Let Go and Give (Isaiah 58:1-12)

“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.

Because of Love (Psalm 21)

God Is Love by Lisa Voss, 2015

How the king rejoices in your strength, O Lord!
    He shouts with joy because you give him victory.
For you have given him his heart’s desire;
    you have withheld nothing he requested.

You welcomed him back with success and prosperity.
    You placed a crown of finest gold on his head.
He asked you to preserve his life,
    and you granted his request.
    The days of his life stretch on forever.


Your victory brings him great honor,
    and you have clothed him with splendor and majesty.
You have endowed him with eternal blessings
    and given him the joy of your presence.


For the king trusts in the Lord.
    The unfailing love of the Most High will keep him from stumbling.

You will capture all your enemies.
    Your strong right hand will seize all who hate you.
You will throw them in a flaming furnace
    when you appear.
The Lord will consume them in his anger;
    fire will devour them.

You will wipe their children from the face of the earth;
    they will never have descendants.
Although they plot against you,
    their evil schemes will never succeed.

For they will turn and run
    when they see your arrows aimed at them.
Rise up, O Lord, in all your power.
    With music and singing we celebrate your mighty acts. (New Living Translation)

The structure of today’s psalm is significant. Our contemporary way of crafting arguments is by stating a thesis at the beginning of a paper, then providing points of support for that thesis, and concluding with a restatement of the thesis. That’s not how the biblical psalms do it.

The psalm’s major thesis statement is not found at the beginning but in the middle. The verses before the major statement lead to the middle; and the verses after the middle look back and point to it.

So, what’s in the middle? An affirmation of faith in the Lord’s love prevents the king from having a failure of faith.

God’s love is smack in the middle because everything hinges on love.

The Lord leads us to victory, and prayers are answered because of love.

The Lord guides us toward prosperity of body and preservation of soul because of love.

The Lord shepherds us to the green pastures of blessing and encouragement because of love.

God is Love.

The Lord has our backs by eradicating the enemies to our souls.

The Lord follows after us and foils the evil plots of wicked people.

The Lord works behind the scenes for us, putting down devilish strategies so they won’t come near us.

Just as the core of God is love, we have been created in God’s image and likeness of love; love is the very core of our being.

So, why in the world are people not always loving in everything they do and say?

Because we have lost touch with our middle; we lack awareness of who we truly are.

How do we get in touch and reconnect with the core of our being? Here are a few simple ways of doing so:

  • Pray a psalm every single day, even multiple times in the day. Notice I said pray, not read. Psalms are prayers meant to be prayed. Reading them is wonderful but praying them is sublime!

I will praise you seven times a day because all your regulations are just. (Psalm 119:164, NLT)

Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. (Psalm 69:16, NIV)

  • Pay attention to what makes you happy. The psalmist experienced God giving him the desires of his heart. He asked for what he wanted and needed to be happy.

Be happy with the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4, GW)

  • Pursue someone you’ve lost touch with. Reconnect with an old friend. Oftentimes, doing this helps reawaken a part of ourselves we forgot about.

Loyal love and faithfulness meet; deliverance and peace greet each other with a kiss. (Psalm 85:10, NET)

  • Practice self-care. Observe the Sabbath. Put your feet up. Give yourself a break. and don’t try to be perfect. Make some margin in your schedule – enough to have some extended times of silence and solitude. After all, one cannot connect with their inner core unless they are quiet enough to hear themselves.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord. (Psalm 4:4-5, NRSV)

  • Praise the Lord and give thanks to God. Our self-awareness comes alive by means of offering trust and thanksgiving back to the Lord for the great things God has done.

Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him; bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever
    and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:3-5, NRSV)

Since God is Love, God is in the middle and is the center of all things. Everything in the universe revolves around the Lord of Love. So, as we align our lives around this reality, we rediscover the love at the core of our being.

If we desire love, then let us go to the source of Love.

Bless us with love, O Merciful God, so that we may love as you love – and that we might be patient, tolerant, kind, caring, and loving to all people. Grant us your compassion so that we may help those in need. And bless us with your divine Love, O Lord, bless us with your love! Amen.

Prayer Is the Heartbeat of the Church (Acts 1:12-17, 21-26)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Italian painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry….”

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (New International Version)

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? And what do you do when you have a problem or challenge?

Good old American ingenuity, the Protestant work ethic, and fixing things is the reflexive response of many people. In the belief that we can solve anything, what typically gets left out of the equation is seeking God’s presence and power in order to rightly discern next steps.

But that wasn’t the response of the earliest church. When faced with their small numbers and a large mission to accomplish, they prayed. They more than prayed. They continually got together, just to pray. Prayer was the air they breathed. The believers understood they needed God (not simply to rubber stamp their plans) for moving forward in mission and ministry.

Christians need the vision and imagination that can only come through consistent daily prayer. Otherwise, they will not choose wisely and find themselves in a quandary of their own making.

Imagine not having to purchase what you need the most today.

Maybe you’re in a real pinch. Your financial budget isn’t budging. Perhaps you’re wondering what items you need to do without for a while. It could be that the bills aren’t all getting paid. Or maybe you’re concerned with how in the world you’re going to buy Christmas presents for the family.

Imagine having all the love you need today without working to earn it.

Maybe you have a strained relationship. It might be that you’re hurt from a marriage or a love that has gone sour. Perhaps a friendship is on the rocks, or a family member won’t talk to you. You’re wondering if it will ever be better, wondering if love will find you again.

