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Isaiah 58: 6-8

2319 words



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?

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?

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.





Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I was walking up main street in Easley SC with my mother on a Saturday afternoon.  She had shopping to do, and she had convinced me to tag along.  As we were walking along the sidewalk, she suddenly grabbed the sleeve of my coat and pulled me into a store.  It was an old style dime store.  I thought at first she had seen some magnificent bargain in the store, but It was soon obvious that she had no intention of buying anything.  Though she made some little pretence of looking at merchandise, she kept glancing out the front windows of the store.  After a few minutes, she said, “Ok let’s go.”  We walked back out on the sidewalk and continued with our shopping.  All this was a mystery to me.  I asked her what was going on.  At first, she refused to answer, but I was not about to let it go.  I badgered her about it until she finally “fessed up.”  She said, she had seen in the crowd ahead of us, coming toward us, some distant relatives of hers and they were such white trash, she did not want to have them recognize her and greet her on the streets of Easley.  I did not know these relatives, had never met them, and she said, I should count that as a blessing. 

I told my father about this incident, and he laughed and said mother was sometimes a little uppity.  She should perhaps have read these verses from Isaiah and not hid from her own kin.  But Isaiah has a different situation in mind.  He has in mind people who hide from their kinfolks when those folks are in need. 

Let us begin at the beginning.  These verses from Isaiah are about fasting.  In general, fasting is abstinence from food or drink.  To fast is to stop eating.  The fast we hear the most about today in the news media is the Muslim fast of Ramadan.   Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar.  Muslims are supposed to fast for the entire month.  They neither eat nor drink during the day.  However, this is not a total fast, for they may eat and drink after sunset. 

But not only Muslims fast.  Fasting has been a practice in the Christian church from time immemorial.  Acts 13:1-3 tells how the church at Antioch fasted and prayed before commissioning Paul and Barnabas and John Mark as missionaries.  Acts 14:23 speaks of appointing elders in the church with prayer and fasting.  If we followed this advice, the next time we have elections for church officers, we should have a period of prayer and fasting beforehand, but I do not think that advice will be received very well.  As you can see, fasting and prayer are often linked together.  In Luke 2:36, we are told of the prophetess Anna, who was an eighty-four year old widow.  “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (37).


What Kind of Fast Does God Want?

At this point you are probably wondering which direction this sermon is going to go.  In the Christian church, the season of Lent has been a time of fasting and penitence.  You may be wondering if I am going to talk about what we should give up for lent.  Perhaps you are wondering if I am going to recommend a special diet today.  Perhaps you think I am going to preach on losing a few pounds for Lent.

If you read newspapers, you know that most studies show that most Americans are overweight.  So it would not be a bad idea for some of us to lose a few pounds, but fasting in scripture is never about losing weight.  Fasting is about improving our relationship to God.  Fasting is not intended to punish the flesh but to focus on God. 

And fasting is not just giving up food.  Christian fasting is a way of living and thinking.  We see that particularly in Isaiah chapter 58.

In v3, the people complained to God, "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"  they were angry with God because God did not seem to be responding to their fasting and prayers and sacrifices.  They thought that God should take notice of them.  They thought that God owed them because they had done all this religious stuff.

God’s answer was that they combined their religious observances—their prayers and fasting, their going to church and reading the Bible—with immoral lives, and that was not acceptable to God.  In v3, God says, “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”  You talk about fasting and praying and being oh so religious, yet you are exploiting other people.

This is like a story I heard about a Christian business executive who one day laid off a thousand employees without a qualm to increase corporate profits just ever so slightly, and then went to church the next Sabbath and felt very righteous about being in church.  In that man’s mind there was something disconnected, and God says that he does not like the disconnection.

In v4, God says you are quarreling and fighting, and thus, “such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”

The Israelites had the idea that by fasting and prayer they could manipulate God.  God would do their will because they worshipped God.  God is not having any of that.  God emphasizes that a true fast focuses on manifesting God’s presence to others.  

