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Ash Wednesday, 02/22/2012

Sermon on Isaiah 58:1-12, by David M. Wendel

 

"A Lent for the Sake of the World"

Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. [2] Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. [3] "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble our-selves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. [4] Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. [5] Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? [6] Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of in-justice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? [7] 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [8] Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. [9] Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, [10] if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the af-flicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. [11] The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. [12] Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. (NRSV)

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. [2] "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. [3] But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4] so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [5] "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. [6] But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

[16] "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. [17] But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, [18] so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [19] "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; [20] but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. [21] For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (NRSV)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Isn't Lent About Me?!

I have suggested that this year, we have a somewhat different theme for our Lenten observance. The theme I'm suggesting is: "A Lent for the Sake of the World". Now, I realize that may sound odd. Odd because most of us think of Lent as a time decidedly spent on ourselves! After all, isn't a time of personal spiritual renewal always for the sake of ourselves? Don't we take up Lenten disciplines, so that we, ourselves, will grow, spiritually? Isn't Lent about "self-denial"--the giving up of something we like, we crave, we think we can't do without to re-prioritize our lives and get back to God? Isn't Lent an intentional time in the church year for getting ourselves straightened out, and getting ourselves right with God?

There's a sense in which all that is true. But...there is always a danger for us Christians that we will become so pre-occupied with ourselves, even and especially in our Lenten discipline, that we will neglect others, and forget about others, and not have time for others, because, hey, this is my Lent! This is the time when I'm supposed to be focusing on me. It's like the song by country-singer Toby Keith--in which he laments having to always talk about his wife's or girlfriend's issues, until finally, he shouts,

"every now and then I wanna talk about about me, wanna talk about I, wanna talk about number one, oh me, oh my, I wanna talk about me, me, me, me, me!"

Isn't that what Lent's about? Me?

It's Not About Us

Well, not really. In fact, our first lesson for this evening is the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, telling the people Israel it's not all about them! In fact, says the Lord, even when you are doing supposed "spiritual" things like fasting, you're doing it because you think it makes you a better child of God, while you walk all over others!

So, the Lord says to Isaiah,

"shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet, announcing to my people their rebellion, saying, 'day after day they seek me, and delight to know my ways, they delight to draw near to God, and they ask, "we fast, but you don't take notice, we humble ourselves, but you, God, don't seem to notice--so why not?"

And the Lord says,

"I'll tell you why not. Because on your fast day, you serve your own interest. You make a big deal that you're fasting, while at the same time, you're oppressing and taking advantage of your workers. You fast, only to make you quarrel and to fight and strike each other with a wicked fist. Is that the kind of fast that I desire--a show, a fake humility?"

No, rather, He says,

"this is the fast that I choose, that I prefer from my people, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke that binds, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke."

The Lord goes on to say,

"the fast I desire is to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from our own kin, your family in need. Then, your light shall break forth like the dawn, and the glory of the Lord shall be your guard; then you shall call and I will answer; you shall cry for help and the Lord will say, Here I am. If you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noonday, and the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail."

The Lord here is displeased with the outward show of spiritual observance he sees in Israel. So the Lord instructs His people saying, true spirituality has to do with feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, covering the naked. It has to do with loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, satisfying the needs of the afflicted. Then, says the Lord, you will be renewed, and strengthened and refreshed; then you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail or run out.

Prayer, Almsgiving and Fasting...For Others

This is what Lent is to be like--not just five weeks or so of me, me, me, me, me--but a time of intense love of God, and love of neighbor. A time of intense focus on the three traditional disciplines of Lent, as we hear in our Gospel reading, a time for prayer, almsgiving and fasting. But prayer, not just for ourselves, but for others: for our family in need, for the poor and the oppressed, the hungry and homeless. Almsgiving, not just to make ourselves feel generous and magnanimous, but to help those in need in our community and world. Fasting, not just to make us loose weight or to deprive ourselves so that others will notice, but to bring to mind those in our world who have nothing to eat, perhaps to provide us with extra money, money we would've spent on Starbucks, or chocolate, or fast food that can now be used for the sake of others. If our prayer, almsgiving and fasting are for the sake of ourselves, only, then we have missed the most important part of Lent--mercy, love, care for the neighbor. Because, as our Lord Himself says, "the greatest commandment is this, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." And Jesus also says, at the Last Supper, "A new commandment I give you, that you love your neighbor, as I have loved you."

Jesus Gave His Life for the World

And how has Jesus loved us? Completely, totally, sacrificially. Jesus gave His life on the cross, for us, and He says, just so, we are to give our lives, for others. This is why we give ourselves for the sake of the world, because Jesus gave Himself for us, and for all. As we read in the beloved John 3, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..." For you and for me, yes, but for the world, that all people might be saved through Jesus, and His death and resurrection. In Him, we have life and life that is abundant and full and meaningful. That's what it means for us to be spiritually healthy, and mature, and in right relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. And as the prophet says, "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer. Then you shall cry for help, and the Lord will say, Here I am. Then, your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly, and the glory of the Lord shall guard you." Now we are free to live for God and for others!

A Lent for the Sake of Others

The truth is we are living in a time when there are others who really need us, and the ministry of Christians, and the ministry of Christian churches. The economy still breathes on one lung, if that, and people are hungry and hurting. Sadly, all too many look to government and government programs to help. Perhaps it's time for us as the body of Christ and as disciples of Jesus, to live anew for the sake of others. Perhaps Lent is a time for us to renew our focus not on ourselves and our needs, but on the needs of others. I pray that during this particular season of Lent we may direct our attention to the world, that we may spend some time considering how we can, as the saved and redeemed people we are, more fully share our bread with the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, and loose the bonds of injustice that indeed, the Light of Christ in us shall rise in the darkness and His light will make the gloom of this world be like the noonday sun.

A Lent for the sake of the world. Let us enter into this Lenten season not just for ourselves, but for others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 



The Rev. Dr. David M. Wendel
Columbus, Ohio
E-Mail: dwendell@thenalc.org

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