This evening we gather for what is, next to Holy Week, often considered to be one of the more grievous nights of the year for the Christian church. When you come forward to receive ashes this evening, the words you hear spoken will be, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” Christians around the world this day are being reminded of how impermanent this life is. The community of the faithful will hear how we were made from the dirt – literally created from the dust of the ground. And this universal body of Christ followers will be reminded, in sermons and in our own confessions, of how brief life really is … how at the end of our journey upon this earth our temporal bodies return back to the earth as dust.
We have but so little time to live in faithful existence after our creation from the dust before we return to the dust. This is our time of existence in the grand plan of creation.
The prophet Isaiah in our text this evening is speaking to the faithful, our predecessors in the faith, in regards to how life should lived in this all to temporary life. This passage, found in the 58th chapter of Isaiah, is part of a larger compilation that is calling the faithful to know that the “prerequisite of divine deliverance is that the people maintain righteous and just lives.”[i] It stands in the middle of a section that is calling upon the faithful – it’s calling upon you and me – to acknowledge our necessitated inward repentance.
One of the practices of our ancestral forbearers in the faith is to seek repentance and forgiveness through the discipline of fasting. We see a call on the faithful to fast throughout our historic scriptures. In Ezra 8:21, the Jewish priest, says that he proclaimed a fast “that [the faithful] might deny [themselves] before God. There is a call toward humility in the discipline of fasting. … In Nehemiah 1:4-11, Nehemiah fasted and prayed before God. He spoke to God, saying, “Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.” In fasting there is an honest call for repentance. … In 2 Samuel 12:15-21, we hear of King David, who fasted on his own in prayerful pleading with God to save the life of a child. There is a named dependence upon God in fasting.
The discipline of fasting is still one you are encouraged to undertake in this season of Lent. Some faith communities and denominations have more well known and perhaps stricter recommendations for the discipline of fasting during this season. And while I do encourage the discipline, I believe we often misunderstand the call to fast – and it’s purpose in our personal and spiritual lives. The discipline of fasting is a perfect practice for this season of repentance and renewal that we enter into tonight – but only if we understand the purpose and intention of the discipline. And tonight’s text perhaps best articulates such a purpose. So, let’s turn our attention back to Isaiah.
In verse 3, the community of faith is asking of God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?
And God, through the prophet Isaiah, responds: “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.”
In other words – it’s as if God is saying, you’re not yourself when you’re hungry. Were you not in the midst of a fast, I’d tell you to grab a snickers. The words of the Lord are clear – what is the point of fasting – what is the point in engaging in a discipline of repentance – if during the fast you are only further separating yourself from the love of God by offering hate toward those around you? If a fast – an intentional practice to lead you closer to God and help you identify your dependence upon God – is only further deteriorating the community around you and your own relationship with God, you have wasted your time.
And the prophet continues to speak on behalf of the Lord, “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?”
Again, the prophet is critiquing the disciple of fasting as it had become practiced. According to the text, the purpose of fasting is not to lead oneself into idle isolation. In other words, to use the words of Dr. Walter Brueggemann, the Israelites were practicing a “pseudo-holiness.”[ii] They were attempting to be pious in discipline, without being honest in their faith. Isaiah is quite plain in these verses, “fasting should never be understood as an end in itself or a substitute for righteous living.”[iii]
To further drive that point home, we have the following verses. They offer that for a fast to be a worthy discipline – for a fast to be a faithful and worthwhile endeavor – it must call us beyond simply removing an indulgence from our lives. To be faithful in our repentance, we must be called beyond removing ourselves from the lives of our community.
First, Isaiah offers, the fast the Lord requires is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.
A faithful fast in these coming 40 days will lead you to identify those places in your life, in the life of our community, and in the lives of all around the world where injustice still remains prevalent and where we need to work to bring change. In a society that still reeks of systemic racism – work to break the bonds of oppression. In a culture that still rewards some based on their gender instead of their qualities and experience – work to break the injustice. In a nation that still incarcerates minority races at an offensively high percentage rate, seek to free the oppressed. In a world that fears those of other religions, seek to get to know the person behind the profiling.
Isaiah says next, that you should be sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover them.
Instead of just giving up a meal, share a meal with someone who would otherwise go without. Invite someone to come in and shower and shave who hasn’t seen a shelter in weeks. Offer a coat to those who are stranded out in the cold. If you fast during a break time, spend that time getting to know those who are seen as unworthy or unlovable in your workplace.
God is not calling us to engage in a fast that focuses so much on ourselves. God is calling us to engage in disciplines that focus on God. That is the call of the text. The call is to identify how our temporary lives may be all the more engaged in the work of God that in naming our own dependence upon God, we may see how God is seeking to empower us to make the love of God in Jesus Christ known in our community, and in communities around the world.
May this season of Lent, these 40 days, be not just about our repentance, but may the be about our humble renewal. May God renew us that we may, all the more, be ever in the service of the one who created us from dust, and who promises us eternal life when our temporary bodies return to dust.
Let us pray:
Holy and gracious God, creator of all living things, the beginning and the end of our lives. We gather as your people, ready to begin our Lenten journey. Strengthen our hearts and minds through your bountiful love. Make us ready to acknowledge our sins and weaknesses. Remove our hearts of stone and create in us hearts and minds ready to hear your words of forgiveness and acceptance. This we ask in the name of the one who walked the way of the cross, Jesus Christ. Amen.