February 9, 2020 – Epiphany 5A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The prophet Isaiah’s words reflect the familiar longing of a people whose prayers and supplications remain unanswered. In every religious tradition, including our own, there is a sense in which all of our religious practices are an attempt to get God’s attention in order that God might grant our request. We fast not only to prove to God that we are worthy but also to give God a reason to listen in the first place. We know that God has a heart for those who are hungry and thirsty and for those who are close to death, so we give up food and water and dress ourselves in sackcloth—in burial fabric—and put ashes on our heads—the very dirt of the grave—in order to win God’s attention and affection. But often even our best efforts go unheeded.
Some of the oldest parts of the Bible—the psalms and what are often called the historical books—include references to fasting. From the earliest days of the Israelite religion, individuals would fast when they or a loved one were sick or when they were being pursued by an enemy. Similarly, entire communities would fast whenever they were hit by a famine or a plague or when an invading army approached. But setting aside time on the liturgical calendar for a religious fast was a relatively late invention. Only after the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, when the temple was destroyed and the people were carted off in exile, did the entire nation begin to observe appointed fasts as commemorations of those tragedies. The people would fast on the anniversary of the city’s siege, and again on the date when the walls fell, and again when the temple was burned to the ground, and again when the final deportation occurred. Although it may seem strange to us now, God’s people had made theological sense of that great loss by attributing it to their collective faithlessness. They didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so the succession of liturgical fasts was instituted (see Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible. Doubleday: New York, 2003).
But those fasts weren’t working. The prophet Isaiah writes at a time when God’s people were being ruled by the Persians, who had set them free from the hands of the Babylonians but who had levied such steep taxes against the people as to cripple them during reconstruction. The prophet Zechariah, a contemporary of Isaiah, describes the time when Jerusalem was being rebuilt as one of great struggle, with widespread unemployment and no defenses to keep their enemies from stealing what little they had (8:10). Similarly, the prophet Haggai notes that at the same time God’s people were subjected to an extended drought, “sow[ing] much and harvest[ing] little, eating but never having enough” (1:6, 9-11). Nehemiah writes that things got so bad that people sold themselves and their children into indentured servitude in order to buy seeds to plant (5:1-5). Yet, throughout it all, God’s people kept saying their prayers and observing the appointed fasts, expecting that God would notice, but things kept getting worse.
What were they doing wrong? Why wasn’t God hearing their prayers? With damning specificity, Isaiah explains why: “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 ordinances of their God.” The prophet explains that the people were saying all the right words but had forgotten how to put those words into practice: “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Such fasting…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?” During the appointed fasts, the landowners would come together to perform all of the expected religious rituals, but, at the same time, their indentured servants were forced to work overtime in order to make up for their masters’ absence. That kind of fasting doesn’t bring people closer to God. You can’t convince God to answer your prayers for rain and a bountiful harvest if you’re forcing your neighbors to sell their children into slavery in order to feed their families.
So why fast at all? If fasting isn’t about going through the motions of humility in order to convince God to act, why would anyone bother with it? We fast because giving up food or water and dressing up in burial cloths and covering ourselves with dust and ashes is a way to bring ourselves a little closer to our own mortality, which is the very place where we find God. We enact the ritual that approximates our own death in order to internalize the truth that God is to be found (and thus is to be pursued) on the margin of life—at that narrow boundary between sufficiency and deprivation. When we, too, live in that place where life isn’t an assumption that we take for granted but a gift that we cherish, we discover that our prayers have already found their way into the heart and mind of God.
Our God is the God of the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed, the sick, the starving, and the destitute. Our faith teaches us that those who live on the edge of existence are the ones who dwell closest to God’s heart. We fast, therefore, not to become the marginalized but to remember who our God is and where our God is to be found. We fast not to get God’s attention but to return to the place where God has always been.
Most religions, including many variations of our own, teach that God responds to the prayers of the pious—the truly faithful who succeed in convincing God to grant their petitions because of their performance of holiness. If that were the case, we would expect God to answer those who pray the loudest or the best or the most often. But our faith teaches us that God responds to the prayers of the needy, of those who depend most fully on God’s grace and favor. If we believe that—if we really believe that God’s heart belongs to those who live on the edge of life—then our religious practices won’t focus on convincing God to hear us but on convincing one another that those who pursue the welfare of the poor and the oppressed are the ones who pursue the very heart of God.
“Is not this the fast that I choose,” the prophet Isaiah declares on God’s behalf: “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?” Our religious practices only make sense if they are fully integrated and fully reflected in our daily lives. If we believe what we claim to believe about God, then our fasting and our prayers and our worship and our formation and our stewardship and everything we do as a congregation in the name of God must be in the pursuit of God where God is to be found. That pursuit must be our daily practice. Our God abides with those who live on the very edge of life itself. Our piety, therefore, must take us there. Then, in the words of the prophet, our light shall break forth like the dawn, and the healing of the world shall spring up quickly.