[bl]T[/bl]he days of Lent are drawing near. Forty days of fasting as we anticipate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For those of us who didn’t grow up with this Lenten practice, we tend to interpret this time of fasting as simply “giving something up.” We choose something we really like, and do without it for 40 days. And maybe, just maybe we pray a little bit more because our giving up reminds us to.
But surely there’s more to it. Surely, we fail to really understand the purpose and significance of this practice and tradition.
I do not judge us for not really knowing how to “do” Lent. We were not raised within a culture that regularly fasts. My religious community calls fasting a spiritual discipline. But after reading Isaiah 58, I believe it’s a way of life. The way we ought to worship.
Sacrificing the things that feed our flesh, and participating in the redemptive ways of God. This is true fasting.
The words of God spoken through Isaiah about fasting, specifically on the Sabbath, their day of worship. I hear these words. They sit heavy on my heart as I read each one. And I know God is speaking them to me. To us. And as I listen to his words on fasting, I hear them challenging my worship, my gathering with believers, my activity among neighbors, the way I interact or don’t interact with those in need. I hear them challenging my very life. Listen with me…
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.
Day after day they say they know me, and claim their nation as Christian.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
They ask me to answer their prayers, and think that I am near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
‘We practice spiritual disciplines and go to church,’ they say, ‘and surely you see it!’ Surely this is pleasing to you.’
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
Yet on the day of your fasting, on the day of your worship, you do what you always do and take advantage of the resources around you and use them for your own good.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
Your fasting ends in watching TV, searching the internet, and quarreling with your husband or frustrated with your children.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
You cannot fast or worship as you do today and expect me to hear you.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is this the kind of worship I have chosen, only a few hours of singing and praying?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is fasting only for giving something up and increasing our prayers?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is that what you call worship, one day of the week set aside for the LORD?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
To walk in the ways of God rather than society and loosen our controlling grip, to set free all those held captive by the powers of money and influence.
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 him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Is it not to be hospitable, to provide for the needs of others, and not to reject or abandon your own family?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
Then my light in you will shine, and you will experience healing from within;
Then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then your righteousness will lead you forward, and a glorified God will help you not to return to your old ways.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
Then you will pray and I will answer you; you will cry for help and I will come.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
If you do away with control, with judgment, with angry and discouraging words, and if you give yourself to the hungry and the powerless
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
then my light will shine through you into the dark world, and your sin will be made right.
And if you keep your feet from doing as you please on my holy day, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.
These are powerful words, my friends. So, is fasting simply giving something up? Or is it dying to yourself and living for others? The true life of a disciple. It makes me reconsider giving up chocolate for Lent. Or Facebook. Or meat. Or whatever else I like. It causes me to consider how God wants me to really live.
Instead of first deciding what to give up, I now want to decide what God wants me to DO….and what I have to say no to in order to do it. For this is the heart of fasting. Denying our flesh in order to feast on the Lord. To seek him. To listen to him. To be more available to him.
What is your true fast? What is God calling you to do? And what must you give up in order to be available?