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Prayer & Fasting

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This morning we are looking at Isaiah once again, but now a chapter towards the end.  You may recall that as a whole book, I explained that it can be viewed as 2 parts, chapters 1 to 39, and then from chapter 40 to the end.

As a whole, Isaiah addresses the Babylonian exile of the Israelites over about 50 years (more than 1 generation), and how this exile fulfilled God’s plan of judgment, but more importantly:  restoration.  The Israelites are now busy rebuilding their homeland, and yet they still don’t quite get it (does that resound with any of you?).

It seems like they’ve fallen back into the pits that the Pharisees continued suffering with over 500 years later! The tragedy is that they believe they are doing all the right things and that it’s God who is letting them down!

Let’s read verses 2 and 3 again:
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 ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’

So, they are praying every day and reading their Bible “as if they were righteous and were obeying God’s rules” and they ask God for righteous judgments and delight to draw near to God.

But they’re confused.

They are even fasting, not just praying.

Fasting is good, right?

It shows how serious your prayers are!  And the Israelites are convinced that they will please God and bring favor. In fact, so much so, that they made this into an ancient practice and instructed it as a pious act – fast and humble yourself before God.

So, why is God rebuking them?  How could God possibly not be pleased?

Well, there may be one or 2 small issues that they need to review in their lives.  Small things like social injustice, failing to share what they have with those who have not, failing to bring the homeless into one’s house, or give clothing and shelter to the naked… maybe reconciliation issues pending with family or loved ones, and failing to help the afflicated.

God doesn’t have a little book in which there’s a checklist:

  • So… check – Reynaldo has fed the hungry one – so, he doesn’t need to do that again for 5 years.
  • Ah yes, Connie has given clothes to the poor – so she’s good now for 3 years.
  • Look, how sweet, Betsy has brought a homeless person into a restaurant and bought them a meal – she won’t need to do that every again in her entire lifetime.

 

It doesn’t work like that, does it?

These are more than one-time actions:  they are a way of life.  Behaviours with broad social consequences – actions that will restructure our relationship.

God couldn’t care less for singular, pious acts – he is looking at the Church to dismantle the entire structure of injustice!

And the Church doesn’t refer to this building.  The building isn’t called in Matthew to be the Salt of the Earth, and give flavor to everyone around it.

The Church is made up simply of the people that are in it!

 

Isaiah 58, verses 3 to 6 remind us:

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 wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?

 

There’s no point in going through the motions of a Christian life, if you are not becoming each day more like Christ.

Out of curiosity, have any of you EVER been accused of being too Christ-like?

Sometimes, being called a “Christian” can be more of an insult (referring to being sanctimonious rather than filled with the Spirit), but have you ever heard of someone saying about another Christian – “What I really can’t stand about him/her is that they are just too much like Christ?”

Traditions and systems are not all bad – but when they become rituals that are void of meaning, they lose their effectiveness.

Isaiah calls the people of Israel to a new way of life:  “the fast that God has chosen”.  It’s no longer a periodic fast day that is set aside to punctuate ongoing life – but it’s a new relationship with life and with all that it in it!

58:6 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?
58:7 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?

Instead of stopping eating food for a day, or doing the fast of Daniel for 3 weeks, or giving up red meat for Lent, God calls the people of Israel to stop the daily practices which block their relationship with God and their fellowman:

  • Stop domination and taking advantage of others
  • Stop blaming others
  • Stop talking behind someone’s back
  • Stop complaining
  • Stop being so self-centered and focused on self-satisfaction
  • Stop your feeling of entitlement
  • Stop your blindness to your privilege

The fast that God is looking for in our lives is the one that calls for vigilance for justice and generosity- each and every day!

Verses 8 to 12 remind us that we work (actions) on our relationships with our fellow man, and THEN it follows that our relationship with God grows deeper.  The barriers that we build between ourselves and our fellow man and the very same barriers that block our relationship with God! It’s impossible to have a relationship with God without having a full relationship with each other!  Your piety or righteousness is not disconnected from everyday life.

The way that you treat the waiter, the security guard, the beggar is just as important as your prayers or reading the Bible.

58:8 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.
58:9a Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
58:9b If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 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 be like the noonday.
58:11 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.
58:12 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.

We say to God “Lord, give me patience” and then are upset when he responds with, okay – this is the way that I teach patience.  “Here, have a 5 year old!”.

We say to God “Lord, give me abundance” and then you don’t understand when God asks you to be generous.

We say to God “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, and then fail to mediate a discussion in the office, or ask for forgiveness when another feels offended.

Prayer is so much more than just making our requests known to God – it’s going out into the World and LIVING the lessons each day.