Daily Update #218

Pause:  As we prepare to look at God’s Word let us quieten our minds, so that
   His Holy Spirit may speak to us today.

Readings:  Isaiah 58 : 1 – 9a;    Psalm 51 : 1 – 5, 17, 18;    Matthew 9 : 14,15

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.  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.  “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.  Your fasting ends in quarrelling 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.  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?  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?  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?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.

These verses from the prophet Isaiah proclaim the Lord’s strong condemnation of the irreligious “fasting” that the people seemed to be engaged in.  The Lord’s condemnation of this doesn’t come like a whisper in the night.  Isaiah is told to shout it aloud, to raise his voice like a trumpet, so strongly does Yahweh feel about what is going on.  So, what is going on?

Although the people appeared to be devoting themselves to the Lord, ostensibly obeying the rules regarding fasting and seeking to know the will of the Lord, their real motivation was for what they could get out of it for themselves.  The “fast” that they were proudly observing by walking around with heads bowed as if in prayer and lying around in sackcloth and ashes was purely for show; it had no effect upon their behaviour and it certainly did not impress the Lord.  As Isaiah tells us they were still quarreling with each other, often resorting to violence to sort out their differences, and they also continued mistreating their workers.  This passage has a New Testament parallel in Matthew chapter 23, where Jesus speaks out strongly against those whose hypocritical actions, done in the name of religion, are purely for their own satisfaction, or done in order to appear in order to let others see how pious they are.  True fasting is a part of the life of the people of God, but the aim is not to make ourselves feel good, or to make others see how religious we are.

There are many instances of God’s people fasting in both the Old and New Testaments, for a variety of reasons.  As we saw a couple of weeks ago Nehemiah fasted when he heard of the sad state Jerusalem was in; David fasted when his infant son was seriously ill; Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness; John the Baptist’s disciples fasted, as we see in the verses above from Matthew’s Gospel.  Throughout history, in times of need, God’s people have been called to fast and pray, not to get God to change his mind but to put themselves in line with his will. As we see from our reading genuine fasting leads to action, helping the oppressed, meeting the needs of the hungry and homeless, sharing what we have we those in need, following the example of our Lord Jesus who went about doing good.  The season of Lent began this week, traditionally a time when God’s people are called to fast in preparation for the events of Holy Week. 

When I was growing up Lent was purely a time of giving something up, usually sweets or chocolate, sugar in one’s tea, or perhaps not going to the cinema!  We now know that this can also be a time of taking up something which can help us to focus on our loving heavenly Father and his will for us, how better to serve him in our walk with Jesus.  We might determine to spend more time in prayer, in reading the Bible, or participating in a Lent Course.  The “what” that we do is not what is really important; what is important is why we do it.  However long we have been Christians there is always more to learn, always the possibility of a closer walk with God.  If we can somehow find a way to spend even a little more time with the Lord during this time of Lent then we will reap a blessing; our relationship with our heavenly Father will deepen as his Holy Spirit leads us on in our walk with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, cleanse and deliver us from all our sins, confirm and strengthen us in all goodness, and bring us into the way that leads to life; through him who is the Way the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.