The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Have you ever tried to please someone by doing something special for them, and no matter what you did, they were not happy? No matter what you did, it wasn’t good enough. No matter what you did, it was wrong. Talk about frustrating! It’s enough, no pun intended, to make a guy lose his religion! You just can’t win. Understandably so, this no-win situation almost always leads to an angry exchange of words. “What’s your problem?! Don’t you see what I’m doing for you? Don’t you notice? Don’t you appreciate any of this? Don’t you care?”
This is where the Israelites were at in Isaiah’s time. They were fasting and really tearing themselves up and wearing themselves out, all in the name of trying to please God. The problem was that God wasn’t taking notice or praising them for all their hard word and sacrifice. “Hey, God! What’s your problem?! Don’t you see what we’re doing here? Don’t you see all the fasting and sacrifice we’re doing for you? How’s about showing a little appreciation? Don’t you care?”
I don’t know about you, but I can confess that I’ve been there, and I too have felt this way a time or two in my life. It’s easy to shake our heads at the Israelites for such ignorant behavior, but even a brief examination of the reflection in the mirror will undoubtedly reveal the same ugly reality within us. There are times that we do what we do, and we feel unappreciated and taken for granted…even by God. There are times that we make tremendous sacrifices in the name of faith, and then get nothing in return; not even a pat on the back or a thank you…not even from God.
Admit it: If you could get a little sign; a little divine feedback or “receipt” of sorts that would let you know that what you just did was not only observed, but also approved of and appreciated, it would make it a whole lot easier, wouldn’t it? It would make it seem more worthwhile. Talk about positive reinforcement! Can you imagine what the finances would be like for churches if God Himself reached down and gave you a pat on the back and a resounding, “atta boy” whenever you put your offering in the plate? Who wouldn’t want that sort of praise and acknowledgment?
The same can be said for any act of service or volunteerism. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Thank you. I really appreciate the fact that you took out the trash, swept the floors, made coffee, greeted the people at the door, and played the organ today. Thank you. It means a lot to me. You really helped me out today.” Who wouldn’t clamor to get to the head of the line in order to have the honor and privilege of having God praise and thank you? We clamor to get recognized and thanked and noticed by our own fellow men. We endeavor to be the center of attention in a room full of fellow sinners. We desperately seek their approval. How much more would we step it up if the thanks, praise, and approval was raining down directly from God in heaven?
Martin Luther alluded to this sort of hypothetical divine praise phenomenon in the Large Catechism when he wrote about our relationships to those who have authority over us in the Fourth Commandment, teaching that if we really understood how God worked through parents and other authority figures, we would clamor to serve them, even paying for the privilege of being able to serve them because we would recognize that we were serving God through them with our humble and obedient works. “Pay for the privilege to serve?! C’mon! Not me! How arrogant!” You’re absolutely right. Arrogant…and ignorant, indeed.
We really don’t get it, do we? I know I don’t. I can admit it. It’s so easy to talk about how we understand how God works through our works; how He doesn’t need our works, but our neighbor does; how our works don’t earn us salvation, but instead reveal the saving faith inside us that clings to the grace of God and the sure and certain promise of our salvation. It’s easy to talk about, but it’s quite another thing to actually live out; to recognize good and God-pleasing service in the mundane tasks of everyday life; to recognize Christ in mundane faces of everyday people; the least of our own brothers and sisters.
Now…some of you may be wondering why the subject of the lesson and the subject of the sermon is fasting. After all, isn’t that a Lent thing? We’re not in Lent; not yet, at least. You are correct in your assessment of the calendar, but I can assure you that this topic is absolutely fitting and necessary for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany (and every day, for that matter). This is where the Lord’s response to the ignorant and arrogant Israelites leads us to a proper understanding. “God, why don’t you notice what we’re doing? Don’t you care? Don’t you appreciate us our fasts for you?”
And God responds: “I don’t notice?! Oh…I notice. I notice all the wrong things and all the wrong reasons you do what you do. You see, you fast occasionally, when it’s convenient, in order to get your own benefit or profit out of the deal; to get ahead, and you oppress and make everyone else miserable in the process. You’re fasting consists of quarreling, fighting, and tearing everyone else down in an effort to build yourselves up. You say you humble yourselves in your fasting, but there is NOTHING humble about anything you’re doing. Simply going through the motions of putting on sackcloth and ashes is not fasting by my definition. You’re just putting on a good show for everyone else, but I’m not impressed. You’ve got it all wrong!”
