Not So! Fast
Text: Isaiah 58:3-9a
Epiphany 5, A
3‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ And so our text for this morning begins with a whine and a complaint. We have done our duty ... where is our payback? We have gone to church, made our offering, why aren’t we better off than we were before? We scratched your back O God ... why won’t you scratch ours? Why Not, indeed!
This chapter of Isaiah begins with God calling the prophet to “declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.” They had become proud. They had fallen away from acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with their God.
In that way they were very much like you and I can be from time to time. We have all had the same notion run around our head and hearts. I put in the time. I made the sacrifice. I give up all kinds of fun to sit through all this … so where is my reward? Why is my life not easier? Why is my health not better? Why is my family not happier? My heart less troubled? If I don’t see some kind of reward for all of this, then what is the point?
And that is the selfish trap. Their worship had degenerated into mere ritual obligation with no love. They saw it as a way of currying God’s favour. They had become callous to injustice and apathetic to their neighbours. They were little better than rank hypocrites. And when we get selfish in our Christianity we are no better.
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Now understand, the Israelite worship practices, religious rituals, sacrifices, and fasts were not wrong in themselves. In fact, God commanded or instituted many of them. But they were empty and meaningless, even sinful, if not accompanied by the good works meant to come out of them. In other words, a professed love for God must be evidenced by actual love for neighbour.
Word and Sacrament ministry is likewise God-ordained. But we Lutherans have never ascribed to an “ex opera operato” understanding of worship. Putting your rump in the pew does no good if your heart is somewhere else. Saying the words means nothing if your mind is thinking only about yourself. And so God responds ...
5Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
What we have here is an obviously rhetorical question. NO! Of course not! Not So! Never! No amount of suffering, either outward or inward, while doing such a fast obligates God to reward them or us in any way. What has always been important to the Sabbath Day and its commands was not the outward expressions – the bare words and actions – but the faith and the heart of the one fasting. The intent to seek righteousness – not reward.
6“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
How sad that Isaiah had to include the admonition to do so even for one’s own family. How cold human hearts can become! True fasting, true worship, expresses itself in love for God by showing love for our neighbours. Taking away oppression and injustices. Supplying the needs of the less fortunate. Taking what we so graciously receive here and using it out there! The Divine Service is not about you paying your dues to God so that you will be owed for the rest of the week. It is about receiving every good and gracious gift from God for which a full week of serving your neighbour still is not enough to properly return our thanks to God. Today He serves you in love and sacrifice. Today He gives you Christ! The next six days are your proper worship of Him for the gifts you have already received. Gifts Isaiah himself outlines.
8Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
Light and healing, joy and happiness are His gifts to us in Christ the promised Messiah! These are not a reward for conditions met … they are an unmerited gift from the gracious and loving hand of our Saviour. They are possible only when we begin to think less of ourselves and more of Him. They come into their own when we follow Him by thinking of others. Everyone who has had the joy and light of helping others in need understand this truth and is happier for it.
And if that were not promise enough Our Saviour offers His service at our beck and call. Whatever we need to live in Him for those around us He will provide. Comfort, care, strength, protection? It is yours. Indeed, God surrounds us with His protection front and back. In words that remind us of the pillar of cloud and fire in the Exodus account Jesus promises to go before us (even through the valley of the shadow of death) and serve as our rear guard too. You are safe in His love and protection. You are claimed in Holy Baptism, You are fed in the Holy Supper. Your are loved in every word of the Holy Gospel. Your life is safely in His hands from the beginning to its glorious and everlasting end.
For the righteousness that goes before us is the Righteous One Jesus Himself! He came among us to suffer and die and rise again … His holy worship of God the Father … by serving the least of his brothers and sisters – you and me. And because He goes before us, we can follow Him in lights and joy, bringing the healing gift of His precious Gospel to a hurting world around us … our true worship and our holy fast.