Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Question of Lent: Sermon on Isaiah 58

We're now several weeks into the season of Lent – this is the third Sunday, isn't it? But we haven't had a chance to really talk about Lent until now. The first Sunday was Valentine's Day, and so we took time to focus on that instead. The second Sunday – well, that was last Sunday, I was away in Greece, and I trust Rev. Wagner gave a great sermon on the church being one body. And now here we are, confronted with addressing Lent. And what is Lent, really? What's it all about, at the heart of it?

I think we have to go back to Ash Wednesday to answer that. I mean, that's how Lent kicks off – with Ash Wednesday. Weather prevented us from really observing Ash Wednesday this year, unfortunately. And that's a great shame, because Ash Wednesday is so crucial. The first truth is pretty obvious: Ash Wednesday is about ashes. Lent is a season of ashes. And in those ashes, we're reminded of two very important things. The first one is the fact of our sin. Let's face it, we are sinners. “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “All of you sinned against the LORD and did not obey his voice” (Jeremiah 40:3). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

And the second thing figured in the ashes is our mortality. Each and every one of us, left to our own devices, will die. That's the harsh, difficult, very unpleasant truth. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). When God takes away our breath, we “die and return to [our] dust” (Psalm 104:29). Being dust, “to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). “All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). We are sinful; we are mortal; we are fragile, very fragile. The tiniest thing can precipitate the departure of our breath and our dissolution back to dust. “I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust” (Psalm 109:23) – that's a Lenten confession from the psalmist right there.

If we don't think it's true – if we don't think we're fragile, and our world is fragile – then we haven't been paying attention this week. I'll be honest: this has been a hard week. It's been hard for me not to be here with you, to share in shouldering the burden. A very dear and beloved friend of ours – a mentor to me, a brother and shepherd to us, Pastor Greg – commenced his journey back to dust. And because he was so dear to our hearts, our hearts are torn and broken – a piece of them has fallen to dust as well. We know that he's departed to be with Christ, and that lets us grieve with hope – but it's still grief. That's natural – Jesus wept over Lazarus – and we have to accept that it's okay to grieve with hope. 

And then just a day later, our destabilized lives were rocked again when a tornado thrust itself into our church's life, touched our building. Look at the stained glass in the Sunday School room. Look up at our roof, our rafters. Survey the cemetery and the shed. We are fragile.

And by the way, I don't think it's a coincidence that, during my absence, we were hit by two tragedies like these back-to-back. No, I don't think that's a coincidence for a second. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan is active. He despises the people of God. A complacent church is no threat to him; like Mose Dissinger said, in a complacent church he'll take a snooze right in front of the pulpit. But in a church on fire for the mission of the kingdom? For a church looking out beyond its walls? The devil can't abide that. He opposes those who pose a threat. 

And I believe that the past week has shown that we are rising on his hit list because we are moving in the direction Jesus wants us to move. And so the devil took advantage of our situation to bring a disaster our way, in hopes of inflicting a setback and taking our minds off our mission, demoralizing us and derailing us.

I am convinced his scheme will backfire. We will not be demoralized, for God is with us. We will not be derailed, for God is with us! What Satan means for evil, God means for good and will use for good (cf. Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). If the devil wants to shake us, well, he's only put us more and more in the public eye. Our church is in the newspapers. I've been getting calls and e-mails from people interested in helping us. People are watching in ways they weren't before, giving us an opportunity to witness by following Christ's example. And if the devil wants to destroy – and he does, for “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) – well, he'll only remind us of the very truths that Lent is meant to hammer home.

Because we're sinful and because we're fragile, we are unworthy and unable to live everlasting life. Everlasting life, eternal life, isn't just a length of life without an end point. It is that, but there's more. It's life that has the character of God's unshakeable new creation. It's the kind of life that would be fit for a different kind of world, a less dusty place. 

