Our first text comes from the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 58, verses 1-12.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins. 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. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
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?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see them naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 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. 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 fall. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.
Any of you who has, at any time, been a teenage girl will recognize the pleading tone that lies behind Isaiah 58. It is the imploring of a self-righteous 15 year-old who just. has. to. go. out. tonight, Mom, because I’ve done everything you asked and I love you and you’re the best mom and COME. ON. And any parent will recognize the rhetorical device that Isaiah reports straight from the mouth of God:
Is this not the obedience that I choose? To loose the mugs in the dishwasher? To undo the chaos of your room? To let your laundry be folded? Is it not to contribute to the well-being of my household, and to be kind to your brother, when he inevitably does something absurd? Then my house shall be clean. Then order will be restored. Then the neighbors will see that I have done it! You shall call and be able to stay out till Midnight. You shall cry for allowance, and I will provide.
We have in Isaiah the story of a petulant child, Judah returned from Babylon, who having time and again refused the right ordering of God’s household, fails nonetheless to understand God’s perceived absence in their lives. All the signifiers are there: they have cleaned the dishes, the rooms are neat-ish, and no one is screaming. But the thing signified, the true ordering of the household, which for Isaiah is worship that extends into the social economy, is missing.
To be fair, the Judeans, like most 15 year old girls, had undoubtedly legitimate complaints. After all, theirs was a community in turmoil. Only recently rescued by the Persian Emperor Cyrus, the people to whom Isaiah made his pronouncement have lived in a perpetual state of threat from which they were only partially delivered. It was enough to question God’s commitment to his people.
Why! they cry, do we fast but you do not see?
God’s response bellows.
The sign petulant Judah presents to God, their fasting, does not correspond to the reality, to the spirit of God’s desire for community. They fast because they have to and because it’s the “right” thing to do, not because there is any value, any good in the fasting. And God…well, God is fed up.
“Shout out”, calls God to Isaiah, “do not hold back! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
God’s righteous anger seeps off the page with satisfying clarity, but the pronouncement that follows should set preacher folk like me, and church goers like y’all, on edge. God’s target is not the unreligious, those for whom God is far-away. No, it’s the hyper-religious, the spiritual, the seekers and the everyday pew fillers: “day after day they seek me” and “delight to know my ways”. They are showing up. Showing up to the synagogue. Fasting, confessing, humbling themselves in prayers of contrition and acts of penitence. They seek and delight. They want to know God, to see God in their lives day by day.
And don’t we? How often have we, too, from our seats in the sanctuary cried out: Have we not done all we can? Fasted on the feast days, humbled ourselves before the table? Tithed our 10% , served our Session appointments, read the bulletin cover-to-cover? Where are you? Though it may not be the threat of the Babylonian Captivity, we have seen our economies fail and flail, our houses of government co-opted by self-serving politicians and lobbies, and our access to affordable health care and education dwindle. We have seen prices inflate as jobs are lost. We have seen our own families disrupted by death and depression and anxiety and terminal illness and divorce and a myriad of maladies. And, as if that is not enough, the world around us crumbles. Syria is under threat, the Ukraine is under threat, Muslims in France are under threat, Christians in China are under threat. The sword of Damocles looms high, strung by a thread, over us all.
Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?
We are not so far from those petulant teenagers. We for whom worship is all too often an act of self-service, a place to see and be seen, a thing to check off the to-do list. We who believe that God might can be bought by fasting and flattery. We’re showing up. But we, like the Judeans, are looking only inside our symbols. We want to know God in the walls, God confined to the idea, the image. We want the praise and the pomp—easy on the righteousness and the mercy. And God, channeling Alicia Silverstone-as Cher Horowitz in the 1996 masterpiece “Clueless” shouts back: AS IF. As if. As if you practice righteousness, as if you did not forsake, avoid, turn your backs on my ordinances, my laws, my people, my desires for a rightly ordered, peaceable Kingdom. God is measuring the gap between intention expressed in worship and conduct outside of worship. And the gap widens with each act of penitence in the sanctuary that does not correspond to an act of mercy outside the sanctuary’s walls. So when, from our pews, we cry out that God is nowhere to be found God cries back with a resounding “Look elsewhere.”
God is not in the walls, in the box, in the ideas. Or at least not only there.
Lent is a season all about penitence. The ashes we wear today signify not only our mortality, but our frailty. We admit to God and one another that we have not done all we can. So during Lent we give something up or take something on. But the empty fasts which God admonished in Judah are all too often the selfsame empty calories of our own self-serving Lenten diets.
Isaiah spells out an unfortunate truth for us this season. Penitence, whatever form it takes, not done with an eye toward the world it is better left undone. If our fasting does not also feed the hungry, if our moratorium on shopping does not clothe the naked, if our clean homes do not house the homeless, then our earnest acts are done in vain.
We begin this season sure of the story’s end. Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, who in baptism clothed himself with the mantle of sin, has been walking resolutely toward death. And that death, like our own, is certain. Jesus will die. But on the 3rd day he will rise. And the terrifying, liberating truth for we who populate the pews is that God, in Jesus Christ, is on the move. The God who became human will no longer be confined by our beautiful sanctuary. That God is surely here, but not only here. That God walks the long road to Emmaus through Nickeltown and Sterling, through Detroit and Compton and through Augusta Circle and McDaniel Avenue.
You look for me in symbols. I am in the streets.
God is calling us to reckon with the reality of the Kingdom he has intended. Not some pollyanna utopia—God is calling us to imagine the world as it should be, as it can be, as it was created to be. God is calling us away from ourselves and toward the Divine, but between God and us stand the poor, the orphans, the despondent widow, the naked, the homeless. Between God and us stand folks fighting for civil rights and equal opportunities. To get to God we must walk alongside God’s people.
What good does our worship and our fasting do if it does not carry us outside of these halls into the streets? For whom, then, is our fasting? For us? For our Facebook feeds? For another member to see and envy?
Or truly for God and therefore for all of God’s people? It is not that the worship, the fast, the Lenten Discipline is to be disregarded. God calls us to worship, but in worship we are called to sacrifice. And if our worship, our piety leads to a discipline that does not affect our world it is a sign without a signified. If it does not drive our feet toward the places of deepest need in our community it is an empty vessel, and, worse yet, it is meaningless to God. We must gather for worship. But that’s just the beginning. Our worship and our sacrifice ends not with the benediction but with the coming of the Kingdom.
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
From their pews God heard the Judeans. God heard them and called them to a greater good. And God will hear you. But you gotta get out. And in responding to God’s call you will be given a mantle that will change the world. Not moralizing, but mercy—this Lent you can become a light, a repairer, a restorer of this broken world. People will come to this place because you have been out, in our world, in God’s place doing the work that God has required. Not the petulance of a teenager, but the satisfaction of the grateful child.
“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”