In our previous blog, we looked at the history and traditions of Lent, certainly alive and well during the time of King James, and in the Church of England. In fact, the Scriptures used in the Church of England Ash Wednesday service explored the idea of the Lenten fast in the book of Isaiah. Let’s look more closely at these verses in Isaiah.
What Does Fasting Really Mean?
Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting, but turns our typical idea of Lenten fasting on its head. In fact, Isaiah 58 agrees with many of the Reformers who saw Lenten fasts used as a “works righteousness.” In verse 3, we see the people of the “house of Jacob” asking God, “ Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?” These people want credit for their fasting and efforts.
What is True Fasting?
The Lord counters with this in verse 5, saying, “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?”
The Lord is not interested in demonstrations, like sackcloth and ashes, and deep, public sorrow.
Instead, this is what God directs in Isaiah 58:6 and 7: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal the bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”
These verses find their echo in Micah 6:8: “ He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
If you are looking for Lenten meditation, these verses certainly provides food for thought. Our fast is not to be merely demonstrative for the appearance of a fast, but to relieve oppression, to provide food to the hungry, and shelter and clothing to those who are without. We are not to hide ourselves “from thine own flesh,” meaning that we see others as ourselves and all people as divine image bearers worthy of respect and dignity.
This is a tall order, and certainly far more challenging than simply going without food! In fact, it’s difficult to know where to start. Isaiah suggests that starting place a few chapters earlier, suggesting that we must first understand ourselves and the Gospel message.
All We Like Sheep
Our heart searching must start with our own predicament, our own sinfulness. So many of us of a certain generation learned the following verse from Isaiah chapter 53 in the King James Version. This verse lays out our situation metaphorically, yet clearly.
“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. “ Isaiah 53:6.
Like the KJV says in Genesis 6, the thoughts of man’s heart are “only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5). We constantly go astray and follow our own way. This is the sin that Jesus took to the cross.
The Suffering Servant
Indeed, Chapter 53 of Isaiah contains the most descriptive, poignant and prophetic descriptions of our Savior’s passion. Here we see “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”, a familiar phrase so accurately captured in the music of Handel’s Messiah.
Yet it was the depths of this sorrow and suffering that brings us hope and life and healing: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5
Our sin is great, but because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, his love and forgiveness run so much deeper. We are recipients of unending, infinite, matchless grace.
Grace, Marvelous Grace
As we meditate on our sin, and Jesus’s suffering solution, it becomes a starting point for our thinking as we approach what the Lord is asking of us in Isaiah 58, to right injustice and to feed and clothe the poor and downtrodden. Isn’t this exactly what Jesus did for us? And for the whole world?
This Lenten season, may we repent, meditate on Christ’s sacrifice, and rejoice in the hope and healing we have in his forgiveness and resurrection. Only then can we begin the fast the Lord has chosen, to right the wrongs of a sinful world, and hope in the world to come.
“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward." Isaiah 58:8