He was a good man: he lived simply; worked with his hands; watched his money. Honest. Faithful. Paid his tithe. Gentle sense of humour.
In those days there was rarely a time that he didn’t have a letter of some sort in the mail to an MP, MPP or some government department complaining about the waste of tax payers money or some immoral legislation or the emptying of our nation’s Christian values.
I’ve known many like him. Still do. On this site I regularly poke fun at evangelicals who blindly and overwhelmingly find excuses to support a certain side of the government. Always longing for the way things used to be and piously complaining about everyone else.
For those of you wondering what happened to that good old Christian culture we used to have in the past: 1) I’m not buying that it existed, just more to your liking, and 2) we have no one to blame but ourselves by being so dang creepy and annoying and … well … unchristian.
So we come to Isaiah 58, today’s ‘alternative 1st reading’ as it is known in the Lectionary. The religious people during the time of Isaiah couldn’t understand why their nation was so dangerous and unjust – after all, we are worshiping and fasting and doing all the usual activities that good people are supposed to do, right God?
Of course they were discovering that God’s favour does not rest on how we follow rules or whether we call ourselves a godly nation. God’s kingdom is built on humility and generosity.
Read it. Go ahead, take a few minutes and read it. Seriously. Read it.
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. – (NIV)
In spite of their talk and actions, their kingdom wasn’t God’s Kingdom. Their nation wasn’t God’s nation. Their lives weren’t God’s lives. They had created their own versions of all those, worshiping the idols of their own interests and religiosity because it felt right to them.
Martin Luther wrote that one of the themes of Scripture is that the human heart is ‘curved in on itself’ in such a way that we manipulate even our religion to get our own way. We use our own logic which is totally logical – to us. We are turned in on ourselves when we judge our place in the world.
It’s been said that one of the reasons the early church was persecuted was because they were unpatriotic. Think about it: when they came up from the waters of baptism, they came up pledging allegiance to a different kingdom – the kingdom of God. Literally.
In the first three hundred years after Jesus, most Christians found allegiance to their government to be too violent and un-Christlike to participate in. But they didn’t fight for their rights as many do today (not an option) or start a grass-roots rebellion (they were people of peace), they just lived simple lives of Beatitudes and Fruit of the Spirit.
Wouldn’t that be a welcome change to all the shouting and pointing and complaining we listen to today?
Where do we start?
Well, Ash Wednesday is a day of humility, repentance, and remembering that we ‘… are dust, and to dust you will return.’ Today is a day when the Christian Church (you and me) can return to the wholeness of seeing ourselves as God sees us.
How refreshing in a parched world.