5th Sunday after The Epiphany

February 5, 2017

Summary

One day at a time

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the LORD?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

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 the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness 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, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:3-9a ESV)

When we read the New Testament we have a good idea about what we’re reading and this helps us understand things. We know of biographies and histories and letters and that helps us read the biographies, history, and letters of the New Testament. One New Testament book, however, tends to stump readers – unless they’ve had a Saturday Seminar about it! – and that is the last book of the Bible – Revelation. Luther struggled with it being in the Bible and said, ‘My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught or known in it.’ (LW35: 399) For me, Luther is plainly wrong – I see Jesus everywhere in it – but I also understand the writing to be a particular genre – apocalyptic – and that helps me to read. We learn genres in literature because they help us understand what the author wants to communicate.

Imagine, however, one person reading / reciting a Shakespeare play aloud. Could it be done? Of course the answer is ‘yes’. Would we want it done is another matter but as long as we concentrated and perhaps the speaker might give us some guideposts – changes of voice maybe – or a brief narration – then I’m sure we could understand Hamlet or Macbeth. What can make much of the Old Testament that bit harder to understand – maybe akin to poetry – is that we mightn’t recognise the genre or there are no clear signposts to help us understand who is speaking. In our Bible Study on Wednesdays on the Psalms we are not just looking at the words but also at who is speaking and why or on whose behalf and to whom. So when it comes to the prophets in the Old Testament – a sizeable portion of the Old Testament – we need to not only read the words but also work out who is behind the prophet’s words and who is the intended audience. Of course we can summarise this by saying God is speaking through the prophet and the people should listen – and that is undoubtedly true – but that still doesn’t absolve us from listening carefully, studying, and working out what is being said.

Why is this important? Because while the Bible is God’s Word what we have to determine is how it is God’s Word for me now in my circumstance. So our First Reading today is from Isaiah and it begins with fasting. If you fast perhaps you’ll listen. But if you’ve never fasted in your life, does this mean you can ignore it? Hardly. One day you may fast and so you can learn what God expected of his people back in Isaiah’s time. Or you might work out what this message means not 2,500 years ago but for today – if anything.

Last week we listened to Micah and I suggested that the reading was like walking in on grown ups having an argument. There was an unnerving quality to what we heard because the person usually so patient and long suffering was simply fed up and talking about taking his people to court.

Today in Isaiah we’re overhearing, so to speak, God promising his people that he will restore them from the destruction and exile they have brought upon themselves. There is an element of ‘have you learnt from the past, people?’ because God is interested in people and wants them to be with him.

How does this happen? Through their behaviour which reflects their faith. I’ve said again and again that it is our relationships that determine how we behave and that is true in our families, at work, with friends, with enemies, and with our God. In fact words and behaviour are the only ways we have of showing our relationship with a hidden God – not one or the other – we need both.

So look at our First Reading – the pericope is rather arbitrarily chosen by a committee – we have Isaiah quoting whom?

God has heard the people grumble against him. It is what we do when God doesn’t do what we want. It’s the grumble of grudging obedience – of doing something with the goal of getting something back. It is a clear example of humanity’s version of religion – that it and the deity are only good for what we can get out of it.

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

To which Isaiah replies, ‘What you call fasting is rubbish. Fasting is about not doing something so you may draw near to God where as you take the time to oppress the people around you.’ What they call fasting isn’t a proper fast at all.

So Isaiah speaks again to the people but now notice in this third section how Isaiah’s words and God’s words merge so we actually have Isaiah using the first person singular which is either very stupid (taking God’s name in vain) or obedient (because God has directed him to speak). The people have to make up their minds about Isaiah – true prophet or false prophet? And so God says that this fasting has its end point in justice, liberation, righting wrongs, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked. This behaviour best reveals one’s relationship with God – one’s faith – and God then promises to be with them – just like in the leaving slavery in Egypt – in front and behind them – and they will be blessed and healed and God will be near and answer them.

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness 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, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

The people in Isaiah’s time were challenged to stop seeing God as some sort of genie or only there as long as he did what they wanted but to enter into a relationship with him who had already committed himself to them. Words are easy to say – and actions can say a thousand words – and God was calling his people to share what he had given them. He had blessed them – so they might be a blessing to others. This is how God’s people are called to live.

We’re no longer in Isaiah’s time. For us Isaiah’s words – and his message about God’s Servant – have found their fulfilment in Jesus. He is God’s righteousness and glory – and we only have righteousness and glory in and through him. He is God’s presence with us. And Jesus did speak about fasting …

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)

It seems in Jesus’ day, the desire to promote oneself was still strong. Of course that misses the point of fasting that our self denial is not a focus on us but an opportunity to break from our routines and concentrate on people away from – or outside of – us – which leaves only God and our neighbour.

Should we fast? It isn’t a command in Scripture but Jesus seems to expect it. Our Lenten traditions give us opportunities but that actually isn’t what is important. Isaiah and Jesus both point out something about ourselves – that we so easily see God and faith in terms of ourselves – what’s in it for me – and we can miss the truth that faith and life with God is actually about that relationship – growing closer to God – and discovering who he is and what he is like.

Isaiah only spoke about the Servant to come. We know who that Servant is – a Suffering Servant – and the truth of God’s grace and our sin comes into focus at Jesus’ cross. And that commitment from God – that relationship he creates – does lead to all sorts of daily behaviour for his people – one day at a time.

Insert for congregation

Who is speaking?

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

Who is speaking?

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Who is speaking?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

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 the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness 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, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ (Isaiah 58:3-9a ESV)

 

Bible References

  • Isaiah 58:3 - 9a