Why We Have Lent (Ash Wednesday)
"We We Have Lent"
Ash Wednesday - March 6, 2019
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. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
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, 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? 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. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"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.
"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.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
In our Scriptures today, both Isaiah and Jesus rail against spiritual hypocrisy. It’s a regular theme throughout the Bible. You can do good. You can do evil. But the worst thing is to do evil and pretend that it’s good.
This is a reminder that the point of Lent isn’t to accomplish great spiritual feats. It isn’t about who prays more or fasts the hardest or gives the most away. The spiritual disciplines we do during Lent are there to help us grow in holiness. They are to point us closer to Jesus in both our conduct and in our hearts. The disciplines are just a means to a greater end. They are a path to help us see the face of God more clearly. They are meant to draw us closer to the Father’s loving heart, not just to say we did it.
That’s why Isaiah can say that fasts are unacceptable if “you serve your own interest” while you do it. Fasts are unacceptable to God when they lead “to quarrel and to fight” among ourselves about what the “right way” to fast is or who is holier because of how hard they are working.
So the fasting that Isaiah wants us to take on goes beyond simple food rules. It’s connected to our love and compassion for our fellow human beings. The Prophet writes,
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, 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? 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.
Isaiah places our fasting in the context of social justice. Our fast on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent should help us care for the needy, to challenge the unjust systems of the world, to bring freedom to the oppressed everywhere we go. Fasting should open our eyes and our minds to God’s vision for a world that is healed, where no one goes hungry, and no one is locked up. If we fast like that, we might be a church that radically transforms our society and economy for the better. If you fast, but remain comfortable with the world’s status quo, with the suffering of God’s children, then Isaiah says you might as well not fast.
While Isaiah focuses on the need for works of mercy, Jesus speaks more straightforwardly about spiritual pride. When you give alms (that is, charitable gifts to people in need), don’t make a big show about it. Giving is supposed to be about the recipient, not about making yourself look good or feel good. Likewise, prayer is about connecting with God, not about showing others how pious you are. And fasting is about recognizing your neediness before God and connecting with the neediness and suffering of the poor. It’s not about proving to others that you’re a super-Christian. When we’re driven by our own pride and self-righteousness, we demonstrate the worst kind of religion. Jesus rejects it.
Instead, we take on spiritual disciplines during Lent to benefit both our own souls and the bodies and souls of everyone around us. Our spirituality is supposed to radiate out and make a positive difference to all the people around us. If our spiritual habits in Lent make us stuck up, snobby, vain, or proud, then we’ve failed to grow in humility. If we constantly complain about how hard Lent it is, then we’ve lost the Spirit of gratitude that God desires for us. If our spiritual practices make us satisfied with the world the way it is and not agitated at how to change it, then we’ve missed the true meaning of Jesus’ Good News.
So this Lent, don’t just fast to fast or pray to pray or give to give. Do those things with a heart that is broken and contrite for your own sin and for the sins of the world. That is what leads us to love for ourselves, love for our neighbors and love for God. That brokenness can lead us to compassion for others and a desire to transform the world after God’s own heart. Then, in Isaiah’s words, “you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” Amen.