Last week I talked about what I think all our readings focused on: humility. And then I expanded on our gospel and Epistle lessons to explore what God means by humility. In concise summary, what I think God means by humility is to let go of what we cling to so that we can receive God’s grace and then share that grace, through our particular lives, gifts, and circumstances, with other people. In this way, we show people who Jesus is. That’s why humility is so important: so that we can get ourselves out of the way to show people who God is. It’s not that we’re unimportant. The particular people we are is extremely important or God wouldn’t have made us at all, or in the particular way he did. It’s that who we are has a purpose greater than and ultimately more fulfilling than mere self-fulfillment. What truly fulfils is to use the fullness of who we are to point to the very being and meaning of life: God whom we encounter, see and seek to follow, in Jesus Christ.
This week we hear, most particularly in our OT reading from Isaiah, a specific aspect of exercising humility. God’s message to his people starts as it might for us. Hear these words of God to us:
58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Just for a moment think about how we often conceive of being humble. Ironically, it’s often all about us! I remember in seminary everyone talking about how they were going to do some elaborate fasting. It was hilariously emotionally and spiritually immature, like children or unformed disciples saying, ‘I’m first, no I’m first,’ Lord tell me who is the first among us, see how much I fasted today. People made their fasting into a kind of competition of suffering. God will see that I am THE MOST HUMBLE and MOST DESERVING because I’m going to fast the hardest: nothing but mere sips of water through Lent my friends. Surprise surprise when one of my professors pointed out that fasting wasn’t about us and our capacity, but rather about opening up to receive God more fully, so that we could direct our particular gifts to witness and so to caring for and serving others.
What was my professor getting at? God’s rebuke to this false notion of humility that is about securing one’s own sense of security and righteousness. Listen to God’s words: 58:6 “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?
58:7 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?” Humility shouldn’t be confused with doing things in order to gain recognition, or notoriety, or acceptance. The true humility, a true fast, is about letting go of the things that push God away, that shield you from his fire, his cleansing, his rebuke, so that when cleared out of your life, you can make space, time, effort, and enduring and persevering commitment to care for others.
Now let me correct a wooden interpretation here. When we hear about the hungry, the poor, the naked, we tend to think only of those who are maybe out on the streets, or who are somehow socio-economically lesser than us. This is literally true, but it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that every single person, whether rich or poor, in high or low status, every single person can be poor or naked or hungry. How so? For love, hungry for love, for attention, for acceptance. Everyone can be poor. Poor in character, poor in ability to understand, to endure, to persevere, to survive, to sustain mental or physical health. Everyone can be naked. Naked in having been stripped down through abuse, through shame, through crippling anxiety, exposing them in their raw, unclothed state, to the thorns of our cultural demand for endless stamina, productivity, and excellence; a habit that makes so many, though naked, cover themselves with arrogance, anger, hatred, bigotry, alcoholism and drugs.
So yes, absolutely, we are called, as Christians, to make space in our hearts and minds for those who are literally poor, on the streets, who are hungry because they literally don’t have enough carbohydrate and protein to sustain their body weight or they struggle to know where they can get enough from day to day. But we are called to recognize that this is not the limit of what God is saying to us here. God is saying that we must recognize that all of us have and will fallen into this state, and therefore that as we look around this room, this neighborhood, this city, this province, this country, our continent and this world, we are called to see everyone as those in desperate need of God’s grace, of his food, of his water of life, of his body and blood, of his ark, the cross, upon which all human life depends.
It is not enough to put money on the plate for some special cause of poverty, even though we absolutely ought to consider doing this if we can. The widow comes and she gives all that she has, though she has so little. What it is that she gives, what God demands from his people, Israel and Church, you and I, is that we give up clinging to things for security, power and control in this world, so that we can be made catalysts, witnesses, examples, knowers and lovers of God for others to see; so that all those who hunger and thirst, all of those who are lost and desperately seeking, might not be turned away by our wickedness and our selfishness and our self obsession and our entitlement and our grandiosity and our laziness, but turned to God, by our love, by our patience, by our kindness, by our willing to step out of ourselves and our fears and anxieties and hatreds to love our neighbor and our enemy, to give to the other our whole lives, as Jesus gave himself to us.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 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.
58:11 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.
58:12 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.
If you do these things: 58:9a Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. AMEN.