In the Ash Wednesday Liturgy there are two options for the Old Testament reading: Joel 2 or Isaiah 58. In this latter reading, we are reminded that the fast God desires most from us is not about giving up chocolate or wine or television or meat on Fridays. It isn’t about liturgical correctness or super-piety or right belief. As far as Isaiah is concerned, the fast we are called to keep is in this forty-day season of Lent is not about sackcloth and ashes, but about doing justice. It is about right relationships. Isaiah - on behalf of God - calls us back to God. And the prophet's measure of our love for God is seen in how we treat our neighbor.
This text from the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah is a kind of mission statement. I commend it to you not only on this day but throughout these forty days, as a touchstone for rekindling faith and hope and love. Isaiah assures us that when we practice our faith by showing neighborly love, God is very near. We call, and we cry, and the Lord says, “here I am.” We are called on this day and every day to share our bread with the one who is hungry, and to welcome the homeless poor into our houses, and to offer clothing to the one who is naked. (Isaiah 58:7) These things take us to the very heart of what it means for us to live as God’s people in every generation. Centuries after Isaiah, Jesus of Nazareth would tell his disciples that whenever they do these things to the least of these, they do it to him.
Every faith community, in every season of its life, must decide what it is becoming. There can be no resting on past laurels for a Church that worships a living God. A Church that is stuck in the past or unduly anxious about the future quickly becomes a burdensome place where (to paraphrase Isaiah) fingers are pointed in every direction and wickedness is spoken in the parking lot. But there is another way. It is the Way of the Cross, the Way revealed to us in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
If we pour ourselves out for the hungry, and if we satisfy the desires of the afflicted, then shall our light rise once again in the darkness, and our gloom will be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide us, and satisfy us, and make us strong. Then shall we be like a watered garden. Then shall our ancient ruins be rebuilt as we raise up the foundations once again for our children and grandchildren. Then we, too, shall be called “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in.”
This is the fast we are called to keep.