Intro: Whenever we think about lent, we often think about fasting. And whenever we hear about fasting, lots of different images come to mind… some people do diet fasting, like a juice fast. I’m not sure if the whole30 diet that everyone is doing these days might be considered a fast? If you’re not familiar with it, you basically fast from certain types of food for 30 days because it will help your digestive tract, help your metabolism, and it will make you have more energy.
There are other kinds of fasts, too. Hunger strikes, for instance. In 1932, while in prison, mohandas gandhi went on what he called a “fast unto death” to protest some political movements that would’ve divided and marginalized the poorest of the poor even more than they already were. These people were affectionately called the untouchables, and that’s exactly how they were treated. But after 6 days of fasting and no end in sight, the government agreed to rethink their changes… so he was able to live… and the untouchables were held in better regard.
Fasting can put pressure on authorities that are doing harm to the poor and the downtrodden.
We also hear about fasts that serve our emotional wellbeing. Maybe you have fasted from Caffeine… or facebook… because you just knew a break would be good and right for you.
And you might be asked to fast if you’re prepping for a colonoscopy. But we won’t get into that one too much. Actually, I have some pictures I wanted to show you to help illustrate…
Fasting is cutting something out for a period of time for some purpose. Sometimes the purpose is health, wellbeing, or societal change… but the fasting we talk about in the church and hear about in scripture is a little different. And tonight we’re going to look at God’s words to Israel through the prophet Isaiah.
In Isaiah 58, God speaks to Israel about their recent fast. They were likely observing the Day of Atonement, which was a yearly celebration to remember their sin, confess their sin, and be cleansed from sin. And it included fasting and resting. Today, the Jewish people call this Yom Kippur.
Well, Yom Kippur comes from – Leviticus 23:26-28 - The Lord said to Moses, 27 “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves,[a] and present a food offering to the Lord. 28 Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God.
So Day of Atonement had just recently passed, and in Isaiah 58, God is responding to their observance… and if you haven’t guessed.. It isn’t good news.
God’s word to Israel through the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For 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. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen
it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your
fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on
high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in
sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of
injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 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 them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break
forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the
pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in
the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will
strengthen your frame.
Israel, was observing the Day of Atonement like God was asking of them, but in this chapter God basically tells them they’re doing it all wrong…
The first thing God says they’re doing wrong is that they were obeying God, technically speaking. It makes me think of school. I don’t know how your education career has been, but I went to a Christian college and now I’m in Seminary, and so there’s a lot of trust. Some of our professors ask us at the end of the semester to record how many of the pages we read of all the books we were assigned. Now, I do not lie when this question is asked, however, we all know there’s a difference between technically reading all the words on the page and actually as part of study. And I remember this summer I was taking Intermediate Greek, and the week before my reading report was due I read every single word on every single page that I was assigned. And I retained about 5% of it. But I technically did what was asked.
This is kind of how it was for Israel. They were going through the motions of the day but they weren’t growing into God’s motion of love that was to infiltrate their whole lives. God expected that if you’re atoning for sin, then you’re turning from your wrongdoing and would grow in the practice of love. But Israel wasn’t doing that, because if they were, they wouldn’t be exploiting their workers… their fast wouldn’t end in fighting and bickering… and they wouldn’t be striking each other with wicked fists.
They were going through the motions of the day but they weren’t growing into God’s motion of love. This call to love is found all through the law… God calls his people to care for the poor, to treat the laborer with fairness… to treat the foreigner as one of your own.
Jesus simplified it for us by saying that the call could be summed up by simply loving our neighbor as ourself. And Israel was not loving their neighbors… or their family members… or the poor… or the hungry… or the naked… or the oppressed. And God said that this made their fast illegitimate.
So Israel was reprimanded because they were going through the motions of the day… and they thought that that was enough… but they weren’t growing into the motion of God’s love.
As we enter this season of lent, we can go through the motions of this season, or we can allow God to transform us into his image and likeness, so that through obedience to him, his love permeates more and more of our world through us.
The second thing Israel did wrong is a little more subtle. God says, “they ask me for just decisions, and seem eager for God to come near them… and then say ‘why have we humbled ourselves and you have not listened.’”
When my son disobeys, we take away his toys. We try to set clear boundaries and we tell him exactly what will happen if he crosses those boundaries and our hope is that he learns to choose to obey. So the other day I had to take away a toy because he was disobeying and he was crying about it… and I said, “Nathanael, you hit Cana in the face with that pillow after I told you not to throw it… and whenever you’re ready to apologize, you can come back inside.”
