Sermon for March 17, 2019 -- A NEW WAY TO FAST


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 3-17-2019 Pardeeville

(Matthew 25:31-46 ad Isaiah 58:1-7)



     God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading we heard this morning.  And God wants Isaiah to shout these words like a trumpet.  God wants to make sure the chosen people know that God is not pleased with many of the things they’re doing.  We learned last week that this part of the book of Isaiah takes place after the Babylonian exile ends.  After seven decades of living in a foreign country, of wondering how they would survive, and after hearing God’s promise that they will be able to return home, the chosen people are back home.  God has fulfilled another promise.  But the current situation is not at all encouraging.  Home doesn’t look like home.  Everything is broken, including the temple, the very place that the people could go to find God.  Isaiah noticed everyone’s reaction and has been using a lot of energy encouraging his people.  They will need to repair or rebuild almost everything.  Some don’t know where to begin.  Even more wonder if rebuilding is possible.

     God’s displeasure in all this stems from a particular religious practice the chosen people are doing for the wrong reason.  They’re fasting, an obligatory exercise, but they’re fasting so God will notice…and so God will reward them.  Simply put, this is not the reason to fast.  Fasting, along with almsgiving and prayer, were required by Jewish law of every person.  In the Old Testament, people fasted to show their own weakness and their dependence on God.  Fasting was also done in order to ask God’s forgiveness.  Because the chosen people were not motivated by any of these things in their fasting, the first five verses of the Isaiah passage amount to a stern rebuke from God for this self-serving activity.  Now that God has cleared the air about the chosen people’s failings, God offers words to guide them back to a proper form of fasting.  But the thing is, it’s a different way of fasting altogether…something new…a different way of offering something to God.  It’s a fast that is focused outward…on the people who were oppressed or needy.

     What God is interested in from the chosen people is a willingness to offer help to those in need rather than ignore them.  God wants the chosen people to care for others instead of taking advantage of them.  So we hear God describe the kinds of things the people should be doing:  loosening the bonds of injustice, freeing those who are oppressed, sharing food with those who are hungry, and addressing the plight of those who do not have a home or enough clothes to wear. 

     These same things are mentioned when Jesus is speaking to his disciples about judgment day in the Gospel according to Matthew.  This is the only real description we have from scripture about what the last day will be like.  And, truthfully, couldn’t we have guessed a great deal of it?  We ought to know that there would be some sort of separation of the good and the bad…that there would be certain criteria on which that judgment would be based…and that good people will go to heaven and bad people will go somewhere else.  Now it is entirely up to God to save and it is entirely up to God to decide who will go to which destination.  But I think this passage gives us insight as to what matters to God and what may positively or negatively influence what God decides when we are judged.

     Jesus reviews the list with each group.  I was hungry; I was thirsty; I was a stranger; I was naked; I was sick; I was in prison.  Jesus invites the righteous into heaven but discharges the others to eternal punishment.  What I find interesting about this passage are the answers from the two groups.  Not so much the way the bad group protests.  They ask Jesus, “When did we see you in all these conditions and not help you?”  Just in the way they lived their lives, this group was not looking out for other people.  They failed to see the face of Christ in anyone else.  Had Jesus himself needed something they may have helped but when Christ tells them “I was hungry” and all that…they take it very literally and answer, “When did we see YOU?”

     The real surprise, for me anyway, comes in the answer that the good people offer.  In fact, it’s the same answer!  I found it odd at first that this group would not equate helping the others around them, whom Jesus called “the least of these”, with helping Christ.  How could anyone miss that?  Well, I think I understand their answer a bit differently now.  This group acted to feed and visit and clothe and welcome intentionally at first…following Jesus’ example.  But the activities soon became habits.  It became a part of their nature to reach out to other people.  They offered others what was needed and, little by little, started to make only a subconscious connection to doing the same for Christ.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.  It’s the way habits develop.  When it becomes our nature to help others, without considering what might be in it for us, we truly follow God’s command to reach out.

     In a short time, we’re going to say one of my favorite parts of the Confession of 1967.  We’ll say it as a community of faith, the same way we say our affirmation of faith every Sunday morning.  I like this section of the Confession of 1967 because it describes so well what we are supposed to be doing as Christians when we go out from a Sunday morning worship service.  It’s outside the walls of the church where the faith we practice together on a Sunday morning becomes the practical application of that faith.  This morning’s affirmation of faith reminds us that we serve God wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.  Our prayers throughout the week are part of our continuing worship.  Our witness to God’s love and grace in our community is the way we spread the Gospel message.  The things we do every day are the ways we act as missionaries to our community.  And the big one at the end…the quality of the way we treat other people is the measure of our commitment to Christ…to act as Christ’s hands and feet in our community and throughout the world. 

     Presbyterians are not world-class fasters.  We don’t always choose something to give up for Lent as other faith traditions do.  But some of us do.  A week ago yesterday, three members of the Session and I attended an educational event in Madison.  In casual conversations throughout the day, I was surprised to hear several people talk about what they had given up for Lent.  When you think about it, giving something up is what fasting is all about.  That got me thinking in general terms about what sort of fasting might be appropriate.  Isaiah shares what God has to say about it.  God wants the people to replace their fasts with actions that seek justice for one another.  The chosen people were not treating others very well.  So today, anything you might give up for Lent should lead you to consider the plight of others and to do what you can to make it better.  And what I’ve come to understand about the season of Lent is that it is an ideal time to draw closer to God…so if what you give up for Lent leads you to a deeper relationship with God…if it frees up some time so you can talk to God and listen to God…I say go for it!

     Fasting was what Old Testament folks offered to God to humble themselves and to ask God’s forgiveness.  In the passage from the book of Isaiah that we heard this morning, the concept of a fast is changed by God.  God asked the chosen people to help those who were oppressed or mistreated or hungry or homeless.  And, at the very end of the passage, God asks the chosen people to consider those they are helping as their own people.  This is very much like Jesus describing those we help as “the least of these” and calling us to treat others as we would treat our own.  The fast Isaiah describes and the criteria for being chosen to go to heaven are the same.  We are called to care about people…not so God notices us…but because it’s our offering to God.  We’re called to help those unjustly ignored, those who do not have enough food, those who have no place to live, and those who suffer in any way.  We’re called to treat everyone as if they were members of our own family.  That’s what God is looking for.  That is our faithful response to God for all that we have received from God.  Thanks be to God!


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