Walking the cobblestone and brick streets of Thessaloniki, there are a lot of sights you'll see. The slope of all the streets downward toward the sea. Little shrines with icons and candles. Graffiti on nearly every building you'll pass. Thousand-year-old churches, still standing tall, still inviting people to come worship God. The rubble of ancient ruins, blending with modern apartment complexes and storefronts. Shop after shop after shop in the shopping district.
But one of the most common sights you'll see – one you can't avoid downtown – are beggars. Some are young women, kids in tow, trying desperately to sell individual packages of Kleenex. Others are old women and old men, sitting by the side of the road, hand outstretched and murmuring imploringly to anyone who walks near. It's an overwhelming experience, to be bombarded with so many cries for help, so many people visibly presenting a depiction of homelessness and poverty and desperation. But you know the cautionary tales that spin through your head at the same time, don't you?
When I was there last month, I have to say, I felt profoundly torn. I knew what the Bible teaches about generosity, about mercy. When I was in seminary, I pledged before God that I would try to move in the direction of a simpler lifestyle, owning nothing that isn't needful or at least useful in ministry. That's why, the next time I move, I plan – I hope – to divest myself of most of my belongings. Just get rid of it, sell it off, and learn to live on less.
With that in mind, you'd think I would've been eager to give to every beggar I saw, or at least most. But on the other hand, objections kept surfacing in my mind. Now, there may be good reasons not to give money to a Greek beggar on the streets of Thessaloniki – many of them, I'm told, are victims of human trafficking and are coerced into begging to make money for their slavers, and others are working for organized crime rings – but I sure didn't know that. And the confession I have to make this morning is that, while I was there, God confronted me with the tremendous gap between my heart and Christ's heart.
And that's really the goal of Lent, isn't it? That's what we've been talking about these past couple weeks. By driving us beyond our usual limits and into the realm of self-sacrifice, by pushing us to where we're at our weakest, Lent opens our eyes to that distance. It's not so that we can feel bad. It's not so that we can moan and groan and say, “Woe is me,” and that's it. It's so that we can quit standing on our own so-called strength and fall down on Christ's.
If you've been here the past couple of weeks, maybe you remember the gist of what we've been learning together from Isaiah. At the close of February, we opened up a question: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?” (Isaiah 58:5). Is it just about rituals, and then back to life as 'normal'? Or is God looking for something more from all our religion?
And we found that the kind of fast God chooses means he's looking for us to forsake weighted scales, to speak up for the vulnerable, to abandon all violence, and to spread liberty to those now under oppression. “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?” (Isaiah 58:6).
But Isaiah keeps going on from there. Sure, like last week, Lent is still for combating “structural evil” like fraud, violence, and oppression – still a catalyst for challenging those aspects of law and culture and society and especially ourselves that run directly counter to God's kingdom. But Lent is for more – for things more directly in our personal power, ways we can change society that have nothing to do with changing the government and everything to do with our own actions. Lent is for personal action, to charitably and mercifully do good to people directly and make our neighborhood a healthier place.
So Isaiah continues: “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: ...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?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). That's not something we can leave to others. It's something vital to our own souls. If we ignore the need all around us, we're turning away from our own flesh and blood – and, says Paul, that makes us “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
It isn't as though God ever said, “Generosity would be cool, if you happen to feel like it.” The extent of our generosity depends on what we've got and on the Spirit's leading, but the fact of our generosity is a matter of obedience and of sharing God's vision for life. It's true that “there will always be poor people in the land,” but God tells us to “give generously to them, and do so without a grudging heart.” He commands us to “be openhanded toward [those] who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:10-11).
God reminds us that “the wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously” (Psalm 37:21). And didn't Jesus outright tell the Pharisees: “Be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41)? God wants us to “be generous on every occasion” (2 Corinthians 9:11) – that's in the Bible, I didn't write it.
For those reasons, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, wrote: “Mercy to the full range of human needs is such an essential mark of being a Christian that it can be used as a test of true faith. Mercy is not optional or an addition to being a Christian. Rather, a life poured out in deeds of mercy is the inevitable sign of true faith.”
In other words, the fast God chooses – Isaiah's Lent – is just what Jesus-followers do. Like Paul wrote to an earlier Tim: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
But maybe you'll say, “Hold on, wait a minute.” Maybe if you saw a scruffy man by the side of the road, maybe if someone came to you for help, you'd have a list of reasons to keep your wallet firmly in pocket. I know I did, when I was in Greece. Maybe you'd think, “This person must be so lazy, to not be working productively for society. His whole life must be a string of bad decisions. Let's leave him to the consequences of his own actions. Every man for himself.” Not that we know his heart. Not that we know whether the trauma of military service, or robbery, or some other tragedy drove him here. Not that we know whether he's trying to hold down a job but has trouble getting there without a car.
