“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.
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.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
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?
“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?
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,
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.
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.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (New International Version)
Let Go of the Hypocrisy and Get Real
Isaiah’s prophecy came to a community in conflict. The root of the issue was a hypocritical gap between the people’s conduct and their worship. They wondered why God had not noticed their pious fasting – why their actions before the Lord had gone unseen. Isaiah made it clear that their practice of fasting and their rituals of worship were ineffective because it was all self-serving instead of serving others.
Let Go of the Food and Get Generous
True fasting does not abstain from food just to get noticed (by God and/or others) but has the aim of a generous spirit and a giving heart. Both abstinence and generosity are necessary in the practice of fasting.
Fasting is a much neglected spiritual practice today, so we need to make sense of the reason to do without food for a set amount of time. Fasting ought to put us in touch with our vulnerability; it should remind us of our mortality and our frailties. That’s why fasting is so often associated with the upcoming season of Lent.
Through fasting we remember that if we are not fed, we will die. Standing before God hungry, we realize that we are dependent creatures in desperate need of the Lord. By fasting, we discern that we are poor, and called to be rich in a way the world does not understand.
We are empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God. We are physically hungry, called to taste the goodness that can be ours in Christ, as we get in touch with a hunger for God.
Fasting, however, does not end with abstinence from food; and it is not merely a private individual thing. The spiritual discipline of fasting is meant to open our eyes and our hearts to the truly needy among us and in the world. We are to be open to both the spiritual needs of people, and their very real material needs.
“When you see people freezing outside in the frigidity of unbelief, without the warmth of faith, impoverished and homeless, lead them home to the church and clothe them with the work of incorruption, so that, wrapped in the mantle of Christ, they will not remain in the grave.”St. Jerome (347-430, C.E.)
Isaiah also addresses the very real daily tangible needs of people for the basic necessities of life. The message is this: Fasting is to personally abstain from food in order to provide food for another.
Let Go of the Ego and Get to Praying & Repenting
Just as abstinence from and provision for food are two sides of the same coin, so fasting and prayer are, as well. We are to stop eating in order to take that time to pray and to give. Letting go of a meal puts the food that would have been eaten into the pantry for the needy. Fasting from lunch at our jobs can be done, not just to get more work accomplished, but so that we might share both our food and our friendship with those in need.
The prophecy of Isaiah has intimate connections between worship, fasting, justice, and reconciliation. They are meant to be a seamless whole, indivisible, enjoying a close bond that makes for powerful and effective ministry. All of this enables us to get back in touch with the real meaning of repentance:
- To repair a broken relationship with God or with another person
- To grieve over the reality of a certain situation
- To devote oneself to service
- To experience new life and spiritual growth
Isaiah wanted people to repent of both their individual sins and their social sins. Truth be told, we must all deal openly and honestly with our own complicity in the sins of our world, our nation, our church, and our families. The worship that God desires is inescapably corporate as well as compellingly personal. To ensure that all people around us flourish as human beings is both an obligation and a necessity to our collective fulfillment as God’s people.
The result of true fasting is a repentance that produces the fruit of renewal and restoration. Fasting connects us to God, and then leads us to repair and rebuild what has been broken and torn down.
Let Go of Your “Precious” and Get Committed to God and Others
We fast to practice repentance, attach ourselves to God, and become more generous toward others. In the Lord of the Rings movies, Smeagol was much too attached to the power of the ring; it was his “precious,” and he was willing to do anything not to lose it or let it go.
Yet, we must all decide that we are going to let that precious thing go, at least for a time, whatever it may be. Each year at this time, before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, I decide in what ways I will practice fasting. In past years, I have abstained from buying certain things or watching TV. This year, however, I am going to do what fasting really is: abstaining from food for a set time.
For most of the history of the church, Christians were expected to observe regular fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, every week, year round. When the season of Lent came, the church was united in their commitment to use the forty days as a time of introspection, confession, and fasting in order to prepare for the miracle of forgiveness on Good Friday and its life-giving power on Easter. It was understood to be a time of confronting sin, purging bad desires, yearning for forgiveness, and developing godly habits of living.
For me, I think the least I can do is fast two meals a week – one on Wednesday and one on Friday (if not the whole days) to not only be in solidarity with the faithful that have gone before us, but in order to let the season of Lent do what it is intended to do.
I encourage you to consider implementing some sort of regular fast through Lent, if for no other reason, to fulfill the spirit and intent of Isaiah’s message to us so that we all connect deeply with Christ in purposeful Christian living.
Merciful God and Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done – leaving us bereft of good. O Lord, have mercy upon us and restore us according to your grace, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.