Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Good morning. I can’t hear this morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah without thinking of an incident from seminary. I know a few of you have heard this story before, but it’s really funny and it fits with the reading. It involves one of my classmates, a guy I’ll call Will, though that’s not his real name.
Will is a younger guy, and like me, he doesn’t miss too many meals. One day, another one of our classmates, Rachel—and that is her real name—brought a pan of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies to class. Rachel did this from time to time and her cookies were legendary. When the pan of cookies reached Will, he said, “No thank you; I’m fasting today!” He said it just loud enough so that everyone in the room could hear.
Really? In a class in seminary, where everyone knew this scripture from Isaiah. To say nothing of the next chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus instructs the disciples:
“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.”
Truly, truly, Will must have known those scriptures, yet it didn’t stop him from calling our attention to his fast. We were all a little amused. Also, I was glad there was an extra cookie for me.
The prophets of the Old Testament are consistent; they call for God’s chosen people, Israel, to take care of the poor and the vulnerable, feed the hungry, end injustice and oppression. The people want to worship God correctly and righteously, but they come up short. They get the form of worship correct, they fast as they are instructed, but they can’t integrate this part of the ritual into a complete and righteous spiritual life; they fast, “but their fasting does not seem to affect their actions toward others.” They just want to know which rituals they have to complete and how much money they have to put in the collection plate. They want to finish worship on time so they can get home in time to watch the Steelers. Wait. Maybe that last example isn’t from ancient Israel.
Our life of faith is about more than what we do while we’re in worship. If our main concern is about what we do here in church or how much money we give, then the giving becomes about us. It is not true worship. No. True worship begins with humility; it begins when we admit that we are dependent upon God for all our blessings; and it begins when we thank God for all the wonderful things that God has done for us, simply because God loves us.
The proper response to God’s love is to love and worship God, and also to love everyone else, because we are all created by God. We return that love by doing justice and acting kindly toward one another. That is what the prophet Micah told us last week and that is also what Isaiah tells us this Sunday. When the people of Israel complain that God doesn’t notice their fasting, God speaks to them through the prophet Isaiah. God says:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight