Text: Isaiah 58:1-12, CSB
Prayer for Illumination
Almighty and Everlasting God, let us feast with gladness upon Your holy word that it may give us strength to love You and love our neighbor. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
I never knew my great-grandfather personally. He went to be with the Lord when I was just 6 months old, but I’ve heard many stories about him and about his character.
One of the things that I hear about a lot is that when supper was on the table and there was only one piece of chicken or one piece of cornbread or one piece of whatever left, he would never take it. He always wanted someone else to have it, and I think that attitude of self-denial for the sake of others is what God is commanding here in Isaiah 58. Peter Leithart notes:
“For many throughout church history, fasting is bound up with hostility to matter and the body. We refrain from bodily pleasures of food and drink to train our souls in disembodied life.
That’s not biblical. The biblical fast, as Isaiah 58 puts it, is to share food with the hungry and clothing with the naked. The true fast gives good things away to those who don’t have them.
Biblical fasting, then, assumes the goodness of material things, and the propriety of pleasure. After all, if food and drink and clothing are evil, why would we want to share them? Isaiah’s fast assumes that creation is so good that we want everyone to have a piece of it.”
What we have in this passage is a distinctly different message about fasting than the one we hear on mainstream Christian media.
- There’s very little teaching and preaching about fasting anymore, but when we do hear it mentioned, it’s not spoken of as a way to be more devoted to God, or as a way to refrain from our own resources so that we can share them with others.
- Instead we hear it spoken of like a glorified hunger strike to “earn God’s favor” or to get God to “release” blessings into our lives as some false teachers on TBN or Daystar would tell us.
However, these people that Isaiah is addressing would probably fall right in line with all of that nonsense on mainstream Christian media because if we’re being honest, our human nature hasn’t changed much since Isaiah’s day.
- Our sinful nature would like to believe that we can manipulate the blessings of God with a hunger strike and call it a fast, and believe that it will be acceptable, but this in no way resembles the fast that God has chosen.
As we look at the text, I want us to break it down in four parts:
- V. 1 – God’s Command to His Prophet
- V. 2-5 – God’s Accusation Against His People
- V. 6-7 – God’s Instruction To His People
- V. 8-14 – God’s Promises to His People
God’s Command to His Prophet (v. 1)
“Cry out loudly, don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet. Tell my people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins.” – Isaiah 58:1, CSB
We need men and women in our day with a prophetic voice who will cry loudly and not hold back when it comes to the issue of sin.
- Sin separates us from God, and to be separated from God is a fearful thing, and ultimately I think the reason we don’t see a lot of pastors talking about sin the way the Bible does is because they don’t believe God or they don’t believe God will keep His word in regards to all of the warnings that He gives concerning sin.
Ezekiel 18:1 is very clear: the soul that sins shall die. People are dead in their sins, marching aimlessly towards death, hell, and destruction and the only way they’ll be made alive is if someone cares enough to proclaim what God has spoken.
- It’s a sad thing when we allow people into our pulpits who don’t believe that heaven and hell, life and death, salvation and damnation aren’t high priority issues, but I’ll tell you what is: winning at life, living your best life now, making sure every day is a Friday.
- You can win in this life, and lose in the next life.
“Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” – Luke 17:33, CSB
Losing doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Now, does it?
This is the whole reason that Isaiah is commanded to cry aloud and not hold back. God’s people are trying to fast try to do all these acts of piety and religion, not for God, not for others, but for themselves.
- They’re giving things away to get an ego boost in return.
- They’re esteeming their lives and their egos of more worth or value than the people they’re supposed to be helping, and as a result, God doesn’t hear them!
- It’s not as if God has a hearing problem. It’s not as if God actually can’t hear what’s going on, but God refuses to entertain the prayers of those who refuse to repent.
That’s why Jesus tells us that if we’re giving a gift to God, and we remember that someone has something against us, we can’t pretend like everything is okay. We have to leave our gift at the altar, make things right with our brother, and then give the gift. (Matthew 5:23-26)
That’s why Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7, that if a husband doesn’t treat his wife with honor and understanding, then God will not hear his prayers.
God isn’t going to entertain the prayers of people who think they’re going to get some kind of divine pat on the head for being good little boys and girls. Instead, God brings an accusation against them.
God’s Accusations Against His People (v. 2-5)
“They seek me day after day and delight to know my ways, like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. They ask me for righteous judgments; they delight in the nearness of God.” – Isaiah 58:2, CSB
If we just look at verse 2, then they appear to be doing right, but as we continuing reading, we see that all of this is just for show.