Or maybe you'd think, “If I even start a conversation, he'll hit me up for more and more, and then I'll never be rid of him, and I'll be uncomfortable.” But real mercy is open to a life-changing relationship – one that cuts through our culture of complacency and their culture of poverty; one that calls us both deeper into the life of Christ. Why should we want to be 'rid' of someone made in God's image? Why should we look at our brother, our sister, our neighbor as an inconvenience?
Or maybe you'd think, “I'd like to give, I really would, but I just can't afford it. I'm saving up for something.” But which will last longer: what you're saving for, or the soul of that man, woman, or child in desperate need with outstretched hand? In that moment, we show what we really value and whom we truly serve. Is it the image of God, or the image of Mammon? There are valid things we really need – we do have to take care of ourselves and our families, because they're at the core of our field of stewardship – but we need far, far less than we as Americans have tricked ourselves into thinking we do.
Or maybe you've walked past a panhandler and thought to yourself, “Why should I give him this money? Who knows how he'll use it? Probably to get drunk.” Not that we can see inside his heart, but we might think it anyway. We worry about misuse. Of course, there are ways to deal with that: we can find out what we need and take care of that need ourselves, by giving in kind rather than in cash, or by dealing with their creditors directly.
But even so, I remember a story. Who here – a show of hands, now – has ever heard of C. S. Lewis? Not just an Oxford professor, but a wonderful Christian author in his day: Mere Christianity, The Abolition of Man, The Great Divorce, A Grief Observed, and of course the Chronicles of Narnia series.
I heard this story from his stepson a few years ago. One day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road, and they came across a beggar. Lewis reaches into his pocket and pulls out all the money he has on him, and gives it to the beggar, and they walk on. His friend – maybe it was Tolkien, maybe another of the Inklings – is astonished, even dismayed, tries to reprimand him. “Jack!”, he says – his friends called him “Jack,” because, come on, would you want to go by “Clive”? – “Jack, what did you do that for? That beggar is probably going to spend every last penny of that on booze!” And Jack looked into his friend's eyes, and he says, “Maybe, maybe not – but if I'd kept it, I know that's how I would've spent it!”
C. S. Lewis was brutally honest in that. We can be so concerned about the potential irresponsibility of the poor that we're blind to our own actual irresponsible stewardship of God's gifts – so consumed in judging others for the speck in their eye that the log in our own keeps thwacking the doorframes and bounces off all the pews.
Our attitude toward our money and our belongings is meant to look less like a game of Tug-of-War and more like a game of Hot Potato – it isn't about holding on with all our might; it's about tossing our excess away before it burns us, and trusting that God will take care of us in his service.
Isn't it great that, during his darkest night in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus didn't voice all our objections to showing mercy? Can you imagine a world where Jesus says to the Father, “I'm not giving up all I have for them – I'm not going to the cross – because it's too much to ask! I can't afford it, and I don't want to get hurt. Besides, look at how lazy they are! Look at how useless they are! They'll never change. And besides, many of them don't want to help others; they just want a handout. If I give them this one thing, they'll just keep coming back for more whenever they need something, and I'll never hear the end of it. That's so annoying, Father. And if I give them this life of mine, think how they'll squander it, think how they'll misuse it! That's it, that's the last straw – you can forget the cross.”
What a dark world that would be. Thank God that his Son has a heart better than ours! He showed mercy, he showed generosity – and he calls us to be like him and help others, even in our own midst as well as beyond it, with their material, social, and spiritual poverty.
In Greece, I couldn't communicate with the beggars I saw – I didn't speak Greek, they didn't speak English. I couldn't get a sense of their sincerity, couldn't assess whether they were really hungry, or really in need of clothing or shelter or any of the other things Isaiah names. I couldn't find local charities that care for those needs in constructive ways, avoiding relationships of perpetual dependence.
But I don't have those obstacles in America. Here, if I apply myself, I absolutely can speak with people in need – get to know them, learn about their lives and their situation; I absolutely can provide for their needs in concrete ways by buying them meals, helping them find work and get to work, funding their shelter, helping them in body and spirit. And when that gets overwhelming, I absolutely can find charitable organizations that equip people in need to reach self-sufficiency, so that they can begin to experience the joy of helping those with less.
