At Second Baptist Church, we are observing the season of Lent, a forty-day period of repentance in preparation for Easter. Since Isaiah 58 is one of the scriptures associated with Lent, I want to suggest three spiritual lessons that Isaiah 58 teaches us.
The first lesson is that spirituality can become selfish. Isaiah 58:3 says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” It’s a problem, says the prophet, when believers reduce spirituality to a mere tool for our own benefit. In this particular case, the spiritual practice of fasting had become a masquerade for self-service. The reason people were fasting, it appears, was so God would do what they wanted. Some folks kneel to pray only because God might come around to giving them what they want. Some folks attend worship as an attempt to get God on their side. Bible scholar Alex Motyer points out that this is more of a Canaanite mentality than an Israelite mentality. The Canaanites were the ones who tried to do things for the gods so they could get a reward. The Israelites, on the other hand, undertook spiritual acts in gratitude to the God who had saved them. Their piety was a response to God’s grace. One sin we might repent of during Lent is the sin of self-serving spirituality.
The second lesson is that spirituality is supposed to be social. Many assume that spirituality is purely vertical, that it’s strictly between the believer and God. But spirituality is also horizontal; it’s between the believer and other people. Part of the problem in Isaiah 58 was that the people coupled their fasting with the oppression of others. Any spirituality that functions to oppress people is out of bounds. The ancient preacher John Chrysostom said they were abstaining from food but not from harming others. The fast God desires is for us to abstain from oppressing people. Isaiah 58:6-7 says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Self-denial for the sake of impressing God is out. Self-denial for the sake of helping others is in. In other words, self-denial is not undertaken for asceticism but for altruism. It does not please God when we go without so that God might do us a favor. It pleases God when we go without so that we can furnish something for others. One appropriate undertaking for Lent is to fast from certain things in order to furnish resources that others need. For example, we might skip lunch in order to provide lunch for someone who otherwise would not have a meal.
The third lesson is that spirituality is satisfying. Isaiah 58:11 says, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places.” Even amid fasting, says the prophet, God will provide satisfaction. The season of Lent is not all bleak. Although it’s 40 days long, starting on Ash Wednesday with a recognition of our mortality and ending on Easter Sunday with a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, there are actually 46 total days in that span. The reason for the discrepancy is Sundays. Sundays do not count in the 40 days of Lent. Sunday is always a feast day, even amid the season of fasting, because Sunday is the day Jesus arose from the dead. This is why Lenten fasts are properly broken on Sundays. For example, if you fast from chocolate during Lent, you can go Hershey crazy on Sundays. I knew a family of four that decided to fast from soft drinks one Lent. The two young boys in the family, ages 8 and 10, had never loved Sundays so much because it was the only day they could have Dr. Pepper! That experience showed them that spirituality involves satisfaction as well as repentance and self-denial.
It’s important to recognize that Sunday is foundational to the Christian sense of sacred time because it is the day Christ arose from the grave. So even during Lent, as we repent of our sin, acknowledge our mortality, and fast in order to furnish what others need, we still have Sundays mixed in. Resurrection is mingled with mortality. Hope is present in our ashy existence. Self-denial is mixed with satisfaction.
Pastor Noel Schoonmaker
Second Baptist Church Richmond