And he stops crying for a moment, and through the hyperventilating sobs he says, “I’m sorry.” And I said, “I forgive you and I love you.” And then he said, “Now can I have my toy back?” And I said, “no.” And he continued to cry… but for all intents and purposes, by continuing to cry and feeling like it wasn’t fair, he was saying… “why did I ask forgiveness if you weren’t going to give me what I wanted.”
That’s exactly what Israel was saying, and it reveals their true motivates for observing the day of Atonement. They thought they were going to get something out of the deal.
And it’s reasonable why they thought that, God promises blessing to those who obey him.
Deuteronomy 28:1 – If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.
Deuteronomy 5:33 – Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.
Joshua 1:8 – Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
So Israel thought, this is awesome… if we follow these particular practices, if we “humble ourselves” and follow the rules… God will do what we want.
Now, we’ve already seen that they weren’t even following the rules right because they were going through the motions of the day but they weren’t growing into God’s motion of love. But now we see that the motions they were going through were for the wrong reasons, like my son wasn’t asking forgiveness for the right reasons.
They wanted their nation to be blessed. They wanted God to do what they thought was right. But God’s saying don’t obey me so you’ll be blessed, obey me and seek me because of who I am. God created them. God loves them. God communicates with them. God dwells among them in the tabernacle. God provides for them. And God provided them a way to be forgiven through the Day of Atonement.
God is worthy of their worship. God is worthy of their obedience. But instead, they went through the motions of obedience to God, but they were actually bowing down to the true idol they worshipped… the idol of self. The idol of self demands prosperity, excess, and retribution to their enemies.
Israel thought that God’s promised blessing for His people was the prize… they didn’t realize that God himself was the prize. A loving God who cares for them is the prize. A long suffering God who provides an opportunity to atone for their sin. Humbling themselves before God wasn’t something to be done in order to receive something else… humbling themselves was all they could in light of all that God had done for them.
In this season of lent, we can follow God for the blessings, or seek God because of who he is… because he deserves it. Because he’s good.
The third thing Israel was doing wrong was being blind to the severity of their sin. In v. 5, you can almost hear God’s snarkiness… God says: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Now it’s important to pause here for a moment and to understand the cultural norms so we can understand what God is upset about.
Sackcloth and ashes were an outward sign of an inward reality. It was a demonstration of repentance. Putting on sackcloth was subjecting oneself to discomfort. Sackcloth was made of goat hair and it was uncomfortable to put on. And ashes signified internal ruin and brokenness.
Maybe you can remember a time when you got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to be doing, and you were ruined inside because you knew you had no defense.
I’m not proud of this story, but one time I was driving… and it was about 11pm and I was driving home from class and I was on 322 near Lewistown… and I was distracted and I accidentally went outside of my lane. When I swerved back over I noticed I almost hit the car next to me… and the car flipped on it’s lights and pulled me over. It wasn’t like I had a good excuse. My wife wasn’t in labor. I wasn’t passing anyone. I had no defense. I was ruined inside. I just messed up. And I knew it. If you get pulled over and you think you have a good excuse or that what you did wasn’t so bad, you might try to explain it to the officer…
But I had no excuse, and I could feel my chest pull in and my head go down on the steering wheel in ruin. Because I had no defense for myself.
Putting on sackcloth and ashes was a way of saying, “I have no defense. I messed up. I am ruined. And I am sorry.”
In the book of Jonah, you may remember that God called Jonah to go to Nineveh to tell the people that because of their evil deeds, in 40 days the city would be overthrown. And in Jonah 3:5-8. We see Nineveh’s response: “ The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.”
They understood that they were sinful… they had no defense… and so they denied themselves food and water, made themselves uncomfortable, and sat down in the dust. To symbolize their internal ruin… and to show their repentance.
What we see in our text is that Israel did the outside of putting on sackcloth and sitting in the ashes, but they didn’t actually repent from their sin. They didn’t see themselves as without defense or internally ruined. They felt like they were a pretty good job. If they hadn’t felt that way, then they wouldn’t be continuing in the poor treatment of their employees, their fighting, their bickering, their turning a blind eye to oppression, not feeding the hungry, not clothing the naked… right? If Israel had truly understood their sin, they would’ve repented.