“Why have we fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed!” – Isaiah 58:3a, CSB
They want God to be impressed with them.
- “Look, God! Can’t you see all we’ve done for you!?”
And this is God’s response:
“Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. 4 You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high. 5 Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” – Isaiah 58:3b-5, CSB
The accusation from God comes in three parts:
- They do as they please on their fast day.
They’re going through the motions. They don’t view their fasting as an opportunity to seek God. Instead they’re going about their day as they normally would, they’re committing the same old sins and transgressions that they normally would. They’re oppressing the same people that they normally would, but by golly, they’re in the temple every time the doors are open.
- They make life harder for their workers.
In the temple, they’re worshipping, they’re leaving their offerings, and they’re making sure everyone knows that they’re fasting, but then they go to work and make life harder on the people around them.
“During Isaiah’s time, the temple in Jerusalem was standing room only. No one missed a service. They sang psalms – old ones, new ones, all kinds of psalms. They said prayers and gave offerings. What they did not do was let worship trouble their consciences. If they kept their distance from God, then they could also keep their distance from God’s children. They did not want to make connections between their worship and their neighbors. They ignored the poor and everyone else they wanted to ignore.” – Brett Younger
Think about that one line that Younger said out of that quote though – “What they did not do was let worship bother their consciences.”
- How many times have we done that? How many times have we refused to allow ourselves to be convicted, and we just shoved it off by saying, “Oh, that preacher is just trying to make me feel bad. He’s just using scare tactics.”
- All the while, God’s word is doing it’s work on us, it’s piercing our soul and spirit, it’s dividing our bones and marrow and we just squirm in our seats and hope it’s over with, but the reality of the situation is that letting God’s word work on us is the best thing we could do.
- If you take a 5 year old to get a shot, they’re going to sit there and squirm and probably cry because they’re afraid of the pain, but the truth is that the best they could do is just sit there and let it happen. It’s the same way with us. The best thing we could when God’s word pierces us is just sit there and let it happen because we’ll come out better on the other side. We’ll be more conformed to the image of Christ than we were before.
- They think they deserve to be heard.
“You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high.”
– Isaiah 58:4b, CSB
Think about what Jesus says in Matthew 6 about the hypocrites and the Gentiles.
“When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words.” – Matthew 6:7, CSB
- When we think that we have a right to be heard because of what we do, then we won’t be heard.
- A couple of weeks ago, Kirk preached on Joshua 7 about Achan storing gold from the enemy in his tent after God had spoken the people and told them to destroy everything.
- We can’t expect the fruit of obedience when we pursue disobedience.
The accusation against God’s people is clear: they have an entitlement problem. They want to believe that they can be rewarded by worshipping God in the temple, and making life harder for their neighbors in the workplace.
- When you’re in a place of authority over other people, it’s easy to let your ego get in the way, it’s easy to allow yourself to believe that you are better than those that you’re over because, after all, you’re in this position, and they’re not, but as far as God is concerned everyone’s on the same playing field.
- Think about the people we interact with on daily basis – the guy working the drive-thru at McDonald’s, the cashier at the gas station, the electronics associate at Walmart. Think about what happens when they make a common mistake.
- Do we get out of shape about it, threaten to call corporate get some fired? Maybe not. Do we shoot them dirty looks and wish no one else was around so we could give them a piece of our mind? Maybe. Or are we patient with them because God has been patient with us.
So, God’s accusation against His people are clear, but so are His instructions.
God’s Instruction To His People (v. 6-10)
“Isn’t this the fast I choose: to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?” – Isaiah 58:6-7, CSB
The fast that God chooses does five things things:
- Sets Free Those Who are Bound (v. 6)
- Verse 6 is a picture of freedom – breaking chains, tearing off yokes, untying ropes, etc. We know that Jesus is in the business of setting people free, and if that’s the case, then we as Jesus’ people should also be in the business of setting people free.
- Feeds Those Who Are Hungry – “share your bread with the hungry” (v. 7)
- Shelters the Homeless – “bring the poor and homeless into your house”
- Clothes the Naked (v. 7)
- Makes You Available to People – “not to ignore your own flesh and blood” (v. 7)
Fasting isn’t simply about giving up food, it’s about giving up our resources and rights for the benefits of others.
- The most powerful example of this is Jesus Himself.
“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8, CSB
We look at this picture of Jesus emptying Himself, becoming a servant, dying on a cross, and we might be tempted to think that he went through all that so that we wouldn’t have to go through all of that, but that’s not the case.