“This is the fast I call for: Loose the bonds of wickedness. Undo the bindings of your yoke of sin. Release that which has been imprisoned. In a word—forgive! All that sin that is imprisoning you and binding you and your brothers and sisters up, loosen it; undo it…forgive it and release it. Let it go. (Side-note: The Greek word for “forgive” – aphesis – is also translated as “undo, release, loosen,” e.g., The Lord’s Prayer— “…aphesis our sins we forgive those….”). You want to truly fast from food? Don’t give up your bread and go hungry simply for the sake of giving up your bread and going hungry. Give your bread away. You’re not using it, right? That’s a true and faithful fast. Give your bread to someone who needs it more than you. Yes, you’ll be hungry, but have faith—I have your daily bread covered. You can properly fast by giving up some of your precious space in your home. Sacrifice a little privacy by welcoming the homeless into your home. Try fasting from the constant desire to clothe yourself with the latest and best. All you’re doing is foolishly trying to hide your sinfulness under fancy-looking soiled rags, no different than Adam and Eve did with their leaves. You can properly fast in this area by spending that money and effort on clothing those who are naked and without. Yes, you can go without the latest fashion accessory, and instead clothe someone who has nothing.”
“When you truly understand all this, that’s when the Light from on High will break through and shine in your life. That’s when healing and deliverance and righteousness will truly spring up all around you and be manifested/witnessed everywhere in your life, going before you in all your daily endeavors, and walking tail-end Charlie for you, serving as rear guard so nothing can sneak up on you. When you understand what truly gracious faithfulness is, you will see that I am always with you and you have nothing to fear—ever. Until then…you’re just spinning your wheels and neither one of us are going to be happy with what’s going on or how it will end.”
Wow! How many of you feel convicted right now? I know I do. I know God nailed me dead-to-rights with His reality of what true faithful fasting and God-pleasing service really consists of and looks like in everyday life; not just in Lent, but every day. I guess I really don’t get it sometimes. How arrogant and ignorant of me!
But here’s the thing: God truly and perfectly practices what He preaches. He leads by example. He undoes and loosens and forgives us our sins, not because we’ve earned His grace and forgiveness, but because Jesus Christ earned our forgiveness. By ourselves, we can earn nothing of God’s grace and favor. This is why Christ did it for us. Christ truly fasted for us in every respect. By utterly emptying Himself out to the point of death on a criminal’s cross; to the point of enduring all of His Father’s justice and wrath for our sin, Jesus made it so that we can be utterly filled up and overflowing with the Father’s love. The Bread of Life gave up everything in order to feed and nourish us with His bread of life, something which He will do again in just a few minutes. The King of Heaven gave up all that majesty and made Himself utterly forsaken and homeless all so that we would have a heavenly mansion with many rooms in our Father’s kingdom. He became naked and beaten and completely stripped of all decency, dignity, and pride so that we could be clothed in His righteousness; a white robe made that has been washed and made perfect in His blood.
Folks: This is how God works. This is how He continues to work to make His Light and Life manifest to a world buried in the darkness of sin and despair. He works through you. He shines through you. He gives the salt and light of Christ through you. It’s not easy, is it? No one ever said it would be. Jesus Himself said that we are to take up our crosses and follow Him. Faithfully bearing a cross in this fallen and sinful world is incredibly difficult. Clinging to your justification—your free gift of salvation by God’s grace alone because of Christ alone, which is yours through faith alone—is incredibly difficult, especially when life gets tough. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it’s worth it. Sometimes it seems like nobody cares or notices…even God. Why bother with all the effort? What’s the point? Why try?
Why? Here’s your answer. Look here. Look to the cross of Jesus Christ. Here’s your blessed and eternal reality. No one can ever take this from you. May this blessed Good News of your salvation enlighten your hearts and minds, and bring about the truly God-pleasing thoughts, words, and deeds of one who has been fed, nourished, and clothed by the One who fasted and became nothing for us and our salvation. May you do what you do, whatever it is, not out of a Pharisaical compulsion that hopes to be saved because you earned enough merit badges, but out of the sheer and profound joy of knowing and trusting that you are saved because of Christ alone.
To Him be all glory, praise, and honor.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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