But we look around us. We look into ourselves, we examine our hearts. And we see a mismatch. The world we're in, isn't very new. It isn't unshakeable. And if it were, we – the people we are – wouldn't belong there. It'd be too much for us. We're fragile. And we'd stain that fresh, clean world with our sin. And so we fast.

That's why we need Lent. Because Lent ritually reminds us, every year, just how poor, just how sinful, just how fragile we are – how desperately we need the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. Like Isaiah says: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1). 

We are so, so forgetful. We love to think that we can make it on our own – that we're capable of pleasing God – that we can build something that will last forever, like a legacy carved in stone, a tower unto heaven. But we can't. Towers to heaven don't stand tall (cf. Genesis 11:8). They don't amount to much. “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6). Lent is the church's way of obeying what God told Isaiah: to announce cold, harsh reality to the self-deceived – which is all of us, from time to time.

Lent compels us to admit that we're poor and needy. That's literally what the psalmist says: “For I am poor and needy, and my heart is pierced within me” (Psalm 109:22). How did he get to this realization of his physical and spiritual poverty, his radical contingency? Because of his fasting. When we fast during Lent, whatever a good kind of “fasting” might look like, it has to be a way of honestly and truly admitting that we and our world are hopelessly, helplessly in need of grace. 

We fast during this season as a way of protesting ourselves, protesting our world. We fast in protest at a world that falls so short of God's glory. We fast in protest because we look inside ourselves, and we see the root of the problem there. But our protest can be a hopeful one, because of Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection makes a way beyond the dust and ashes into a new world and a “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28) – no matter how fast the wind blows. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work” (1 John 3:8).

Fasting confronts us with our weakness of body and our weakness of will. It unmasks our comfort. If you've ever tried fasting for a while, I'm sure you've had a run-in with your limits – that place where it just feels like you can't hold out anymore. I remember back in college when I set a rather ambitious fast during Ash Wednesday: I decided I'd go for twenty-four hours with no food at all, no water at all – nothing. I think I chugged a bottle of water and wolfed down a doughnut at 12:01 AM on Thursday morning! I was forced to admit that my body was weak – and throughout the whole day, as I felt the lures of temptation threatening my resolve, I had to admit that not only was the flesh weak, but maybe the spirit was less willing than I'd like to tell myself. Like the psalmist says, “My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt” (Psalm 109:24). 

That's what Lent is meant to be for. It's a means of stripping off our delusions. Lent is supposed to be about a radical correction to our spiritual sight – instead of looking at ourselves through rose-colored glasses, we take a deep breath, see clearly, admit the truth, and discipline ourselves to do something about it. That's the point of Lent.

You could say that, in Isaiah's time, whatever Lent-like fasting tradition the people of Judah had, they were doing it wrong. They had no desire to take off the glasses and ask the hard questions. Now, if we had a time machine and could plop ourselves down in the early sixth century BC, if we could wipe our minds of every trace of Isaiah's teaching and all the benefits of clearer sight that the gospel's brought us, we could be pretty easily tricked into thinking Isaiah's targets were the good guys! I mean, listen to what God says here: “Yet day after day they seek me, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” (Isaiah 58:2). To catch a snapshot of them on Sabbath morning, they're the spiritual superheroes; they're just that impressive! They're the kind of people who are in church whenever it's open – at least, so long as people can see them strolling in through the door.

To see them in those moments, everyone in Judah would assume that they hunger and thirst for God. I mean, just look at them! They seem desperate to get closer to God – they're spending all that time in church, right? Don't they seek him day in and day out? “They delight to draw near to God” (Isaiah 58:2)! And all they ask of God is just one simple thing: justice, justice, justice. “They ask of me righteous judgments” (Isaiah 58:2). Sounds like a good thing to ask!

But not so fast.  They say it has to be on their terms. See, they understand the covenant to be a ceremonial deal: they give God the right rituals, the right words, the right gestures at the right time, and in turn, God praises and honors them and treats them really well. I mean, doesn't that just make sense? Isn't that what God's looking for – for them to give up candy for forty days, and in exchange he'll owe them some favors? It's only fair! “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3).  For all the investment we've made in this religion, aren't we owed a better result? It's like God's ignoring all their religious activity! It's unfair! Or so they think.

