Ash Wednesday Isaiah 58.1-12 February 14th 2024

Ash Wednesday Isaiah 58.1-12 February 14th 2024

Ash Wednesday is an ancient tradition but a new tradition to me – it is the day before the time of Lent which is traditionally a time of fasting and prayer with opportunities to reflect on and grow deeper in our relationship with God.

Our Isaiah passage deals with a situation in the life of Israel where there is a gap between who Israel wants to be and the reality of who they are. This passage always challenges and confronts me, acting at times as a mirror to my own life. It reminds me of my attempts to get healthier. I try and exercise regularly which is an important part of being healthy. Yet I do love my snacks and chips and cookies which is not a great path towards being healthy. I need to bring the two parts into greater alignment. God’s people were in a similar situation – doing one thing as instructed but not another – they needed greater alignment as well.

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The book of Isaiah begins with these words to Israel: Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening…Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Is 1.13-17)

Sounds very similar to our passage in Isaiah 58.3-4: on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

The book begins and ends with a similar message to God’s people – I see that you are fasting and sacrificing but I also see how you are treating your neighbour unjustly and with a hard heart. How God’s people looked to God and to their neighbour were disconnected.

One of God’s gifts to Israel was giving them ways by which they could experience God’s presence, seek forgiveness for wrong, cleansing, give praise and thanks to God through offerings, sacrifices, celebrations, festivals, prayer and worship. This was how Israel was to live in right relationship with God. Yet God never intended them to be an end in themselves, they were always a means to strengthening and deepening their relationship with God.

In the law and the psalms (146) Israel is instructed and exhorted on how they were to live in right relationship with each other – there was to be justice, love, compassion, care, and generosity in their community. This is who God is and how God’s people are to be in relationship with one another. Right relationship with God and one another were to go hand in hand.

Notice the type of actions that Isaiah says God also takes notice of in verses 6 and 7– doing justice, setting the oppressed free, sharing one’s food with the poor, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless. These are presented in such a way that God’s people are challenged to views these as spiritual acts in the same way as fasting and praying. God seeks both from the people.

Isaiah message is that fasting, praying and sacrifice are highly important acts of worship but cannot be separated from other spiritual acts like living justly, righteously, and living humble, obedient lives towards others. The two go together. When this happens, Isaiah encourages God’s people in verses 8-12 that God’s blessing will flow. There will be a new beginning, God will hear their prayers, there will be healing and restoration, God will guide and provide. These are beautiful and encouraging words – there is always a way back to God. The blessing of God’s forgiveness, presence and restoration await when we acknowledge our wrong and seek God’s face.


 So, what about us today in light of Jesus?

Luke 4 records Jesus announcing the good news of the kingdom by quoting Isaiah 61. This echoes Isaiah 58.6-7: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

In the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 notice who Jesus indicates will experience blessing – the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, those who are humble, those who thirst for righteousness or justice, those who seek peace. Then in Matthew 6 Jesus says: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” In Luke 10 Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, while in Luke 18 Jesus tells a parable of the Pharisee who prays loudly and proudly for all to see , while the tax collector quietly confesses and comes humbly to God.

Jesus draws the strands of our vertical relationship with the Father and our horizontal relationship with others together in his commandments to love God and love others (Matt 22.36-40). In doing so he is following in the footsteps of the prophets and law. Our love of God and others go hand in hand. Disconnect one from the other and there is a problem. Yet when our fasting and praying, our worship and song come together with our acts of service and justice towards others, then we live the whole and flourishing life God intended.

Spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer, repentance, meditating on Scripture and more are wonderful God given ways we can encounter God. They create space in our lives in which the Holy Spirit can work to refine us, to reconcile us deeper with God and others, to help us growth in our relationship with God, and help us grow in obedience. Our acts of service, seeking justice, acts of love, compassion and generosity are also spiritual acts of service to God when motivated by love. Right relationship with God and each other belong together.

Now none of us are perfect – Paul reminds us in Romans 3.23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. We are indeed saved by grace through faith, not by works. We have a God who has provided a way for us to deal with this short fall – through Jesus’s death and resurrection there is forgiveness when we seek it, in Christ love and grace abound.

Lent is a time to reflect on the whole of our life – our right relationship with God and our right relationship with others. The promise is that as we bring these two aspects into greater alignment there can be spiritual blessing. So, this Lent may each of us reflect on where God through the Spirit is wanting us to grow. For some it might be fasting either from food or something else, doing a Lenten Bible reading plan, or praying more intentionally. For others it might be acts of service, finding a way to help those with needs in our own church community or serving the marginalised in our wider community. May the Spirit guide, inspire and empower each of us this coming season, deepening and strengthening our relationship with God and with others. As we do these, we take another small step outworking our faith by following Jesus, and reflecting the Father through the power of the Spirit.