Last week’s service ended with us stood at the font saying goodbye to Christmas and looking forward to the season of Lent that is coming down the track towards us. As you see from our pew sheet, we are just three Sundays before Lent. Ash Wednesday falls on February 22nd and it strikes me that our readings this morning have been set with this in mind. The Old Testament reading in particular calls upon us to ponder our ways and to change: what better time to do this than in Lent? …and wouldn’t it make sense to get ahead of the game and decide now how we will observe the season.
I have some suggestions for you but before I offer these it would be as well to look over the scripture and take in the full force of Isaiah’s prophecy: you might want to have the pew sheet in front of you as we do this.
Isaiah speaks ‘in the name of the Lord’ and he makes clear in the first verse of our passage that God expects him to declare to the people of Israel their sins (he uses the family name of Jacob – the patriarch who ‘wrestled with God’ and was first given the new name ‘Israel’).
On the surface the people seem to be doing OK – verse 2 makes this clear. The people daily seek after God: that seems pretty impressive, daily worship! They want to know more about His ways and they ask for ‘righteous judgements’ from God: again, this seems to be a major plus for the people of Israel – they have developed patterns of living that involve them consulting the scriptures (perhaps), they like to talk and learn more about what God’s Law requires. They seem to delight in being in God’s presence…but did you notice the way in which Isaiah framed this description of his nation: ‘they do these things ‘as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God’. For all that Israel seems to be doing the right thing God isn’t impressed.
The people are confused as to how they have offended God. Their practice of their faith involves fasting. From verse 5 we see that this involved them humbling themselves, bowing their heads, wearing sackcloth and lying in ashes. Again, this all seems over and above anything that you or I might do. I confess that ‘fasting’ has not been a part of my discipleship – these folk have one up on me. The people seem to engage wholeheartedly with this practice- and for that we might commend them- but it is not enough.
So what is going on? What is happening in this extremely religious nation that God Himself takes exception to? Verses 3- 5 give us the answer. The people have their rituals and expressions of faith, but these don’t extend into their daily lives. There is nothing wrong with fasting – far from it. There’s nothing wrong with daily prayer and worship: of course not. There is nothing wrong with seeking to understand God’s ways better: which vicar would turn anyone away from a bible study? But the people’s practice of their faith was ‘all about them’. They fasted in order to win God’s favour. They fasted because they thought that by doing so their prayers would jump the queue and be given preference once they were heard on high. Their devotions made them feel good but they had no impact on how they lived. Indeed, how they lived outside the formal practice of their faith was precisely the problem that God highlights to them.
‘You serve your own interest on your fast day.
You oppress all your workers
You quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist.’
All the religion in the world won’t help you (says God) unless you sort out both your inner disposition (which in their case leans towards violence and oppression) and your outer life which has no concern for those who are in need.
The centre of the prophecy as we have it is the climax of the oracle and we may well recognise some of the concerns here from Jesus’ own parables. Fasting, in the end, isn’t about how much food or drink passes our lips it is about effecting a total change in our behaviour, a change that reflects the character of God and His concern for those who are in desperate need. Isaiah lists them: people weighed down by injustice, people who are hungry or homeless, people who have lost everything (even a covering for their nakedness). Make room for these people in your lives (says God) and then I will hear your prayers. Act to raise up those who have fallen on hard times and then you’ll find that God is present with you in ways you have yet to imagine.
There is good news here. As far as God is concerned His people are not a lost cause, they can change. As far as God is concerned His people can make a difference within their communities and, as they do so, His blessing will rest upon them. The promises we see in the second half of the prophecy are of guidance and strength, abundance and health. It is not too late, says God, for the ancient ruins to be rebuilt and for renewal to begin: this is what verses 10-12 seem to offer God’s people. And the cost? Engagement with those whom Jesus calls ‘the meek of the earth.’
It is here that we have a real challenge as we turn towards the 40 days of Lent, the journey towards Easter and beyond.
What is the challenge? It is this. Many of us seek to renew our prayer life…or read a Lent Book…attend a Lent course…reflect upon our own discipleship and so on (and these things are all good!) but this prophecy challenges to take another much harder step. That step seeks to moves us out beyond focussing upon our own interior life of faith and into the work of bringing justice to the oppressed, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked: God through Isaiah is asking us to ‘Love our neighbours as ourselves’.
How can we do this? I know that there are people here who sit for hours hearing children read in school. There are others who give time to our local lunch clubs or who act as drivers for people needing to go to hospital. We send carloads of food to the FoodBank. Yet others play key roles in local charities, at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or give their time to serving in charity shops and the like. These things make a real difference: but if you want some more ideas how about these?
If you are going to give something up then next week we will give you a label (and even a jar to put it on) in which to put any money you save. Then, at Easter you can bring this to church and we will send it to the two mission projects we support (for mothers and Children living with AIDS in Tanzania) and for Communities in India seeking to reduce violence against women and girls.
Or another suggestion: You can make a difference through offering to help with the Lent Lunches in support of the work of Christian Aid: the money the churches together raise each year can go a long way in developing countries. We need folk to run the Friday lunch on March 10th.
Or another: we need volunteers (on a rota) to help with our under-Fives group Smuffies, not just providing the activities but befriending those who come.
No doubt you can think of other ways to make life easier for those in need. But something that has always vexed me in Barnard Castle (and even more so as the economy puts pressure on so many of our neighbours) is this: ‘what do we do as a church’? If someone is in trouble, would they know that they can look to St Mary’s for practical help? For our Lent course this year we’ll be using some material prepared by Church Action on Poverty. Meetings will be here in church on the Wednesdays of Lent and, perhaps, in light of Isaiah’s words this morning you might be up for exploring one of the aims of the course which is this: to enable churches, over time, to take their place practically in serving those who find themselves in situations of poverty in the community. Prayer, study, worship, fasting or abstinence and action coming together for a holy Lent, through which the Lord will guide us continually and bless us as we serve in His name.
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