Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which prepares us for Easter. Let’s focus on a traditional Ash Wednesday Scripture, Isaiah 58:1-12, considering it in sections. (I’m using the New Living Translation today.) Throughout, Isaiah is speaking directly for the Lord.
“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins!"
God wanted his people to recognize and be aware of their sins, calling upon his prophets to look to the Law and declare where the Israelites had strayed. There is no doubt God wants us to continue to recognize where we deviate from God’s will, first and foremost using the Bible as our guide.
"Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’"
Religion, the system of living built around the worship of God, is a good and wonderful thing. But like any gift from God, religion can be abused. People can become so caught up in form that they forget function. The function of religion is to draw us into a closer relationship with God and better understand how God would have us relate to each other. This was true in Isaiah’s day, and it’s just as true now.
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help."
God expects us to treat each other equitably, to use the resources we have to lift each other up! We who are free spiritually, economically and in other ways should live so that others may be free, too. The season of Lent is a wonderful time to look around and find the places where we can make a difference.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes."
Yes, there are benefits to living a life with God—properly repenting of our sins, trusting Jesus Christ as our savior and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to holy actions we would not have considered before. Repentance opens the door to salvation and salvation gives us hope.
God is simply asking that we share that hope with others!
Lord, may this season of Lent be a proper time of reflection, repentance and renewal, and may what happens in us change the lives of others. Amen.