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Epiphany 5, February 5 - Isaiah 58:3–9aOther Lessons: Psalm 112:1–9 1 Corinthians 2:1–12 (13–16) Matthew 5:13–20
We are back in Isaiah again this week, and the text seems quite similar to last week’s in Micah because it still addresses the same issue, namely, faithlessness. They know the law of God, they know what God requires, but they would not do it because they didn’t think or believe God cared. And when they were accused of not following God even though he has done so many great and wonderful things for them, their responses showed a lack of understanding and faith because they saw God as a taskmaster who only demands. And so they ask rhetorically, “Would thousands of rams be enough? Would ten thousand rivers of oil be enough? Would my first-born son be enough?” Micah then reminds them that what God requires first is not doing the ceremonies or rituals, but to humble themselves before God and to love their neighbors. This was to show that what they needed most was not how to get this demanding dictator off their back, but that they would truly see God as their loving father who desires only to be good to them through discipline and forgiveness.
In today’s text, it’s slightly different in that the people were doing at least one thing that God had commanded, namely fasting. But as we see in their speech, they do not understand God and the laws and commandments, as our pericope for today begins with the people’s complaint about God. But the whole thing actually starts with God’s indictment in verse 1 and 2: ““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. 2 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 judgement of their God they ask of me righteous judgements they delight to draw near to God.” Here, God begins to describe the irony of his people. They were seemingly very righteous. Apparently they thought they were good and righteous enough that they could draw near to God to gain something from him. Why do they think they were good enough?
Verse 3 tells us why, though in the form of a complaint! They said, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Whereas in Micah last week the people have completely forsaken God and his word, here the people say they have been faithful to the word, and yet God is still not pleased with them. They fasted but God does not accept it.
In the Old Testament, only one day of the year was fasting commanded, which was on the Day of Atonement. It is a day to literally “afflict the soul” (but this is often translated as “humbling the selves” in English bibles). It is almost the equivalent of Good Friday for Christianity in which we seriously examine and reflect upon our own lives, so that one may truly humble before God and repent. This is what the Day of Atonement is all about, and fasting, being one of the requirements for that day, teaches the people to physically afflict themselves so that they would take this repentance business seriously.
Now of course, individuals and sometimes groups of people may voluntarily fast outside of this prescribed day (which is usually between the end of September and early October), like Nineveh after hearing Jonah's unenthusiastic preaching, the king ordered the entire city to fast and even put on sackcloth for all the citizens and also all livestock, or like David after being told that his child from Bathsheba would die, he fasted day and night. They do this because their “soul” is afflicted, they are spiritually burdened, they are under tremendous pressure of sin, they are under the fear of eternal judgment and death. This inward struggle then is expressed in the entire person so that these people not only pray earnestly as an inward activity, but they even stop their normal daily activities, such as eating and bathing, so that they could focus their entire being to praying and repentance.

But this was not the case with the people in Isaiah's days. They saw fasting (and other religious activities commanded in the Old Testament) as a work that deserved compensation. Religion for them became like a “spiritual transaction”. If you do this “for God”, then God must do something “for you”. They saw the doing of the law of God as a way or manipulating God. They thought, “Well since we did what you, O God, commanded, surely then you must listen to us and obey us! We give what you want, so then you give us what we want!” This is a trust in ritualism, which is the idea that rituals are mechanism by which God can be influenced to your own benefit. It is also a trust in one’s good works, that is, it is so good and wonderful and of such high esteem that God cannot but accept it and reward you for it. And ultimately, this is nothing but trust in the self. The self becomes “God” because a “God” is where and from whom you expect all good and benefit to come from. This is not just about fasting or any other Old Testament rituals or ceremonies or even commandments, but anything that we think are so fantastic that deserve God’s attention. We easily mistaken the things we do as something that deserve something from God, like going to church on Sundays, spending time praying or reading the bible, or even helping some neighbor with something. Beware of this, for this is exactly what God is accusing the Israelites of doing.

All of these things that God mentions is to teach the people to see and trust and rely on God as their savior, not as their taskmaster like in Micah’s text, nor as a businessman whom you can bargain with. To see him as your savior means one who saves you from sin and death. That’s what fasting and repentance is all about. For if you do not have these, you do not have the right God, and you have a different faith. God desires that you see him in no other way than the God who saves from death and gives freely his life for you.

But how can you keep this faith? I mean, look at the Israelites! They continually failed. Even with repeated prophets telling them, they continued to misunderstand God. And us too, we are not that different from them since we have such high regard of ourselves and what we can achieve. We often calculate and measure how much we have done for God and for one another but forget this very basic truth, that we are still sinners. We want to forget this reality, until we are reminded of our mortality. Death reminds us of our sins and our sinful condition.

But there is one who has conquered death, the one who died and rose and never will die again. There is one who, because of his perfect sinlessness, is able to take on the sins and death of the whole world and swallows it up completely. There is one who is the life and the resurrection. Jesus dies on the cross but rises again so that there is forgiveness, life, and salvation for you. And through the preaching and the hearing of the word, all the benefits of his death and resurrection are freely given to you. Faith trusts and apprehends and lays hold these promises.

This is how our faith is to be grounded. This is how we are to understand all these so-called rituals and ceremonies, it is all about the preaching of the word of God, so that you may be reminded again and again that it is not what you can do for God, but it’s all about what God has already done for your salvation in his son Jesus Christ. In this faith then, fasting may be a good external exercise, but as Luther puts it, one is properly and spiritually prepared and ready to stand before God is faith and repentance, that is, sorry for your sins and trust in the forgiveness of sins. Then in this faith, we may confidently call on God and expect to be heard. Since the season of Lent is just around the corner (about 2 weeks from now). It is good to consider these things, since there’s the tradition of giving up something for Lent. Just like fasting, we do not give up our favorite food (or whatever you choose to give up) for 40 days for the sake of doing so because it’s tradition, but we should be prepared to give up something so that in our bodily need (like craving for chocolate, coffee, internet, looking at the phone, etc), we would turn to God and his word. It is a spiritual practice in that by depraving and subduing our body, we rely on the word all the more for support.

While it is a tradition for the season of Lent, we are neither required to do it, nor are we limited to doing it only during Lent. Either way, the point is for us to have the true faith which looks to God as our savior who came to die and rise again for you. So truly examine yourselves, and get rid of anything that makes you put your trust in something or someone else. Put away all the false gods and false securities and dumb them all on the cross, let them all be crucified and die with Christ, so that you may rise to a new person who walks humbly with Christ.