Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Is That Fasting?
Ash Wednesday, Preached March 2, 2022, at the 7:00pm Worship
Scripture Isaiah 58:1-12
58 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.
2 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.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel or to fight
or to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 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?
6 Isn’t 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 chain?
7 Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your houses;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and God will say, “I am here.”
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 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.
11 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.
12 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.
Ash Wednesday is an odd worship service. Granted, to lots of people, ALL worship services are a bit odd. The standing, sitting, weird words, weird songs, listening to weird books written a long time ago when science didn’t exist. Still, for those of us who hold on long enough to find the truth and comfort in the rhythms of worship together, Ash Wednesday still sticks out. We come together at night, instead of morning, when its dark instead of light. We sing some things in minor keys. We read bits of scripture we seldom hear any other time of the church year. And then, at some point in the service, we come forward and have ashes put on our forehead or hand.
Why? What are we doing here anyway?
The people of Isaiah’s time had some odd rituals as well. At certain times in their personal lives or in the lives of their nation, they would come to worship and put on sackcloth instead of their regular clothes, and they would smudge themselves with ashes to make themselves dirty as a sign of their desperation for God to pay attention. Perhaps they were attempting to play on God’s soft heart. Perhaps they understood God has a special love for the poor, forgotten, and mistreated, so if they looked like them, if they humbled their clothes and their bathing rituals, they would catch God’s eye.
It was perceived as some great sacrifice to do this, and they were told they could expect this humbling of themselves to generate a generous response from God. God, help us have victory over our enemies in battle. God, help our crops make a profit this year. Some would even skip meals as if God might hear the rumble of their bellies and move their requests to the front of the line.
Isaiah wasn’t a typical religious professional. Yes, he preached, but he was a prophet. He told people harder truths. Some of the religious professionals had learned selling people a shortcut was an easier way to do religion. Sell them what to do to make God happy. When it works, take all the credit and cash their check. When it doesn’t, blame the person for not doing it right, and sell them another shortcut.
Isaiah didn’t care about begin successful. He saw the religious professionals selling people silly spiritual shortcuts of “prayer and fasting,” and confronted them.
Now, don’t get Isaiah wrong here. Prayer is of course good. An honest vulnerable conversation with God can awaken us to truths about ourselves we are hesitant to see, or truths about God we are hesitant to believe. Fasting can also be good, of course, especially in our time and culture. We tend to overeat. Most entrees at restaurants are enough to feed two people. Fasting can remind us how much in enough, inspire gratitude for less, save us money, and help save the planet. It isn’t prayer or fasting that has Isaiah upset. Its WHY they pray or fast. They are praying and fasting as tools to bend God to their will.
Isaiah comes back as if speaking for God, “Look, you are just doing these rituals for your own interests. You’re wanting your companies to be more profitable, but you’re increasing the prices and cutting your employees’ wages. Okay, you sacrifice by skipping a meal, but then you get hangry and argue with one another, fight, or go to war. Do you really think that’s what I want, you all on your hands and knees, quiet, heads bowed, with ash marks? You really think that’s what makes me, your God, happy?”
“You already know the fast I want you to choose, the prayer I want you to pray. I want you to take on standing up for anyone who is suffering an injustice, even yourself. I want you to find one little way you can nudge this world to give up taking advantage of poorer people, or immigrants, or people of color. I want you to push for repairs to the broken systems that allow prejudice or violence to go unchallenged. I want you to end the death penalty, and help people who make mistakes have a chance of probation and redemption rather than incarceration and shame. I don’t want you to give up caffeine or chocolate. I want you to take on feeding the hungry. It's fine if you give up a room in your church for one month a year. But I want you to take on making sure everyone has a safe dry place to live every night. I don’t want you to escape from the problems of this world, but to make this world better for yourself and all your brothers and sisters, near and far. That’s the prayer and fasting I want from you,” says the Lord.
So let’s not do the prayer and fasting tonight that God isn’t interested in. Let’s wear these ashes and live this Lent together not in the shallows trying to bend God to what we want. Let’s wear these ashes and live this Lent as our sign of trust in a God of love and justice who even now is ending all war, even now is ending all hunger, pain, and grief, and calling us to enjoy God’s new kingdom and share it with others.