Isaiah 58:1-12 – an Ash Wednesday sermon

(Try reading this text out loud – it is most impacting as a vocal cry)

Isaiah 58:1-12 (Tanakh translation)

Cry with full throat, without restraint, raise your voice like a ram’s horn.

Declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sin.

To be sure, they seek me daily; eager to learn my ways

Like a nation that does what is right,

That has not abandoned the laws of its God.

They ask me for the right way,

They are eager for the nearness of God.

“Why when we fasted did you not see?

When we starved our bodies did you pay no heed?”

Because on your fast day, you see to your business

and oppress all your laborers!

Because you fast and strife in contention

And you strike with a wicked fist

Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

Is this the fast I desire; a day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast? A day when the Lord is favorable?

No.

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke

It is to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the wretched poor into your home

When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin

Then will your light burst through like the dawn

And your healing spring up quickly

Your vindicator will march before you,

The presence of the Lord will be your rearguard

Then when you call the Lord will answer,

When you cry he will say, “Here I am!”

If you banish the yoke from your midst

The menacing hand and evil speech

And you offer your compassion to the hungry

And satisfy the famished creature

Then will your light shine in the darkness

And your gloom will be like the noonday

The Lord will guide you always

He will slake your thirst in parched places

And give strength to your bones

You will be like a watered garden,

Like a spring whose waters do not fail

Men from your midst will rebuild ancient ruins

You will restore foundations laid long ago

And you will be called “repairer of fallen walls”;

“Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

Sometimes, as a preacher, (and I do use that term loosely, as I rarely preach,) you come across a text that dares you to preach it. I don’t mean the kind of text that is really hard to understand, and requires a preacher with intimate knowledge of dead languages and ancient near eastern culture to dazzle the congregation with something they never could have known on their own. I’m talking about the kinds of texts that just preach themselves. Some texts, like ours today, don’t really ask for much explanation or second opinion. Some texts just dare you to read them, and then drop the mic like you just won a rap battle. Believe me, I kinda wanted to walk up here this evening, read this text and return to my seat, to see if it would hit you the same way it hit me this week – which was like a ton of bricks. But aside from the seemingly obvious reason that I would fail the class if I did that, I also think the text dares us further to ask hard questions, exploring its context and our own, looking for patterns and similarities that might lead us to draw some conclusions about ourselves and our world. My hope is that as we approach Ash Wednesday, and the season of lent, that we will take this message at its word, and proclaim a season of fasting; but the kind of fast that God desires.

First, we turn to the context of Isaiah. This passage comes from the third portion of Isaiah, as many scholars divide up the book based on its relative chronology. To put it crudely, First Isaiah is dated before the exile, Second Isaiah during, and Third Isaiah sometime after, but all of it was assembled to reflect a larger theological purpose. The reason this matters is because the issues, raised here in Isaiah 58, are not new issues in this body of work. Yet they are being addressed, still, at the latest part in the story. And in case we were in danger of missing this huge point, the assemblers of the larger book of Isaiah conveniently placed these same social justice concerns all the way back at chapter 1. Chapter 1 reads almost identical to 58, though it substitutes “sacrifice” for “fasting”:

Stop bringing worthless offerings.  Your incense repulses me. New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly— I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

Second Isaiah is also riddled with calls for justice. Isaiah 45 rings with a beautiful verse about God’s justice descending on the earth as it says, “Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them! I, the LORD, have created this.” So, in summary, what the larger book of Isaiah wants to tell us is this: Israel was sent into exile because she didn’t practice justice. Israel remained in exile until she could learn to practice justice, and upon finally returning, in our passage, Israel will not be able to rebuild her cities and restore her foundations until she can learn to practice justice.

One of the harder tasks sometimes for a preacher is to take something from scripture and find a way to apply it to our lives today. But it’s always a sure bet that if a particular problem occurs over and over again in scripture, like Israel’s inability to learn to practice justice, it isn’t because they were just poor learners – it’s probably because it’s telling us something about who we are and the types of patterns we always fall into. Neglecting justice, lacking compassion for the poor, neglecting to feed the hungry and clothe the naked are continued marks of the Church today just as it was for Israel throughout Isaiah.

To paint a very broad picture, researchers estimate that by 2016, the wealthiest 1% in the world will own more of the world’s wealth than the rest of the world combined. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But let’s focus in even more on the United States, where our poverty rate sits around 15%. In addition to poverty, we have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world, and the African-Americans and Hispanics represent almost 60% of the incarcerated while only representing 25% of the general public. Injustice abounds, even as we focus more closely on Pasadena. While there are laws in place for the development of low-income housing, entrepreneurs continue to open luxury apartment buildings at an alarming rate with no penalty or prohibition. If you don’t believe me, just take a walk down Walnut… or Union… or Colorado… or Fair Oaks… just about any street in Pasadena, and you’ll find a building project for luxury condominiums in development. All the while, homeless service are filled to capacity and more and more men and women take to living on the streets (the other thing you’ll notice walking around Pasadena). We see not only that our systems make poor people poorer and rich people richer, but unjust laws and their enforcement keep it that way.

