Grace Presbyterian Church
Feburary 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday B
Acts of Love
This particular confluence has out there for a while. Pastors, who actually do try to plan ahead when time allows, started thinking about Lent weeks, or even months ago (maybe even before Christmas), and saw this coming: Ash Wednesday falling on February 14. Yup, Valentine’s Day. And pastors everywhere thought to themselves, “Oh, you have got to be kidding.”
It’s not as if the liturgical event given to self-examination and repentance is a natural fit with the highly commercialized and overly sentimental celebration of “love.” Ashes don’t go well with hearts and flowers. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” doesn’t quite fit with “be mine, Valentine.” And yet, to an awful lot of pastors, the juxtaposition can’t be ignored. There’s got to be some way to make this work, right?
Maybe Isaiah has that answer.
From the very beginning of his prophetic oracle you get struck by just how insistently God is pushing on Isaiah to say this – “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Let ‘em have it, Isaiah! Give ‘em what-for! And yet the people to whom God directs Isaiah to tell this are … well, verse two says “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways”; that’s a good thing, right?
Well, one of the things about old books, even the Bible, is that unless it’s made obvious in the text, we can’t always pick up sarcasm; given the tone and context of the larger passage, we have to consider the possibility that this description is maaaaybe just a little sarcastic.
Maybe what follows is a clue – “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God”. Modern slang has even made a specific indicator of sarcasm out of those two words – “as if!”; maybe you’ve heard that? So, yeah, maybe God’s being juuuust a little sarcastic with Isaiah.
Clearly we’ve got a mismatch here between the professed faithfulness of the Israelites and their actual behaviors. They fast and pray, but exploit their workers; they fast and pray, and then use that sheen of righteousness as a club with which to beat others. And somehow they believe all this posturing is cool with God.
On the other hand, here’s what God has Isaiah identify as an acceptable fast:
- stop injustice – not just stop doing it, but stop it from happening;
- set the oppressed free;
- share your food with the hungry and “bring the homeless poor into your house” (!!!)
- clothe those who have nothing to wear;
- stop with the “pointing of the finger” and evil talk against one another.
Somehow, I get the feeling that the idea isn’t just to do that during the season of Lent.
It is a custom, among those who observe Lent or at least know what it is, to observe some small-scale version of a Lenten fast. For the most part we don’t go for anything big; maybe we give up something like chocolate or red meat or wine or some such thing. A few might take up a specific additional activity – keeping a reflection journal, a specific course of scripture reading, an extra act of service.
It is just possible, though, that the best Lenten fast we could choose is … none.
Until we are ready to do these acts of love (there’s your Valentine’s Day connection) – acts not merely of human but divine love, the love that God has already shown us and awaits for us to show to all of God’s other children – then maybe the best Lenten discipline is none. If that giving up or taking on isn’t pointing us towards living up to the challenge of a world in need, or at least to stop contributing to or exacerbating that need, then maybe we shouldn’t do it. Maybe the best we could do is simply look inward – look hard – at what it is that keeps us from the fast that God so clearly desires.
The answer might be challenging. It might point to the privilege in which we live with barely a second thought. It might show us how grindingly determined we are to have what we want, the rest of the world be damned. It might just point out how shallow that façade of righteousness and goodness is that we wear. But maybe that’s the best discipline we could take up this Lent. Maybe then our light “shall rise in the darkness”; maybe then the Lord’s guidance will be what we truly seek and follow; maybe then we will truly be called repairers and restorers, instead of destroyers and ravagers.
Maybe when we finally see and hear what God sees and hears coming out of us, we will finally be able and willing to live up to what God sees in us.
For the discipline of self-examination, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #167, Forty Days and Forty Nights; #422, Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God; #169, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind