Text: Isaiah 58:1-12; Mathew 5:13-20
Speaker: Joel Miller
In Isaiah chapter 58, the prophet is in full prophet mode, dialed up to 10. It begins as if the Lord is giving Isaiah a bit of a pep talk, a locker room huddle of sorts before the prophet steps out and does his prophetic thing. “Shout out loud, do not hold back! Lift your voice life a shofar! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
And this is what Isaiah does.
As the prophets before and after him did, Isaiah directs his outcry not against those outside the community – enemy armies, foreigners, immigrants, but on the moral and spiritual condition of those inside the community – his own people.
Walter Brueggemann has taught that the role of the prophet is to criticize the status quo, and then energize toward a new, life affirming future. Criticize and energize. We can imagine those as the final words of every pep talk every prophet ever got from the Lord.
Isaiah focuses his shout-like-a-shofar message on the practice of fasting. How the people were abusing this religious practice – abusing each other while engaging in this practice. How they were approaching it as some kind of quid pro quo arrangement for divine favor. I do this for you – carry out this rigorous act of fasting – and you, God, do a little something for me.
But God isn’t playing along, and the people are upset.
Isaiah is upset.
He points out that these fasters who are lying around in sackcloth and ashes might want to start by paying their workers a fair wage — and this is where he starts to turn the corner toward the energize part….true fasting, he declares, is loosening the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, making sure the hungry are fed, and not neglecting your own household. “Then,” Isaiah says, or shouts, if you choose this fast, then “your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly,”
Since fasting plays such a central role in this passage, and since it’s not something we talk about a whole lot here, let’s do a large fasting sidebar.
At its most basic, to fast is to refrain, to abstain. It’s most commonly associated with food. The practice of fasting shows up across religions and cultures. The most important fast day in Judaism is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s a 25 hour food and water fast, broken after sundown. I always consider it an especially holy day when the Jewish congregation formerly known as Little Minyan, now known as Kehilat Sukkat Shalom, is fasting and worshiping in this space during Yom Kippur.
Muslims fast during daylight hours for the entire month of Ramadan. Since that month migrates through the secular calendar year, the long days of summer make for the most challenging observances of Ramadan.
Buddhists fast. Various Native American cultures send young people out into the wilderness for a multi-day Vision Quest in which they fast and pray for a vision that will guide their life purpose.
For Christians, the season of Lent is the time most associated with fasting, modeled on Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism.
My personal experience with fasting goes back to high school during my borderline fundamentalist days. After doing some study about fasting with a friend, I decided I was going to do it once a day every week. And not just a dawn to dusk kind of thing. I would eat supper one day, not eat anything before bedtime, then not eat anything the following day, and break the fast during breakfast the day after that. Let me tell you, cereal has never tasted so good. I can’t quite remember how long I kept this up, but it was about three years, well into college. Every week, even if there was cross country or basketball or baseball practice that evening. During the time I would normally be eating those days I would pray and read my Bible and journal. I was kind of hard core, as Abbie will testify since she met me during that period. She helped me relax a little bit.
Fasting is usually with food, but it can be anything. You can fast from lots of things. You can fast from certain kinds of food and drink, like chocolate or sugar or coffee or alcohol or soda, or industrial meat. You can fast from purchasing, like the Buy Nothing Day movement, a protest against mindless consumerism. Buy Nothing Day is strategically located the day after Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday. A boycott is a social and public form of extended fasting. You can fast from driving – take a bus, bike, or walk instead. You can fast from talking – go away on a silent retreat or have one in your own house. You can fast from Netflix or TV or movies or social media or screens altogether. You can fast from cynicism, or despair. You can fast from self-criticism. You can fast from sex. Like the New York Times article from January 20th titled: “I quite sex for 12 years.” Subtitled: “It was no mean feat for Sophie Fontanel. In France love of sex is expected.” If you want to go double negative, you can fast from abstinence. You can fast from fasting, which I needed to do for a while after that stretch in early young adulthood.
You can fast from taking out the trash. You can just let it accumulate in bags there in your house or on your porch and you can just live with it for a while and contemplate trash – your own. I don’t recommend doing this for three years. Maybe three weeks.
You can fast from just about anything. You can fast from breathing. In fact, let’s all try that together right now. We’re going to fast from breathing for 10 seconds.
To fast is to temporarily change one’s relationship with the thing from which one fasts. We need food and water to live, but the constant rhythm of eating and drinking and even breathing can sometimes numb us to gratitude and our deeper longings. Fasting breaks the rhythm, and leaves us with ourself, our thoughts, and our god. Fasting invites us to consider the words Jesus utters in the wilderness, that people “do not live on bread alone.” Or purchasing, or social media or driving a car. In order to live whole hearted lives, we need to breath in not only air, but gratitude. We need to metabolize not only protein, but humility. Fasting can help us do this.
Fasting not only changes our relationship with the thing from which we fast, but, very importantly, changes our relationship with the ultimate source of that thing, what we have called God, the source of our very self.
There’s also that mysterious line from Jesus when his disciples had been trying but failing to cast an evil spirit out of a boy. After Jesus performs the exorcism his disciples ask him why they couldn’t do it themselves. To which Jesus replies: “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:14-29). Apparently there are some spirits, some demons, some unwanted powers that possess us, that only come out through some kind of refraining mixed with prayerful intentionality. One might put the giant demons of racism and militarism and mindless consumerism in this category. This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting.
Fasting, in its many forms, can give us a privileged access to the source of being that sustains all of us. Reminds us that we are more than these things we habitually do, even those things sustain biological life. It points us toward our foundational identity as beloved children of God. Or, as Jesus words it to his listeners in the sermon on the mount: you are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness how can it be made salty again? Sodium chloride can’t technically lose its saltiness, but we can somehow lose ours, even though that’s what we are. Some form of fasting can point us back to our ultimate identity.
The danger of fasting is that it can put us in an oppositional relationship with that which we’re fasting from. Food and sex and the joys of life can be seen merely as distractions and obstacles to the deeper spiritual life. This is a distortion of fasting. I have also been sensitized to just how complicated a relationship with food many people have, and that fasting from food can be a harm rather than help to mental health.
Or, like the people in Isaiah’s time, fasting can be treated as some kind of spiritual currency with God. If you spend it by going on fast, you should get some goods in return. Like any other transactional relationship. Because that’s how God works, right?
Isaiah is not anti-fasting, but he is anti-distortion of fasting. He’d much rather people skip the whole ordeal than mess around with something that’s just going to get them further away from the heart of the matter.
Even better, he has a suggestion, a different kind of fasting. And it’s a little more than a suggestion. It’s his prophetic pivot from criticizing to energizing, and it’s a bit counter intuitive.
Fasting is typically an act of negation, a refraining from something. Isaiah has something else in mind. Or at least a creative angle on what should be refrained from.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds on 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?”
If you’re really into fasting, Isaiah says, how about this? Fast from injustice. Fast from keeping all your things and food and possessions for yourself. Fast from isolating yourself from those in need. Fast from giving all your energy just to your work and not having anything left for the people you care most about, your own kin.
It’s kind of a refraining through positive action. It’s a changing of one’s relationship with others, and thus changing one’s relationship with God. It’s engaging in fasting not to get something, but because that very thing in which one engages is the thing worth getting. To fast from harming others is its own reward. To fast from being overly critical of oneself is a grace. It’s what draws us closer to God, and closer to the truth of our own belovedness within God.
“Then,” Isaiah says, “your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly. You shall be like a well watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
Sounds like it’s at least worth a try.