Tonight we begin our Lenten journey toward Good Friday and Easter. This is a season of preparation and reflection. It’s a time to look inward and discern areas of life that we’ve not given over to God. Traditionally it’s also a season of fasting, where we seek to emulate Jesus who went into the wilderness, fasted for forty days and forty nights, and faced temptation (Matt. 4:1-10). The point of all of this reflection and fasting is that it’s designed to make us more aware of God’s presence and also more aware of the presence of our neighbors.
We begin the journey by remembering our own transgressions, for as the Psalmist reminds us, we are all sinners. As we remember these sins, we receive a mark upon our foreheads as a tangible reminder of our sinful state, and then we offer prayers of confession and receive a word of forgiveness.
Tonight I’ve chosen to focus on the word from Isaiah, which speaks to “God’s Chosen Fast.” In Matthew’s gospel we read Jesus’ words about fasting. He challenges those who make a spectacle of their fasts by presenting themselves in a rather disheveled manner so that their neighbors might know that they’re fasting (Mt. 6:16-18). But Isaiah takes a different approach. This post-exilic prophet challenges his people who have come to believe that their fasting will get God’s attention. They say: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3). Isaiah says to them – in your behavior you dishonor this practice.
Although giving up chocolate or some other pleasure might be a good spiritual discipline to adopt during this season, Isaiah calls us to a higher level of understanding. Fasting may discipline our bodies so we can give greater attention to God’s presence, but as Isaiah makes so very clear, God is less interested in our observance of certain fast days than in the way we live our daily lives as God’s people.
Isaiah says to the people, you come out and fast and yet at the same time you oppress your workers and quarrel with each other. If your fasting is accompanied by such actions, then this won’t get your voice heard by God. Instead, God has chosen another fast for us, calling on us 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?” (Is. 58:6-7)
As Amy Oden puts it: “The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance, for justice, and generosity, day in and day out.” (WorkingPreacher.Org, 2/6/11).
Isaiah’s call for justice is echoed by a word given by the 4th century bishop and theologian Basil of Caesarea who writes:
As we take this Lenten Journey, let us consider the kind of fast that God is calling us to pursue. Isaiah writes that if we engage in this fast, we will be blessed. What is most important, we will be blessed in the knowledge that we are partners with God as moral agents in this world, working with God and empowered by God, we might pursue righteousness and justice in the world.
This is a time for us to look inwardly, to assess our path, to see if our vision is clouded by sin. It is a time to purge ourselves of those things that keep us from being all that God would have us be. The fast that God has chosen for us is one that leads to a new life and partnership with the God we know in Jesus Christ, who makes known to us God’s steadfast love.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 9, 2011
Are you not a robber, you who consider your own that which has been given you solely to distribute to others? This bread which you have set aside is the bread of the hungry; this garment you have locked away is the clothing of the naked; those shoes which you let rot are the shoes of him who is barefoot; those riches you have hoarded are the riches of the poor. (Quoted in Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Zondervan, 2010, p. 178).