God disagrees. They have not held up their “end of the deal.” Because there is no 'deal'! This is not a business arrangement! The covenant isn't signed on Wall Street; it's signed in a wedding chapel. It's about a relationship, about our souls, about our hearts, not about some quid pro quo

The problem with these “spiritual superheroes” of Judah is that their fasting has nothing to do with real humility. It isn't meant for confronting them with weakness of will and body. It's meant to make them feel good about themselves – or, more importantly, to make others admire them. They claim they humble themselves, but all their Lenten piety is just grandstanding to flatter their own pride. They practically admit, in so many words, that all their religion is for show.

The fasting psalmist prayed to God, “Deal well with me for your name's sake” (Psalm 109:21). The psalmist is humble. The psalmist says to God, to himself, to his community, that if God has a reason to do anything nice for him, that reason has nothing to do with the psalmist's worthiness and everything to do with God's mercy. The psalmist here knows no works-righteousness. The psalmist's prayer is a quest for grace. 

But the “spiritual superheroes” of Isaiah's Judah – the ancestors-in-heart of generations of Pharisees, including within the church – would never think to seriously pray, “Deal well with me for your name's sake.” If they prayed a truly honest prayer reflecting the state of their souls, it would be, “Deal well with me, because I've earned it from you, and you owe it to me!”

That's their mindset – that they've earned it. They've earned it through being “religious.” Now, look at how they understand being “religious” – because there's a right way and a wrong way, and they like the wrong way. To them, their religiosity, their piety, is defined entirely by rituals. They wear the Lenten outfit of sackcloth. They show up in the right place, the temple. They bow at just the right time, keeping rhythm with the rest of the congregation, maybe even setting the pace. They go up and get the ashes on their heads. They change their diet for the season, and everyone knows it. They keep all the rituals. And by Thursday night, they've gotten in a drunken bar-fight. “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” (Isaiah 58:3-4). Because their religion begins and ends with rituals that, like Shakespeare's “tale told by an idiot,” signify absolutely nothing in their lives.

When they fast, they have no intention to mortify the flesh. They aren't looking to discipline their bodies, to keep them out of the way of their relationship with God. When these “spiritual superheroes” fast, they have no intention to mortify the passions. They aren't looking to challenge who they are on the inside – all the bundles of feelings and desires tugging them this way and that, seizing the reins of control from their hands. We know we're full of passions – the word literally means “sufferings,” we suffer from disturbance with these yearnings that lead us where we might not want to go, we suffer from being ruled by them – and when these people fast, they aren't aiming to put their passions back in their place.

When these “spiritual superheroes” fast, without mortifying the flesh or the passions, they end up with no change at all in their social and relational conduct. They don't confess the truth. They don't reform their ways. They contribute nothing toward making a less fragile world, a less sinful world. In fact, they use Lent as an excuse to go the opposite path. 

They look at Lent as being like a carbon credit – you know, where companies pay money to supposedly offset their atmospheric pollution, and then use all the cash they throw around as an excuse to produce even more greenhouse gases, like how a certain former vice-president justifies his mansion and private jet while crusading for environmental causes? That's the way these “spiritual superheroes” view their fasting: it buys them an indulgence to, well, indulge themselves even more. So instead of working toward a less fragile, less sinful world, they justify themselves in their violence, and so they keep contributing to breaking the world, breaking other people, breaking their own selves. That's what Isaiah's saying – really, that's what God's saying, using Isaiah to do it.

Reading that, it's easy to shake our heads at Judah. Can't they see? Don't they get it? We read these words, and Isaiah lays it out so convincingly, so clearly, that it all becomes so obvious. So we instantly think judgmental thoughts. But is their false fasting so different than the way a lot of fellow believers – and maybe we ourselves – live today? Does it differ so many from the way we “do church”? Is it that separate from our own behavior during Lent? 

