a sermon, based on Isaiah 58.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
“Is this the fast that I choose?” The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people, declaring God’s word, really, God’s question.
For nearly seventy years, the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. Now, with the fall of the Babylonian Empire to the Persian army, the people, their liberation finally come, their hated exile over, return home. But their suffering in poverty and powerlessness continues. Their land, in ruins. Basic necessities, lacking. Neighboring nations, poised to strike.
The people, literally hungering and thirsting for God’s favor, fast – abstaining from food and drink, donning coarse sackcloth, smearing their faces with dust and ash; ancient, ritual signs of sorrow meant to get God’s attention.
But no relief comes. Because, Isaiah says, their fast, an external display of humility, is a mask for hypocritical, unchanged, selfish hearts. Even in poverty, some, less poor than others, seek to maintain whatever privilege they possess, which the poorer among them would wrest from their hands.
“Is this,” God, through the mouth of Isaiah, asks, truly, demands, “the fast that I choose?” Do you really believe that outward, ritual display without deeds of mercy, without common acts of common assistance to address common need satisfies My hunger for righteousness? Do you really believe that superficial religiosity, artificial piety reflects My kingdom, My community of love and justice? What are you thinking?
God’s people have sinned, “missing the mark”, failing to fulfill God’s calling. However, this prophetic chastisement isn’t a negative job evaluation or a poor performance review. For the issue is not about doing, but being. Not about duty, but identity. The people have misunderstood not what they are to do, but who they are. They don’t have a mission to do God’s love and justice. Rather the God of love and justice has a people in whom that mission takes flesh, thus lives and labors.
So, Isaiah declares that an acceptable fast is deeds of mercy, which, when done, do not, will not, cannot gain the reward of God’s blessing, but rather are the signs that the people already are blessed by God, verily, are God’s blessing for others. Deeds of mercy do not, will not, cannot win salvation, but rather reflect that salvation already has come, verily, that the spirit of salvation, healing, wholeness “lives and moves and has its being” among the people.
Thus, it does no violence to the text, indeed, it is to unearth its truth to change the word “then” to “when.”
Is not this the fast I choose?
To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free,
To break every yoke?
To share bread with the hungry
To bring the homeless poor into the house
To cover the naked
To hide not from our sisters and brothers in need.
Again, not “then,” not if we do these things, this will be the result, but rather “when” we do these things it is a sign that already:
Our light breaks forth like the dawn,
Our healing arises speedily
God answers even before we call…
This is a biblical way of saying that we already have embraced, embodied the love and justice of God’s very nature.
So, this Lent, let us not do deeds of self-sacrifice, even self-denial. Rather let us be acts of mercy, particularly for those who are “other” than we.
Thus when God saith, “Is not this the fast that I choose?” verily, “Are not you the fast that I choose?” we will be able to answer, “Yes!”
Illustration: Israelites return to their homeland (1670), Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675)
 Isaiah 58.5a (emphasis mine). The Hebrew scripture appointed for the day is Isaiah 58.1-12.
 The word sin is derived from the Greek, ‘amartia, literally meaning “to miss the mark.” The image may be conceived as that of an archer whose arrows (symbolic of one’s life’s intentions, indeed, aims) land all places except the center of the target (of life, Who is God).
 Words from A Collect for Guidance, The Book of Common Prayer, page 100 (based on Acts 17.28)