Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Isaiah 58:1-12: A True Fast

Ash Wednesday Talk


  •  What does Lent mean for you?

History of Lent
  • Observance of Lent, goes back to apostolic times, but the length of time varied, it wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, that Lent was fixed to 40 days.     
  • Observant amongst you may realise that it is 46 days to Easter, that is because Sunday’s aren’t included in the Lenten observance, because Sunday’s are mini Easters, when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
  • The reason Lent lasts 40 days is because 40 is a significant number in Scripture, and often signifies a time of trial & testing.
    • Moses spent 40 years in Egypt & then 40 years in the desert before being called by God to lead the Israelite’s out of slavery.
    • Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai to receive God’s laws.
    • Israelites spent 40 years wandering through desert before reaching the promised land.
    • Ezekiel lay on his right side for 40 days to symbolise Judah’s sins.
    • Elijah went without food and water for 40 days on Mount Horeb. 
    • Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the wilderness, and being tempted by Satan following his baptism.
  • In the early church Lent historically was a period of preparation for those people who were going to be baptised at Easter.  And this developed into a time of renewal and recommitment to the Christian life.
  • Although you won’t find Lent mentioned in Scripture, it’s a discipline many Christians find helpful.
  • But if you ask many people want Lent is about, they would view it as a rather dour, sombre, even depressing time of the year: 
    • ‘It’s the season when we give up things or activities that we normally enjoy – denying ourselves pleasure. It’s the season when we make sacrifices and fast. It’s the season when we do penance….’
    • As one person said Lent was a time when he “spent the whole season just wishing it were over!”
  • Is this really what Lent is all about?  Is it really all about giving up sweets, chocolate, alcohol, caffeine?  Or could Lent be so much more than this?  Could we be missing out on what Lent is really about? 

Lent - A Springtime

  • Word Lent comes from old English “lencten” – meaning spring. 
  • Spring – a time of renewal, new life, growth, transformation (think about the transformation that takes place in a forest as spring arrives). 
  • Lent properly observed can be a spring time in our walk with God. A time of growth & renewal, new life. 
  • Many people spring clean their homes, Lent gives us the opportunity to do some spiritual spring cleaning. It’s an opportunity to look afresh at our relationship with God. Getting rid on the things that hinder our relationship with God.

Fasting & Lent
  • Focus for Lent for many people is on what they are going to ‘give up’. 
  • Fasting is something Jesus encouraged us to do.  He said “WHEN you fast…” - not ‘If you fast.’ (Matthew 6:16)
  • The purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world and instead focus on God. It’s to re-orientate ourselves to God.  
    • Analogy of listening to radio, with lots of noise & distortion & trying to tune into the one clear signal.
  • The danger comes however, when the focus of fasting switches from God to ourselves.
    • There was a brand new lawyer in his brand new office on his first day in practice, when he saw a prospective client walk through the door. He decided to make himself look busy and important, and so he picked up his phone and started talking. “Look, Harry, about that amalgamation deal. I think I better run down to the factory and handle it personally.  Yes.  No.  I don’t think 3 million will swing it.  We better have Rogers meet us there.  OK, call you back later.”  He then looked up at the visitor and says, “Good morning, how may I help you?” And the prospective client says, “You can’t help me at all.  I’m just here to hook up your phone.” 
  • If we see Lent as a time of spiritual one upmanship trying to outdo one another in our Lenten discipline, to look good in the eyes of others, or simply seeing it as an opportunity to try to lose some weight (a second attempt at our New Year’s resolutions), then we’re missing the point of it. 
  • That is why Jesus said “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.” (Matthew 6:17-18)
  • Lent is not about us. It’s about God.

Fasting & Isaiah
  • This is was the problem in Isaiah.  People were fasting, but their focus wasn’t on God.

“Shout! A full-throated shout!
    Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
    face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
    and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
    law-abiding, God-honouring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
    and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
    ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
    Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
  • Their fasting and degenerated into self-righteousness. 
  • Outwardly it looked like they were doing everything right, ‘They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me,’ says Isaiah.
  • But God is not impressed with the external trappings of religious rituals, it’s what goes on in the heart that really matters.
  • They were trying to show off to God, by their religious observances, but this masked the fact that their hearts were far from God.
  • There is a challenge for us here, what is the thing that motivates us as Christians?  Are we doing it for God, or to look good in the eyes of others?
  • Warren Wiersbe writes: “True fasting will lead to humility before God and ministry to others. We deprive ourselves so that we might share with others and do so to the glory of God…. BUT If we fast in order to get something for ourselves from God, instead of to become better people for the sake of others, then we have missed the meaning of worship. It delights the Lord when we delight in the Lord” (S. Is 56:9).  

The fasting that matters to God

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
    sharing your food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to your own families."

  • Here we see the fasting that mattes to God. Here we see the heart of God.
  • It’s fasting that is accompanied by genuine repentance.
  • It’s not simply about abstaining from food, or TV, or the internet for a few days or weeks, but about the loving quality of our relationships, and how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The poor, the sick, the stranger, the refugee.
  • This is what matters to God, this is what Jesus’ ministry was all about, not personal piety, but service to others.
  • Archbishop of Canterbury: “The more the church cares for the poor, the more people recognise it for what it is: the Jesus movement.”  
  • This is what Lent should be about, focusing on the things that matter to God, and drawing nearer him. 
  • You will know if you have had a successful Lent, if at the end of it, you can say I have grown closer to God, and the things that matter to God.
  • So for me, Lent isn’t a sombre, dour season, to want to get through as quickly as possible, but a wonderful joyful opportunity to draw closer to God, and re-orientate ourselves to God.

 Break my heart for what breaks yours 
  • There is a wonderful modern worship song called Hosanna which has these wonderful words:
  • Heal my heart and make it clean. Open up my eyes to the things unseen. Show me how to love like You have loved me. Break my heart for what breaks Yours, everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause, as I walk from nothing to eternity.
  • May that be our prayer this season of Lent.

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