“Jesus didn’t die on the cross simply so that we wouldn’t have to, but he died on the cross so that we would take up our cross and follow Him.” – Dallas Willard
- When you take up your cross and follow Jesus, then you go to die with Him.
Think about what Paul says in Galatians 2:20.
“I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20, CSB
Think about each word and each phrase of that verse. Paul is saying very clearly that He died with Christ.
Back in Romans 6:3, Paul uses the same language of death and resurrection when he says that all of us who were baptized in Christ was baptized into His death, and we were baptized into His death so that we could be raised into newness of life.
- The more you follow Christ, the more you lean into Christ, the more die to yourself, the more you do those things, the more you are living in the newness of life.
The more you find yourself living in the newness of life, the more you realize that you don’t need the material things that you thought you needed.
- Yes, you need a house, but maybe you don’t need a 5 bedroom, 4 bath, 3 story house.
- Yes, you need a vehicle, but maybe you don’t need a 2019 Lincoln Town Car.
Fasting and celebrating Lent is an opportunity to examine what you can afford to live without and share with others, but it’s also an opportunity to see what has a hold on us.
“More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.” – Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
Once you see what’s controlling you, once you see what you can live without, then God makes a promise in verses 8-10.
- It’s interesting to me that God isn’t simply calling us to a fast, He’s calling us to genuineness. He’s calling us to honesty.
- These people that God is talking to may be able to live without food for a while, but they can’t live without power. They can’t live without prestige. They can’t live without privilege, and God says that if you really want to fast, then giving up your food isn’t good enough, you’ve got to give up these things too, and when you do, you get the benefits and promises listed in verses 8-10.
God’s Promises to His People (v. 8-14)
“Then your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. 9 At that time, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry out, he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you get rid of the yoke among you, the finger-pointing and malicious speaking, 10 and if you offer yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be like noonday. 11 The Lord will always lead you, satisfy you in a parched land, and strengthen your bones. You will be like a watered garden and like a spring whose water never runs dry. 12 Some of you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will restore the foundations laid long ago; you will be called the repairer of broken walls, the restorer of streets where people live.” – Isaiah 58:8-12, CSB
Verses 8-12 in this chapter is a picture of how God intends for us as His people to live.
We are to be a people who fill in the broken gaps of the world with our love and kindness, specifically the same love and kindness that God has shown us in Christ.
The best illustration I can think of how this might work is that there’s a giant pot hole in the road that goes to and from our apartment in Lamar. That pothole is an area where the road is broken and in need of repair, and the best thing the city could do is fill that part of the road with new asphalt.
- Well, as the church when we see brokenness, we need to do what we can repair it. When we give to the women’s shelter, when we give to the Main Street Mission, when we get a motel room for a homeless couple, we’re filling a need, we’re repairing the broken walls as it says in verse 12.
Fasting isn’t simply about subtracting from your life, it’s about adding to your life in place of what you subtract.
- You fast from food so that you can add worship, prayer, and devotion.
- You take time away from normal things that might bring you pleasure (that may not be wrong in and of themselves) so that you can seek a higher pleasure only found in God.
In the late 1700’s the Puritan preacher, Thomas Chalmers, preached one of his most famous sermons, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” and the whole idea of this sermon was that it isn’t enough to simply abstain from sin, from worldly pleasures, from the love of the world, we have to replace those things with something else, namely a desire for God.
The question I want to leave us with this morning, is do we desire God?
If you fear that you do not desire God enough, and I think that’s a healthy fear to have, then you can pray, “God, increase my desire for You!” And that’s a prayer I believe He will honor.
- It’s like the man who said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” We can say, “Lord, I love You, but I want to love You and desire You more.” Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we hear these words from Isaiah 58, and we are convicted to the very core of our being because we are guilty, but by Your grace, You set the guilty free. We are like the woman caught in adultery, except we’re caught in selfishness, greed, pride, lust, and every other vice and fault we can think of, and like that woman, You tell us, “I do not condemn you, go and sin no more,” and that’s what we want. We don’t want to continue in our sin. We want freedom, true freedom that only comes from You. Set us free to love You and serve You. Set us free from carnal pleasure and desires. Give us a desire love You and love one another. Give us the grace and strength to love those that seem unlovable so that they can come to know You and be apart of Your family that we call the Church. We ask all of these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to love one another. Amen.
- Leithart, Peter, and Peter Leithart. “Fasting and Pleasure.” Patheos, Patheos, 6 Sept. 2017, www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2008/12/fasting-and-pleasure/.
- Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective: Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12),” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
- Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth. HarperOne, 2018.