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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

What sort of fast does God actually want?

What's really interesting about our passage from Isaiah this evening is that although it's addressing Israel initially, God is actually addressing a universal human phenomenon: when we're gifted with anything - whether it's abundance or whether it's a way out - we have the tendency to turn that fortune into something that serves us, and only us, first: “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 as 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?”

So what is an acceptable offering according to God? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” When God calls for repentance and sacrifice - that is for us to repeatedly turn our minds back to God to figure out how to act in any situation - he’s not trying to make people feel badly about who they are, nor is he arbitrary or capricious in his judgement. 

God’s call to repent is to look not primarily at ourselves from within a vacuum, but to look at ourselves in relation to all the people and all the things that God has given to us. He’s asking us to see that he extends his mercy to us and so the life, the various gifts, and even the struggles we have, not simply to benefit us. That benefit, that possession, that mercy, that abundance we have, is given to us only so that we might care for and build others up as Christ did in giving us life.

So therefore, be gentle and patient as God has been with us; have mercy and forgive people as the Father has done with us in sending Christ; stop being so angry or frustrated at people for not doing things the way you think they should be done. You’re not God. Stop arrogantly presuming you have his understanding enough to judge others and what they’re doing; your judgement casts a bright light on the log in your own eye. Do not take even what you are owed (what we have a right to) if it hurts another or prevents them from seeking God.  

The hard part of learning this for me - and again, I see my own struggle here as universal for almost everyone - is that I have an incredibly legalistic streak. I can spot violations of God’s law and social, ethical and psychological reasons for why this occurs in a heartbeat. I can provide evidence for my reasoning in virtually any field from civil law to science to theology. And I can render a judgement that rivals Adam, Eve and those legalistic Pharisees, in my presumption to know all there is to know - better than other people and unconsciously, even better than God (hello original sin). And I end up in the place of the Pharisee making my turning to God about me. I am holy, not like those tax collectors and sinners who don’t get it.

I can persevere in anger, and cynicism [these two are a lack of mercy and they are pride], act out of fear rather than faith, which manifests either in a maniacal need to control others and my own circumstances, or alternatively dismissal and withdrawal. These in turn, usually make both me and others the target of my own arrogant scorn, which becomes cynicism. 

And while I may think I am justified, holy and righteous, and I might in fact be, my refusal to exercise mercy and patience boomerangs right back on me because it alienates others and not only drives them away from me, it builds up their anger, their frustration, maybe their despair, and the whole damn tower of righteousness I’ve built comes smashing to the ground obliterating my own, and others hope and so the courage to let go and become vulnerable enough to allow God in to solidify his goodness inherently borne in us.

I’m not here to beat myself up though. I see my own behaviour manifest in virtually every other person I meet. Different circumstances and events and relationships, but the same kind of dynamics occur not just for the people out there, but for all of you too.  

The offering I want, God says, the repentance I’m after, involves you letting go and allowing me into your life. If that is true for us, it is true for everyone. So the real question is: how do we be people living with other people who enable this vulnerable opening to happen? Set your mind, this Lent, on letting go, listening to God. Seek God in the people and things around you. What is He doing in them? What is he calling you to see and hear? What concrete things might God be calling you to recognize or do if it isn’t all about you and what you want? If you don’t know, take some time in the Scriptures where God addresses you. Let God’s words dwell in your mind this week: if you offer who you are and what you have to satisfy the needs of others, 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 fail. AMEN


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