I may not have much by middle-class American standards, but I can do those things! And so can each of you – even if it's just pennies to start. And so can we, as a church. But one thing we can't afford to do is hoard all our wealth to ourselves, like the rich young ruler who “went away disappointed” (Mark 10:22).
You might be wondering, “Isn't this supposed to be a sermon about Lent?” You're right – it is. “What on earth does this have to do with Lent?” I promise you, it does. What biblical theme is Lent mostly about? Search for “Lent” on Google, and there's one word you'll see again and again: “Repentance.” Lent is all about repentance – that change of mind, that change of heart, that change of lifestyle, that turns us away from our old patterns and points us in God's direction again. John the Baptist was a fiery preacher of repentance “to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24). And he lived it – he was no hypocrite. In fact, you could say that John's whole life was Lent! He wore camel-hair clothes, he lived on locusts and wild honey, he fasted – he must have, to live like that, and the Bible outright tells us that “John's disciples often fast and pray” (Luke 5:33).
John the Baptist lived Lent from childhood to the chopping block, and repentance was his theme all his days long – after all, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness,” writes Mark, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). And when he castigated the crowds, he told them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). They couldn't rely on their ancestry, their background, to keep them in the covenant: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).
That's why Lent is so important – because Lent is about repentance, and repentance is a matter of life or death! So it's no surprise that the crowds asked – just like the crowds asked Peter on Pentecost – “What should we do, then?” (Luke 3:10).
And do you remember what John said? “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none. And anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11). That's amazing! If you have just two shirts in your closet (I must have a couple dozen, at least), and you meet somebody who hasn't got a single one, go down to one yourself for their sake. When John thinks about what repentance looks like for the crowds – people with lives back in the city, back in their villages, back in their country huts – it looks like sharing. It looks like generosity.
John the Baptist thinks with Isaiah's brain. What John means by repentance is what Isaiah means by fasting: share what you've got with the hungry, the homeless, the have-nots – even if what you've got is so little you don't know how you'll get by, repentance means sharing.
The kind of fasting God chooses is for us to fast from the pretense of possession – to set aside our bizarre belief that our so-called “ownership” is more than stewardship, that our “rights” over all of “our” things take precedence over God's command to share what we have.
That's the fast that God has chosen – and it's not just outward, but stems from a real reshaping of our hearts to see in each needy person (including those with small needs from time to time) the image of God and a chance to love as Christ loved us, without condescension, without condemnation.
So this message is for Lent. But it isn't only for Lent, as if repentance and fasting were confined to a season, and then it was back to business as usual. That's exactly Isaiah's criticism of Judah's “spiritual superheroes” (cf. Isaiah 58:5)! Lent is a reset button – a time to take up new patterns of living, not so that we can go back to 'normal' after it's done, but so that we can find a new 'normal' in its aftermath. Lent makes us one step more generous – and we carry that throughout the rest of the year and into the next, until Lent comes around again.
And what does Isaiah say will happen if we observe this kind of fast the LORD approves? “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” (Isaiah 58:8-10).
That's what a good Lent will do! The Lent of the “spiritual superheroes,” who were all about ritual, all about 'doing church' without a change in heart – that kind of religion puts no wings on their prayers. It earns them no favor in God's sight. But this kind of Lent is different. It's not about earning God's favor or deserving his attention, though. This kind of fasting is only possible within the realm of his grace to begin with. It asks us to “spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry” – a real sacrificial generosity, but one made possible because Jesus Christ was generous first to us: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
And because it comes from Jesus, because it does as Jesus does, it comes with such a great gift: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 15:10). Lent is for loosing the chains of injustice, and Lent is for sharing bread. The whole gospel leads to sharing bread together at the Lord's family table, after all.
This fasting will be a sacrifice, but it comes with a promise – a promise that God will see our reflection of his Son and be pleased, a promise that he'll bring new light into our lives, a promise that he'll pour out the Spirit of revival on us if we truly follow that Spirit into transformation of the head, heart, and hands.
That's what this message is for. It's not for guilt-tripping anybody, not for hammering you down, not for convicting you and challenging you and making you exhausted. It's not about tiring you out: his yoke is easy, his burden is light, he will give you rest, so go labor for Jesus Christ in his field (Matthew 11:29-30).
Let's be a church of mercy. Let's be a church whom people will see and say to themselves, “Yes... Jesus is risen, and Jesus is there.” “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” beyond all measure, who has “enriched [us] in every way so that [we] can be generous on every occasion” (2 Corinthians 9:11, 15). Amen.