A Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson for the First Sunday in Lent
Sermon on the Old Testament Lesson
for the First Sunday in Lent
by William Klock
I didn’t have a chance on Wednesday night to get into the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday. We looked at the lesson from Joel, where God calls the people to a fast, but reminds them that they need to rend their hearts, not so much their garments. In the Gospel, Jesus warns against making an outward show of our fasts—again give us the same message. We need this reminder as we enter Lent, because it’s very easy to put on outward shows of piety and miss the need for inner repentance. As I’ve been saying for the last week, Lent is about growing in our love as we reflect on the love of God in Christ. If all we do is put on an external show for others, that growth in love won’t take place.
Our Old Testament lesson today brings us back to this idea. Through Isaiah, God called the Jews to repentance, but here in Chapter 58 he makes it clear that what he needed to see from them was a real change of heart, not just more externals and not just a show meant to appease his anger over their sins. In verses 1 and 2 God says:
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.
While it may not be as clear in the English, in the Hebrew, God’s being sarcastic. “Oh yes! Of course, they seek me daily, wanting to know my ways as if they were committed to righteousness, as if they actually cared about my judgements, as if they wanted to be near me. Not!” This was precise the problem. The people went through the outward motions of religion and piety, but they had no real desire to know God, to know his ways, to follow him, or to seek after him. They didn’t care about right and wrong. But they didn’t seek after God because they didn’t really understand. They had a wrong conception of God. They were using religion to try to pressure God into doing what they wanted him to do. They had turned God into the divine vending machine I talked about last Sunday evening. They were convinced that if they did this, this, and that, then God was obligated to respond. But it wasn’t working for them, so they ask in verse 3:
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
And God tells them: You can’t control me with outward and hypocritical acts of piety:
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.
And he asks in verse 5:
Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
They thought that if they bowed down just right, put on just the right kind of sackcloth, and dumped just the right amount of ashes on their heads, that that was what God was looking for—that fasting was about how loud a person wailed or looked pathetic in an outward show of humility. They didn’t give any thought to actually repenting of their sins. It’s like they were choosing to give up chocolate or TV for Lent. God stops them and says: “Here’s a novel idea: how about giving up your sins for Lent?” He goes on in verses 6 and 7:
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?
That’s what true fasting is all about. And God tells them that if they will truly fast and repent, he will truly bless them. They wanted his blessing, but they wanted it on their terms. These are his terms, but if they would accept his terms, he really would be with them. Look at the verses that follow:
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And 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 dwell in.
If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
God was ready to bless them, to care for them, and to answer their prayers; they simply needed to follow him. God refers to the ruins of Jerusalem, which were symbolic of the spiritual ruin of the nation, but he promises: if you will repent and turn back to me, I will rebuild those ruins—not just seeing that Jerusalem is rebuilt, but restoring their souls and their spiritual fellowship with him. They were living in a land that was scorched. If they would only repent and turn back to God, he would make them like a lush garden—again, their physical situation was an illustration of their spiritual condition.
And we see it in God’s comments about the Sabbath. That was his day—a day that was supposed to be devoted to him, but instead of seeking him on that one day of the week, they were spending the Sabbath like they did the other six days: seeking their own pleasure. God says, “Put me first and I’ll restore to you the heritage that I promised to your father Jacob.”
Again, God’s words through Isaiah to the Jews are words to us too. We’re embarking on a fast, but how serious are we about it? Is it enough to wear ashes on our foreheads for a day? To give up something small that brings us pleasure? Frankly, when it came to fasting, even those hypocritical Jews put on a far more impressive show than we ever do. And if God wasn’t going to listen to them, what makes us think he’ll listen to us. The most important part of our fast is that it bring us to repentance in order to bring us closer to God. The externals are great, but the externals should be a tangible reminder to us—something to help us focus our attention on purging sin and pursing holiness. God has given us his grace and in today’s Epistle Paul warns us not to receive it in vain. That’s what the Jews did so often—and something we do all too often as well. Let us truly live in God’s grace. He has redeemed us and freed us from the bondage of sin, use the next thirty-six days to take practical steps to take advantage of his grace.
Let us pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sake fasted forty days and forty nights, give us grace so to discipline ourselves that we may always obey your will in righteousness and true holiness to the honour and glory of your name; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”