God’s agents of justice, hear the promise from Isaiah:

The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

The good news is that while not everything is in our control, there is much we can do. We can let ourselves be changed when we come to worship. We can seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. And as we do that, we’ll see God’s blessings in new ways.

our light shall rise in the darkness
and our gloom be like the noonday.

The words of Isaiah are as true for us as they were for his community. May we seek the fast that God would choose and share God’s justice and mercy with our neighbors and the world.
Amen.

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