Imagine continually having a church experience of being full of the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe your church has a legalistic bent. Perhaps the church is withdrawn into cliques and special interest groups. It could be that the Spirit hasn’t shown up since 1959. You’re tired, weary of the chronic sameness and status quo of a stagnant place.

For all these things, and so many more of life’s problems and situations, there is good news… really good news!

Prayer is the currency to what you need most, the means of receiving and giving love, and the path to a gracious and powerful Christian and Church life.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The promise of prayer still stands. God gives. We receive. But we must ask!

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. (John 15:16, GW)

Sometimes God just gives without us asking. That’s great. Yet, God wants so much more for you and me and our faith communities. God longs for us to be vitally connected to Christ, and that connection happens through prayer. We can bank on the answers to our prayers when we:

  • Stay joined to Jesus (John 15:4)
  • Let Christ’s teachings become part of you (John 15:7)
  • Remain faithful to Christ’s love for you (John 15:9)
  • Obey Jesus (John 15:10)

Imagine having your will align with the perfect will of God.

Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. (John 15:7, CEV)

Perhaps you are skeptical. You’ve prayed a long time with nothing happening. You’re discouraged and feel like prayer doesn’t work, or that something is wrong with you. 

There is a mysterious and mystical aspect to prayer that we will never quite understand. However, I do know that Jesus didn’t put a timetable on the answers – they will come when they come. And they will come. 

Maybe we’ll discover that what we want and need the most is to let God’s will and way be done in us, no matter what it is. Perhaps the point is to change us, and not always to change our circumstances.

We have an incredible privilege; we get to ask, without having to buy answers to prayer.

We don’t have to do backflips to get God’s attention. We simply ask. 

We don’t have to try and work to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to draw up detailed plans like some sort of architectural design to see a fruitful, loving, and powerful church. We just ask and remain closely connected to Jesus. 

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of this day in peace. 

Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 

In every hour of the day, reveal your good and holy will to me. 

Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that your will governs all. 

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. 

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all situations, no matter what, are sent by you. 

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. 

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of this day with all that it shall bring. 

Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray you yourself in me. Amen.

 –A Prayer from St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867)

The Longing of Christ’s Heart (Matthew 23:37-24:14)

“If Thou Had’st Known” by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (New International Version)

Christ’s cry of love for the city of Jerusalem– the longing to bring the people together and shepherd them with care and compassion – came after a very pointed pronouncement of woes against a distorted religion that was in vogue at the time. Jesus saw the current state of worship, found it to be terribly wanting, gave a scathing rebuke, and saw ahead to its ultimate demise.

Jesus did not just blast the establishment, then humph and walk away disgusted. Instead, he looked with sadness over the city and broke into a tear-filled, heart-wrenching love song for his wayward people. Jesus was both angry and sad because of his deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God and to find their ultimate purpose and meaning in him.

“And Jesus Wept” statue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Any religious fool can rant about the ills of the world, ungodly persons, and defective institutions. However, it takes a person with the heart of Jesus to weep over it all and follow him into suffering on behalf of others so that they might come to the peaceable kingdom of righteousness. 

If our hearts are not unraveled over the sin and injustice of the world, we are in no position to rant about anything. That’s because grace and mercy is the currency of God’s economy. 

Thus, we need to repent like we mean it, pray as if our lives depended on it, and proclaim the good news of Christ as if there is not a tomorrow.

In a results-driven culture, congregations want clear strategy plans for ministry. Yet, a group of people can implement the best of ministries and still not realize their well-laid plans. If Jesus didn’t see what he wanted to happen come to fruition in Jerusalem, then I’m not sure how any of us can always expect success in ministry. We may fail in many ways; but let us not fail to weep over our communities and neighborhoods and long for them to know Christ.

It’s okay that neither every ministry goes as planned nor every person is blessed by what we do. If we find it hard to accept this, and feel out of control, then we want to know the future – how everything is going to shake-out. This is precisely what the disciples wanted to know, since their expectations weren’t realized.

Jesus essentially told them that things were going to get even tougher. Therefore, they need to be ready and persevere through the adversity. And some of that trouble will be downright cataclysmic. Jesus did not give his disciples a seminar on having a successful ministry; he simply told them to endure suffering and focus on proclaiming the gospel.

But for that to happen, we need to accept that we cannot control every variable of ministry and plan for every contingency. The only guarantees we have is that God is with us, and Christ is coming again. That’s it, my friends.

So, instead of control, we must accept our limitations and practice self-control. We can continually monitor our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus – including a heart of love that weeps over the brokenness and stubbornness of the world. 

Followers of Jesus walk the only true road of Christian discipleship: the path of humility. Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could have described himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble.” (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem, by Enrique Simonet Lombardo (1866-1927)

Jesus is the perfect example of a leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others. Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, nor thought he was the reason for another’s failure of faith. Instead, Jesus always connected what he was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.

You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others. Truly humble folk dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it. This allows them to listen deeply, give generously, and encourage others liberally.

Standing firm to the end doesn’t come through crafting complicated charts of the end times; it comes through being humble, being grounded in the here-and-now, being attentive to the people around us, and being a guide for the lost. More importantly, it’s what Christ wants us to be.

Loving Lord Jesus, let me have your zeal for God’s house and your heart for lost people! Change my heart, O God, and let it reflect your grace and truth in everything I say and do; through Christ my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, reign now and forever. Amen.