I mean, let's take a step back and try to look at ourselves as keen-eyed as Isaiah would see us. Maybe during Lent, we pick a thing to give up for forty days. But by the end of the forty days, what's changed in our lives? Does Lent make a difference? Or is it just a ritual – a thing we go through once a year, so that we can say we did the 'religious' thing, and oh good here comes Easter, now all that's over and done with? Are we more God-focused people now than we were on Fasnacht Day? Does love fill our lives and define our character more now than on Fasnacht Day? Or was it all for show – if not to convince others of our goodness, then to convince ourselves?

Isaiah's fake “spiritual superheroes” maybe aren't so foreign after all. In the antebellum South, they were the countless men who'd go to church Sunday morning and whip their slaves half to death twenty-four hours later. Throughout more recent history, there have been countless supposedly “God-fearing” men (and women) who showed up to church every Sunday, and then spent their weeks using their twisted theologies to justify cruelty to their spouses, unleashing the belt on their kids, stealing from work, yelling at their workers, badmouthing their neighbors.

Maybe that sounds extreme – but there are a lot of little ways we show that attending church services or observing Lent hasn't really changed us, hasn't led us to face ourselves in the light of God's truth. Who here has ever grumbled insults at another driver while you're on your way home from church? I'll be honest – there've been some Sundays in my life when I've had a hard time not doing it before I even make it out of the parking lot! (Not here, of course, you all drive great.) 

Who here has ever done anything the week after church that you'd never want people to see you do on a Sunday morning at church? I know I'm not exempt. I doubt any of us live perfectly consistently throughout the week with the faith we profess on a Sunday morning. We lapse back into the same old habits – and sometimes, when we observe Lent or come to worship, we aren't even that well-intentioned. We don't mean to be challenged, don't mean to have demands placed on us, don't mean to be changed.

And through Isaiah, God says to the people of our day: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). In other words, if this is what Lent looks like, then the only wings it puts on your prayers are wax wings like Icarus'. They'll never make it past the sun to reach God's ears. If our Lent looks like mere ritual without a heart-change, if it's soaked in hypocrisy, then God awards us no points, and may he have mercy on our souls. This kind of fasting, the way Isaiah describes it, is honestly no more helpful, no more God-honoring, then just skipping the whole thing altogether. It will not entitle us to anything. It will not bring us closer to God. It is not the fast that God has chosen.

So it's no surprise when God asks, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen – only a day for people to humble themselves?” (Isaiah 58:5). Is that it – just a day, just a season, and then back to ordinary life without a difference? On the day of our fasting, do we do as we please, as our flesh pleases? There's got to be more to Lent than this rubbish – got to be something else. “Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?” Is it really just about the ritual, and nothing else? It can't be! But what else is there? What kind of fast really does something about our fragility? What kind of fast exposes the truth? What does it look like to have a fast that actually addresses our sin and the sin of the world? What kind of fast has God chosen? That's the big Question of Lent. And for the next two Sundays, we'll be taking up what Isaiah has to teach us.

This may not seem like a very comforting message, at a time when our church may be more in need of comfort than we've been in the past decade. What am I thinking, sticking to the sermon I believe God led me in advance to schedule for today? I wrestled with this: should I preach sometime that seems more timely? Something less challenging, less convicting, less pointed? Up through this morning, I prayed to God about that. 

But I believe that this sermon is for this season; that God knew what he was doing all along. I have to trust that. God reminded me that our suffering is not devoid of meaning. Lent is about accepting that the Christian path is the road of the cross, yes – but the road doesn't end at the crosses in our lives. It does not stop at the grave; it is not ripped away by a twister. No matter how fast the winds blow, the road of the cross goes on beyond them. “Rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13)! “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ” – and this week, we certainly have – “so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). 

Lent is not comfortable. It is no easy thing to tread in the footsteps of the cross-bearing Jesus. But the fast God has chosen will lead to the feast God has prepared. That's a promise from heaven. You can bank on it. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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