So what do we do? Do we ever break the cycle? How do we keep falling in to this mess? The interesting connection we saw between Isaiah 1 and 58 was some sort of religious ceremony involved that God was rejecting, for the sake of a renewed interest in justice. In Isaiah 1 it was sacrifices and offerings, and new moon festivals. In Isaiah 58 we read of the people asking God to notice them because of their fasting, and God tells them what kind of fast is interesting to God. Every time that the people of Israel are missing the point about justice, they always seem to replace it with some sort of spiritual, ritualistic practice that actually serves them, and not God or the people God has told us to serve. Israel was so good at misunderstanding the purpose of rituals and traditions and twisting them to serve themselves.. Publically drawing God’s attention is a lot like drawing everyone else’s attention. But I’m sure that these things have nothing to do with us, today, right?

This text, which comes from the Lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, hit me like a ton of bricks this week. After all, Ash Wednesday is less than a week away, so for this little worshipping community we’ve formed over the last few weeks, this very well could be considered our Ash Wednesday service. And before I get myself into any trouble, I want to say that I respect Ash Wednesday, the Lenten season, and intentionally align myself with churches who care about the Church year. What I’m speaking about here is my own experience, and if that’s all it is, then that’s okay. But I have a suspicion that many of us share the experience that I had with it, and it went a little something like this.

Somewhere around 2002 or 2003, the Evangelical church rediscovered the practice of Ash Wednesday and the idea of giving up something for lent, like the way a middle aged man rediscovers his high school letterman’s jacket and begins wearing it everyday. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I remember my youth pastor getting really excited about it and started telling us about this “Catholic” tradition where you would give something up for forty days to get closer to God. After a lot of concern, he convinced us that doing this would not make us Catholics, which at the time we all believed to be a synonym for “sinners”, so we dove in. As a youth group student, I was interested in the idea of sacrifice for forty days, but I was also a teenager trying to impress everyone. So I remember I always tried to give up the biggest thing in the group, which was easy to do since we would nail them to a cross for everyone to see. I wish I could say this behavior ended after Jr. High, but I can’t truly remember a time I gave up something and didn’t have an ulterior motive. Even towards the end of college I remember I gave up going out to eat. Secretly, and maybe even subconsciously, I really wanted to save money and lose weight. Yet all along I was able to convince others and even myself that I was being pious, when actually I was just coming up with creative ways to serve myself using God and religious ritual.

Again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give up something for lent, or that all Lenten commitments are inherently selfish. However, the liturgical calendar has brought before us this text for Ash Wednesday: not a text about sacrificing, not a text about Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness – this text, about giving up on self-serving religious rituals and serving the poor, is our calling this year for Lent.

This is the fast God desires: to hear and be dismayed at all of the issues related to justice in our world, in our country, and in our city, and to act. Just like Israel found themselves in the midst of an exile with no land to call their own, so the Christian Church in America struggles to find its voice at the table again. But God will rebuild our foundations if we learn to practice justice once more. Could you imagine how the world might change if every believer, for forty days, committed to this kind of fast, the one God desires, instead of giving up red meat or television or Facebook? What if the Church declared a Lenten season of compassion for the poor, or freeing people from the oppressive yokes of gang-violence, incarceration, slavery, or trafficking? What if the Church decided that in the forty days of Lent they would seek to clothe everyone who is naked, or feed every person who is hungry? Instead of depriving ourselves of something that we don’t need, what if we stood together to oppose systems that already deprive people of the things that they need?

It is a pipe dream, to be sure. But it starts with us. It has to. Isaiah challenges us to redefine fasting, and Lent is the time that we hast. For forty days, let our minds be on serving the poor and redeeming Pasadena. We could have a conversation with a homeless person, serve food at a shelter, donate to a program, babysit free for a struggling family. We could educate ourselves about local politics and seek out candidates and legislation that promote justice and equity. We could donate blood to a hospital, or tutor children forced to go to bad schools because of where they live. Maybe just this year, or every year, we can repurpose Lent as the kind of fast that God truly desires, and find God’s blessing amongst our sisters and brothers in the city God has placed us. As I close, I would like us to read the second part of this text again, and I encourage you to let Isaiah preach to you throughout Lent this year.

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke

It is to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the wretched poor into your home

When you see the naked to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin

Then will your light burst through like the dawn

And your healing spring up quickly

Your vindicator will march before you,

The presence of the Lord will be your rearguard

Then when you call the Lord will answer,

When you cry he will say, “Here I am!”

If you banish the yoke from your midst

The menacing hand and evil speech

And you offer your compassion to the hungry

And satisfy the famished creature

Then will your light shine in the darkness

And your gloom will be like the noonday

The Lord will guide you always

He will slake your thirst in parched places

And give strength to your bones

You will be like a watered garden,

Like a spring whose waters do not fail.

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