The lesson here is that what we do makes a difference, and we are responsible for what we do.  We all have abilities and potential and God holds us responsible for the way we use our abilities and potential.  We are responsible to God for the way we live our lives.  We cannot talk about being saved by Jesus on a Sabbath and then go out and live like we belong to the devil.

In v5, God asks a question: What kind of fast does God want?  God says, do you think I want a fast in which you humble yourselves and bow down like some kind of weed in the wind?  Do you think that I want you to clothe yourself in sackcloth, and to cover yourself with ashes?  These are rhetorical questions.  The Lord does not want some kind of religious show.  

Having told us what he does not want, the Lord then goes on to tell us the kind of fast he does want.  In V6, God says he wants a fast against injustice, and a fast against oppression.  The Lord calls upon us to “to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

A believer should do justly and require that all governments and courts around the world do justly.  In America, we have a great tradition of human rights.  This tradition is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  But we need to always make sure this tradition gets applied and even applied in the hard cases to people we do not like.  Just because we have documents does not mean we are not exploiting people.

The old Soviet Union was founded upon the highest ideals.  Communism said that we should treat all people equally, and that we should work to the fullest of our abilities and share the gains of our work with everyone.  Karl Marx was much influenced by Christianity, and Communism professed a kind of earthly Christianity, but the reality was that Communism treated people like dirt.  Millions of people were shipped off to Stalin’s Gulags.  In the Ukraine, where they had some of the best farming land on the earth, millions were deliberately starved to death as part of Soviet policy for converting small private farms to communal farms.  The Soviets proved what they were by what they did, and we say, thank God, they are gone.

You might say that the Soviets did not believe in God and that was part of their problem.  Yes it was, but there have been plenty of atrocities committed in the name of God.  Before we invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban government was in power there.  They were fundamentalists Moslems who made great profession of God, but they refused to let girls go to school.  They would not even let girls learn to read and write.  They oppressed women on a scale unheard of even in other Moslem countries.  I suspect that a hundred years of now historians will say that one of the good things we did was invade Afghanistan and rid the world of the Taliban.  They were evil. How do we know they were evil?  By the way they acted.

Isaiah says God knows us by the way we act.  V7 speaks of sharing our bread with the hungry and our homes with the homeless.  This is a true fast: to feed the hungry, to help those that need help.

The point is my fasting has to do with you—with your pain, with the injustice that you are suffering, with the yoke that oppresses you.  My fasting has to do with sharing your life when you are in need.  My fasting is about my neighbors, my city, my world.  My fasting has to do with the ones out there on my doorstep who find themselves homeless and fearful and giving up hope.

Isaiah also says that fasting is not turning away from your own kin.  And everyone is our own kin.  Surely if we have learned one thing in this day of global communications and instant messaging it is that we are all one family and one kin with one father in heaven.  One of the points of the Cain and Able narrative in Genesis is that we are to watch over and care for others.  We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper.

James 2:14-18  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

What James is saying, what Isaiah is saying is that the point of life and living is to be a blessing to someone else.  As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ, and the way we do that is by acting for the betterment of humankind, one person at a time, one instant at a time, one opportunity at a time.

“The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked this question: What was the earliest sign of civilization in any given culture? One might expect the answer to be a clay pot or perhaps a fish hook or grinding stone. Her answer was "a healed femur." The femur, of course, is the leg bone above the knee. Mead explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, reigns. A healed femur shows that someone cared. Someone had to do that injured person's hunting and gathering until the leg healed. The evidence of compassion, she said, is the first sign of civilization.” [

Basically what Isaiah is saying then is that we should be civilized people.  We should care for one another.



But someone might say, why bother with any of this?  It takes time and energy to help other people.  Why  bother?  Why not just go on in my little way, living in my own little world.  Beginning in v8 and going through v12,  Isaiah has a beautiful promise that reveals the answer to these questions.


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.

9  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

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.

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.

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.”  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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