Sermon for March 10, 2019 -- ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 3-10-2019 Pardeeville

(Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 and Isaiah 58:1-5)



     Welcome to the season that everyone looks forward to…Lent!  Well, even if you don’t love the season of Lent, be grateful it’s not like it used to be…somber, penitential, and dark.  What Lent needs is a better agent…someone who can proclaim the opportunities that Lent affords and tell us everything is going to be okay.  Well, I can certainly do my part.  The word for Lent around here this year is “relationship”.  No matter where we are in our relationship with God right now, we can always improve.  And what we find when we seek a deeper relationship with God is that God is also looking for a deeper relationship with us.  This is what the season of Lent offers us…a chance for some alone time with God.  One problem though…do you have any idea how difficult that is?  It’s not easy for most of us to find even fifteen minutes in a day’s time just to be in God’s presence and listen to what God is trying to tell us.  Our typical days have many things, often too many things, on our to do list.  And society is no help.  The world in no way rewards down time…even if it’s time spent with God.  It seems we have to be doing something, or multitasking, every waking moment.  Baloney!  When I take some time just to be by myself and to be in God’s presence, I call it what one of the presenters at a retreat I attended many years ago called it…wasting time gracefully.

     If you bothered to read my article in this month’s newsletter, you already know that we will be featuring the 58th chapter of Isaiah during the first five weeks of Lent.  Each year, the entire Presbyterian Church (USA) joins together to receive the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering.  We’ve already heard a little bit about that offering and, as Lent goes forward, we’ll be hearing a lot more.  The theme for this year’s offering is a verse from Isaiah 58:  “You shall be called repairers of the breach.”  We’ll be finding out more about that verse as we move through Lent.  That one verse got me looking deeper into the 58th chapter of Isaiah.  I have spent a lot of time there already.  And I think this part of the book of Isaiah has much to tell us.  So let’s dig in and uncover all the wisdom that’s there waiting for us.

     First we need to remember the context of Isaiah’s words.  This comes from the final section of the book of Isaiah.  The Babylonian exile, 70 years in all, has ended.  The chosen people have been able to come home.  But “home” is barely recognizable.  The Temple has been destroyed along with most of everything else.  There’s a lot of repairing and rebuilding needed.  Who’s going to do all that?  The chosen people should be happy to be home again.  Instead it’s kind of a bummer.  Old questions about how God could have let this happen resurface.  The chosen people are turning to old habits to get through these tough times…including fasting.  But they have made a mess of things.  When you look at the writing style of this chapter in the book of Isaiah, you’ll immediately notice that it’s written as poetry.  It’s written this way for a different reason that the poetry we see in the psalms and other places in the Bible.  Most of the time, when it’s God speaking, Isaiah and some of the other Old Testament prophets wrote in poetry.

     God is speaking all right but God is not happy.  God wants to make sure the chosen people listen so this chapter begins with God directing Isaiah to shout, to let it all hang out, and to use his voice like a trumpet.  God declares that the chosen people have rebelled against God.  One reason God may be so disappointed comes from the fact that the promise has already been fulfilled.  God promised the chosen people they would return home.  They are home now!  Their actions though, including the way they fast, are not true expressions of gratitude.  We’ll see as we continue to look at this chapter that the chosen people are making a lot of mistakes…not just the way they are fasting.

     That first verse should be grabbing our attention like a trumpet too.  Lent is as good a time as any to examine our own actions and to make sure that God is at the center of them.  We all develop habits.  It’s changing a habit that becomes tricky.  Many say it takes 21 days before a new habit becomes automatic.  Truth is, it may take a lot longer.  But examining our habits during Lent has great value, even if we may not have completely mastered something new by the time Lent is over.

     In verse three, we find out the chosen people’s motive for fasting.  They want to be noticed by God…and rewarded!  They ask God, “Why should we fast if it doesn’t get us anything?”  God tells the chosen people they are fasting for the wrong reasons.  They fast in order to look good to others.  They fast in order to appear devout and close to God.  And, above all, they fast in order to get God to notice them.  And, at the same time all this fasting is going on, they are turning their back on justice for others.  This misunderstanding of what fasting and sacrifice is all about is reminiscent of the same mistakes reported in the book of Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah.  The people were doing whatever they wanted, ignoring justice in the process.  Then, they expected to fix it all with God by offering a large enough sacrifice.  God is disappointed by this behavior.  Fasting and sacrifice are for our own spiritual development.  They should be habits that help us draw closer to God. 

     Jesus offered the same words of advice to his disciples in the reading we heard this morning from the Gospel according to Matthew.  Did you hear the three areas that Jesus mentioned to his disciples?  Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  These were the three traditional Jewish duties…required of each person.  But, as we heard today, these tasks can be done well and they can be done poorly.  I can particularly relate to Jesus’ teaching about almsgiving.  He warns not to blow a trumpet when making a donation.  It’s another way of saying, “Don’t be attracting attention to yourself.”  About ten years ago, the church I was serving joined a local high school soccer team to raise money for both of our organizations.  We did this in by far the best way possible.  We volunteered at one of the food stands at Miller Park for a few games each season.  I can say from first-hand experience that it is empowering to walk into a major league ballpark without paying!  In order to be allowed to do such a wonderful thing and to work in a concession stand, you first had to attend a training session.  These were held at Miller Park in the months just before the baseball season began.  One of the things they stressed to us had to do with tips.  It was okay to accept tips from fans purchasing food and drink but you were not allowed to solicit tips in any way.  You couldn’t put a tip jar out on the counter and you couldn’t start cheering or ring a cowbell every time someone offered a tip.  You had to be quiet about it.  In the same way, Jesus told his disciples that, whether giving alms, praying, or fasting, you were not to make a big show about it.  These activates were for God to notice and God does.  By trying to impress others with your generosity, your ability to pray, or the fact that you were fasting, you were not likely to receive any further reward from God.

     In many ways, the act of fasting is very much like the practice of giving up something for Lent.  That was the big thing when I was growing up…that and not eating meat on Friday.  You may be wondering if I really tried to give up homework for Lent as a grade-schooler.  The answer is yes.  I never got to do that, but if I had, I think we can agree that it would not have been a fitting thing to give up.  It would not have been pleasing to God.  It would not have brought me closer to God.  Frankly though, sixty years ago, I really didn’t care.  In our look into the text from Isaiah today, we’ve learned a great deal about what sort of fast, what sort of giving up, was not very pleasing to God.  Giving up something just to show off to others is not the thing we want to be doing.  It doesn’t get God’s attention in a good way.  It doesn’t draw us closer to God or open up a line of communication between us and God. 

     Next Sunday, we’ll look more closely at the type of fast God is looking for.  Until then, let me leave you with this thought.  We can be happy that Lent has become more than a dark penitential time that we hope we can endure.  We can deepen our relationship with God during these few weeks.  I came across an image that, to me, is a very comforting picture of how to be close to God and how good that feels.  I’m using a Lenten devotional book this year called “Take Nothing with You”.  The title refers to a passage from the Gospel according to Luke.  Jesus charged his disciples to take nothing with them as he was preparing to send them out as missionaries.  The scripture verse for last Thursday was from Psalm 91, “God will cover you with his pinions and you’ll find refuge under his wings.”  This is a God I would love to get closer to…a God who protects me…a God who offers me a place of refuge.  I encourage you to think about that image during the coming week.  Think about it with a poetic mind.  What emotion does it evoke in you?  Try it on for size and see if it fits.  And for all the ways God relates to us…the suggestions, the counsel, the encouragement, and the steadfast love…even when we know we need room for improvement, thanks be to God!

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