Today is the first day of Lent. A primary activity of the Lenten season (not the only, but primary) is fasting. Christ-followers should fast. Jesus clearly expects it of us for he tells us,
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.Matthew 6:16
Jesus doesn’t say, ‘if you fast’ he says ‘when you fast.’ Jesus expects us to do so. Lent is a wonderful time to engage in fasting because a big portion of the kingdom of God is fasting, too.
In a few moments we are recording a podcast — the first of our new season on spiritual disciplines — and I intend to highlight Isaiah 58. The others don’t know that yet, so you are getting a little inside knowledge here.
Isaiah 58, in my opinion, is probably the most important single section on fasting in the whole Bible. The prophet (likely Isaiah III or II, depending on who you read) begins with a classic call to repentance.
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to the people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.Isaiah 58:1
The preacher cries aloud with the great emphasis of the Lenten season — sin and repentance from it. Here he or she is challenged to enumerate them — declare them to the people — the sins of idolatry, greed, fornication, abuse, manipulation, and oppression. Don’t spare them the details. Cry aloud, don’t use soft language or somehow let people off the hook. Name it.
But then the text does a curious thing. Beginning in verse 2 and moving through verse 5 the people are accused of fasting and engaging in religious endeavors, actually delighting in them, so the they can be justified in their own eyes even though they do not repent of their sins. Fasting for them is a form of performance that shows how awesome they are, and therefore they are able to keep right on oppressing the widow, orphan, and immigrant or sleeping with their neighbors wife. They use fasting like someone who doesn’t bathe might use perfume — to cover up the odor.
Then, God lays it on them.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?Isaiah 58:6-7
I present to you that Isaiah gives us a radically new understanding of what fasting is and should be. Fasting is not just what you abstain from — food, chocolate, Facebook, sex, or alcohol — but it is what you actively do. If we were to enumerate them in modern language it would help us appropriate application.
- Stop committing sin.
- Work for justice in the criminal justice system.
- Advocate for oppressed minorities like immigrants, racial minorities, and religious groups.
- Feed anyone who is hungry.
- House the homeless.
- Provide the basic needs for all people — clothing, medicine, meaning, and education.
- We should care for all, but it would be egregious to neglect those who are covenantally bound to us.
The remainder of the passage is a call to return to the Lord in repentance, that, if we do these things, then we will see our lives improve. The prophet uses flowing language of beautiful rhetoric to describe the situation as one of heritage.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorers of streets to dwell inIsaiah 58:12
As many of us, myself included, begin our Lenten journey with fasting this year, we would do well to consider not only our own devotional meditations, but also the social dynamic of our actions and of behavior toward other people. Fasting, as defined by God in Isaiah 58, is as much, no, it is more about compassion and mercy toward human beings than it is about ‘giving up’ beer or beef.