“More Than Chocolate” Isaiah 58:1-12

Our reading this evening is from the prophet Isaiah. It’s always interesting when we read the prophets.

Most of the time, if you’re like me, we figure that the prophet must be talking to someone else. Since most of the prophets are in the Old Testament, we say to ourselves, “Gee, he’s speaking to Israel, or to some other group of folks who need to be scolded, or something else.”

In tonite’s passage, the audience is indeed Israel. They have returned from the Babylonian exile, and boy is God angry. It seems the Israelites thought they were doing all the correct “religious” things, especially fasting.

But God has something else in mind – look at the first verse – Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. God wants Isaiah to shout his word to the Israelite nation about their rebellion and their sins.

But before we sit here in self-congratulation, looking down on them, let’s consider something. To help us, let’s review some words which are in our bulletins every Sunday. From Paul’s second letter to Timothy, verse 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Gosh, that means ALL scripture, doesn’t it? ALL scripture is intended for us! We should not sit here, letting God and Isaiah shout at Israel, and presume it’s not for us. Whenever we read the Bible, it’s not just the “good stuff” that is for us. Note the words, “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” That means that tonight’s passage is just as much for us as it was for the Israelites 2,600 years ago.

I want to talk about tonight, but I also want to talk about the next 40 days, known as Lent. I know we don’t have a lot of time, but this is important. Also, this may not be a “warm and tingly” sermon – God has an axe to grind with us, and we need to hear it.

Tonight is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a day for us to recall our own mortality.

In Genesis, when God is punishing Adam and Eve for their disobedience, God says, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19)

God reminds us that we were created from dust, and we will return to dust. Ash Wednesday is a special day for us to recall our origins, our inheritance of sin, and our earthly mortality.

Ash Wednesday has been observed for over 1,500 years, and recalls the Near Eastern tradition of throwing ashes over one’s head, signifying repentance before God. There are numerous episodes in the Bible of people putting on sackcloth and ashes in repentance. In the book of Jonah, even the animals in Ninevah put on sackcloth and ashes. If you’re wondering what sackcloth is, it’s described in Revelation, and it’s made of goat hair.

The season of Lent begins tomorrow – it’s the forty days before Easter. Lent originated in the early days of the church, as people prepared for their first baptism. Something I didn’t know until a few years ago is how we count the forty days. If you look at a calendar, you’ll note that there are MORE than forty days between now and April 20, which is Easter. That’s because we do not count the Sundays – those are for celebration, recalling the resurrection of Jesus. In addition, the forty days are to remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, when he was tempted by Satan.

Lent is a season for soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for “taking stock.”

Which brings us back to our text tonight – we also need to talk about what Lent is NOT.

Let me ask you – what are you giving up for Lent? Chocolate? Beer? Alcohol? The internet? R-rated movies? Cable TV? Romance novels? We had fun last night calling out the various things we would give up: Brussels sprouts, haggis, tomatoes – the list is endless.

Personally, I’m giving up liver and beets for lent; maybe if I want to be extra pious, I may give up brussels sprouts too! Now, ask me to give up m&m peanuts, that’s another thing…

My brothers and sisters, Lent is more than giving up chocolate, or something else that we love. It is not about being miserable, or dehydrated, or being on a diet (although that’s not a bad idea). These are NOT New Year’s resolutions, folks.

Lent is a time of repentance and soul-searching. We think that if we give something up that we really like, like chocolate, then we are following God’s will for our lives. We think we are being obedient, and “religious.”

That’s what God is angry about in our passage. Believe me, folks, God does not want such “religious observances” from us, such as giving up chocolate. This is exactly the same thing that Israel was doing after the exile. They were VERY religious, and observed the practices very carefully. And because of their so-called piety, they expected God to do whatever they asked!

Look at verse 2 – God is speaking here – For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

And continuing, they ask about their fasting, in verse 3: ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ [God answers]: “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers

Now, when we do our “religious observances,” or when we pray, or when we fast, do we expect God to notice? Do we expect God to see us doing our rituals, and receive praise from him?

That’s just it – indeed, we are supposed worship God, to pray, to sing, and even to fast, but we are not to do them so God (or others) will notice.

Let’s look at what Jesus has to say to us about fasting, in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s found in Matthew 6: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Let’s get back to our passage, verses 4 and 5: Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast,  a day acceptable to the Lord?

We CANNOT fast as many of us do today and expect our voices to heard on high.

Remember the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the synagogue? It’s in Luke 18:10-14: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breastand said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Our life as Christians is not to show off, to get God (or others) to notice us. As I said before, Lent is a season for reflection, for preparation, and for taking stock of our lives. We are to approach this holy season with great humility, and not think of ourselves, or what others might think of us.

But what are we to do? Well, let’s see what God has to say, in verses 6 and 7: “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? Is it not 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?

Maybe God has called you to “give something up” for Lent, but it’s not about us – it’s about giving back. Maybe if you do give up your beer for forty days, take the money and give it to the church, or to a particular mission. Volunteer at a shelter; as the prophet says, loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke.

The reason we do fast is to take our minds off of the things we should not be thinking about anyhow

For example, if we decide to stop chocolate, that in itself is not enough. Perhaps it means a healthier lifestyle, which will lead to better physical health, which means we have more energy for God.

Start a devotion! Why not read a Psalm daily, and write your thoughts in a journal (books available).

The issue is not to STOP after forty days, but to begin a lifetime of daily reading, devotion, prayer, and reflection on God’s holy word.

I know I said earlier, Lent is not like New Year’s resolutions – Lent is a time for reflection, for taking stock. And I am sure that there is something in everyone’s life here that distracts us, that takes our eyes off God. Eliminate that thing (yes, I know there are many things) – but eliminate one thing, and start on the path.

And what will the outcome be? Look at the closing verses of our passage tonight, verses 8-10: 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, 10 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.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Many times in the gospels, Jesus uses the expression, “How much more.” I know this is a great church, but imagine how much more we can become, if “more of our lives” are focused on him. There is no limit!

In closing, let’s look at our last verse: The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

Yes, we can give up chocolate, but our life in Christ is more than chocolate. It’s about being guided ALWAYS by the Lord, living like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Lent is the time of our lives where we are reminded of our life without Christ, and to turn our eyes to the risen one, and live in Christ.

We all know that Easter lies ahead, on the other side of Lent.

We can look forward to Easter, since we know about Christ’s obedience and sacrifice.

He died on the cross, forsaken by God, carrying the sin of all humanity

Can’t we do a little more than give up chocolate?

Our lives should be dedicated to him, and his service.

Not just for the next forty days, but forever.