Summary: The walk of faith is not for the faint of heart, but walk it we must if we desire to find the Lord’s favor.
THIS FAST THAT I CHOOSE
“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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry….”
The walk of faith is not for the faint of heart, but walk it we must if we desire to find the Lord’s favor. So easy it is to cross over the line between doing righteousness and seeking righteousness. “One of the surest ways to test the quality of our walk with God is to examine the way we respond to the needs of others” (Society of St Andrew, “This Fast That I Choose”).
The Jews thought they were doing everything right and they wanted God to praise them for their efforts. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa 58:3a). Let’s not be so fast to judge the Jews here. Don’t we all seek some recognition for the good that we do, for the sacrifices we make, for the gifts that we give?
It’s a human condition; it’s normal to want others to take notice, yet it becomes hubris to think that God should take notice and praise the good that we do seemingly for God but truly for our own good. Faithful folks veer from the path of righteousness when they want God and everyone else to notice how generous, open, and pious they are. Jesus had a lot to say about public piety:
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
The fast that God desires from us has little to do with us and our concerns and more to do with concern for others—the hungry and the homeless, the poor and the oppressed, and the naked, the sick and the defiled (see Isaiah 58:6-7). Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, called The Message, puts it this way:
The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?
This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.
I want to suggest that we spend these forty days praying for insight and fasting from self-righteousness. Could we choose to cleanse ourselves of what is self-serving and prepare ourselves to do what is Christ-serving? Are we able?
“Are ye able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?”
“Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered, “to the death we follow thee.”
We might be able to sing it, but can we live it? Do we want to live it? Do we desire to live and work and find our being in God? I believe we all do, and that God has a plan for us to do so, evidenced simply by the fact that we are here tonight, marked with the ashes of repentance. Tomorrow the ashes will be washed clean and we can do the same with all the ashes inside us that burden us away from the imitation of Christ.
Spend these forty days and nights praying to find where we are hungry in order to find the Bread of Life; discovering where our hearts feel homeless in order to enter into God’s heavenly home through Jesus the Gate; eradicating where we find our souls poor and oppressed in order to seek out the Good Shepherd and reattaching ourselves to the Vine; and letting God look at us in all our nakedness, our sicknesses and our darknesses in order to walk with Jesus, the Light of the World. These things are possible.