Summary: the point of life and living is to be a blessing to someone else. As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ, and the way we do that is by acting for the betterment of humankind, one person at a time, one instant at a time, one opportunity at a time.
Isaiah 58: 6-8
6 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?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I was walking up main street in Easley SC with my mother on a Saturday afternoon. She had shopping to do, and she had convinced me to tag along. As we were walking along the sidewalk, she suddenly grabbed the sleeve of my coat and pulled me into a store. It was an old style dime store. I thought at first she had seen some magnificent bargain in the store, but It was soon obvious that she had no intention of buying anything. Though she made some little pretence of looking at merchandise, she kept glancing out the front windows of the store. After a few minutes, she said, “Ok let’s go.” We walked back out on the sidewalk and continued with our shopping. All this was a mystery to me. I asked her what was going on. At first, she refused to answer, but I was not about to let it go. I badgered her about it until she finally “fessed up.” She said, she had seen in the crowd ahead of us, coming toward us, some distant relatives of hers and they were such white trash, she did not want to have them recognize her and greet her on the streets of Easley. I did not know these relatives, had never met them, and she said, I should count that as a blessing.
I told my father about this incident, and he laughed and said mother was sometimes a little uppity. She should perhaps have read these verses from Isaiah and not hid from her own kin. But Isaiah has a different situation in mind. He has in mind people who hide from their kinfolks when those folks are in need.
Let us begin at the beginning. These verses from Isaiah are about fasting. In general, fasting is abstinence from food or drink. To fast is to stop eating. The fast we hear the most about today in the news media is the Muslim fast of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Muslims are supposed to fast for the entire month. They neither eat nor drink during the day. However, this is not a total fast, for they may eat and drink after sunset.
But not only Muslims fast. Fasting has been a practice in the Christian church from time immemorial. Acts 13:1-3 tells how the church at Antioch fasted and prayed before commissioning Paul and Barnabas and John Mark as missionaries. Acts 14:23 speaks of appointing elders in the church with prayer and fasting. If we followed this advice, the next time we have elections for church officers, we should have a period of prayer and fasting beforehand, but I do not think that advice will be received very well. As you can see, fasting and prayer are often linked together. In Luke 2:36, we are told of the prophetess Anna, who was an eighty-four year old widow. “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (37).
What Kind of Fast Does God Want?
At this point you are probably wondering which direction this sermon is going to go. In the Christian church, the season of Lent has been a time of fasting and penitence. You may be wondering if I am going to talk about what we should give up for lent. Perhaps you are wondering if I am going to recommend a special diet today. Perhaps you think I am going to preach on losing a few pounds for Lent.
If you read newspapers, you know that most studies show that most Americans are overweight. So it would not be a bad idea for some of us to lose a few pounds, but fasting in scripture is never about losing weight. Fasting is about improving our relationship to God. Fasting is not intended to punish the flesh but to focus on God.
And fasting is not just giving up food. Christian fasting is a way of living and thinking. We see that particularly in Isaiah chapter 58.
In v3, the people complained to God, "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" they were angry with God because God did not seem to be responding to their fasting and prayers and sacrifices. They thought that God should take notice of them. They thought that God owed them because they had done all this religious stuff.