Imagine I’m driving down the road… speeding. And I get pulled over and after the officer tells me how dangerous it is to drive that fast and how I could hurt someone or myself… I apologize. Now, if I was truly sorry… if I understood the severity of what he was telling me, that I could really hurt someone, would I pull out from that traffic stop and go the same speed I was going before? If I did… then I wasn’t truly sorry. I was just sorry I got caught.
We’re kind of back to the first point. Israel went through the motions of saying sorry, but they weren’t actually sorry. They sat under sackcloth and in ashes, but God wanted them to know they had no defense, to be internally desolate, and repent from their sin. God wanted them to understand that their sin separated them from himself.
But here’s the good news for Israel… it doesn’t stop with internal ruin… God offers them a second chance through the day of Atonement. God didn’t have to do that. He could’ve just left them ruined. God didn’t have to give Nineveh a second chance by forgiving their sin.
But he did.
And that should’ve been enough motivation to give themselves to God… but it wasn’t because they didn’t see it.
As we enter the season of Lent, we can tell ourselves we’re not that bad… we can excuse ourselves from our actions, thoughts, and attitudes that conflict with God’s way… or we can enter in with humility, understanding that our sin is so bad, that it separates us from God.
As we close tonight, if you choose to participate, you will have ashes placed onto your forehead and you will hear the words from dust you are, to dust you shall return.
In many ways, this statement contains the most beautiful and the most dreaded statements wrapped into one. From dust you are reminds us that in loving kindness, God created us even when he didn’t have to. He breathed life into us. And he sustains us.
And to dust you shall return. God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then they’d die. But they ate from it anyway…. And then they died. And we will die because our sin. Because our sin separates us from God.
But by the grace of God, Good Friday is coming, and on Good Friday, God came in the person of Jesus and the death that we deserved?, he took on himself. The penalty that we deserved? He took on himself. The separation from God that we deserved? He was separated from God the Father so that we wouldn’t have to be separated from him any longer. And in doing so, once and for all, he gave us the opportunity to be in right relationship with him. And when God looks at those who trust in the saving power of Jesu Christ, he sees the perfection of Christ instead of our sin. We are offered forgiveness of our sin.
From dust you are and to dust you shall return reminds us during this season, that we are sinful and I don’t know about you, but I really needed Christ to take on the punishment for my sin. Im glad that Christ died… because it was my only hope.
And for Israel, that’s what they missed.
But by fasting, we can recognize our own sinfulness, which leads us to repent from our sin, and motivates us to live in faithful obedience of God.
So, in this season of lent, there are lots of different ways to fast leading up to Christ’s sacrifice. We can fast from something to simply deny ourselves, which helps us remember our sinfulness and turns our hearts to God, kind of like the uncomfortable sackcloth that they used in the Ancient Near East. Maybe we give up caffeine… or chocolate… and every time we desire the thing we’ve given up, we remember our sinfulness and turn to God.
We can fast from something that causes us to sin. Perhaps you want to fast from facebook because it causes you to think poorly of your own life and causes you to desire your friend’s seemingly perfect life. So you just don’t log in for the next 40 days. And every time you have the desire, you remember your sinfulness and turn to God.
Maybe you want to fast from something that’s not inherently bad, like television… but by doing so you spend that time with God in prayer and meditation on Scripture.
Maybe you want to fast from something to make time to care for those who are in need…. your neighbors… or your family member who is in a tough spot… or the poor… or the hungry… or the naked… or the oppressed… or the foreigner.
We fast to bring to mind our sinfulness, to lead us to repent from our sin, and motivate us to live in faithful obedience to God.
No matter what we choose give up, if we want to give it up in a true fast, we would be wise to learn from Israel’s mistake… we don’t just go through the motions of the season, we grow into God’s motion of love for all people. We don’t seek God’s promised blessings he has for the church, we seek God because of the blessing it is to be invited into his presence. And we recognize the severity of our sin and we repent and turn to him.
When we go through the motions of confession in a few moments, we have the opportunity to just go through the motions, or to see the reality of our sin and truly repent.
When we go through the motions of communion, we have the opportunity to just drink juice and eat bread, or to see that the body of Christ had to be broken and the blood of Christ had to be poured out for us because of our sin.
When we receive ashes, we have the opportunity to remember that it is by the grace of God that sin doesn’t have the final say, and we can turn to him in gratitude for what he’s done, and continue to be transformed into his likeness.
In this season of lent, I invite to not just go through the motions, but to give yourself to God, for from dust you are. And to dust you shall return. Let us pray.