A few weeks ago Dr. Brennen Breed reminded us all during the Leith Lecture series that at the very beginning of creation God created a covenant community with God’s people. The first five books of the Bible are all about establishing and naming what it means for humans to be in covenant with God. In the beginning in Genesis we hear that our purpose as humans is to be in relationship with God and with others; the foundation of this idea was the creation story where humankind was made in God’s image. Our created purpose and God’s covenant with us is about being in a loving and faithful covenantal community with God and with those God created. A community where we love God and love neighbor with all our heart, mind, and strength.
One of the images Dr. Breed shared with us to drive this point home about the importance of community and faithful relationships with God’s covenantal people was an image of the ruins of a village of the Hebrews after their exodus from Egypt. In the ruins of this village you could make out through the building foundations that God’s people lived in a network of same size houses that faced one another and formed a community that cared for each other. All in the community were just as important as the other, not only did they view each other equally, they shared resources and provided for each other.
He then showed us a picture generations later of the same village, and things were different. By the dwellings’ foundations, you could tell one house was more important than each other, and there was now a large place to store the harvest of the land, not for the community but for those in control. Instead of living in a place where everyone relied on and cared for each other, the community transformed to a place based on hierarchy and power. The covenant community became broken.
As we explore tonight’s Isaiah passage it is important to note that generations have passed since the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt to the promise land, even a generation or two has passed since the failure of the days of Kings and Kingdoms in the promise land that brought an exile of God’s people to foreign lands. Now God’s people are returning back to an occupied promised land and struggling to reestablish community. Things have not gotten better, God’s covenantal community is still struggling to live in faithful relationships with God and with one another. The passage opens up with words by God to Isaiah, and it is clear God has seen enough and is ready to call God’s people out for their selfish and hurtful ways. God tells Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion.”
God’s people are worshiping God and think they are living a righteous life devoted to God, but it is clear the intent of their practices are actually about them, not about God. They claim to be worshiping God, but in reality the moments during worship and the moments outside of worship they are only focused on their self interest and not fully interested in their relationship with God and are not interested in a faithful relationship with the community they are called to support.
However, in their mind God’s people think they are going through all the right motions, and fasting and living a “righteous” life devoted to God. In the passage it seems they feel like God is not actually doing enough for them in response to their supposed righteousness. In verse 3 they ask God “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Bold questions of God, and as God responds to their questions, it seems they are oblivious to how their sinful nature is blinding them of their false righteous living.
GOD CALLS THEM OUT
“LOOK”—God says in response to their bold questions, the things you are doing in worship and in your life that you think are holy and righteous are only for your own interest. In fact on the day you fast, you also oppress all your workers. When you fast, you are doing so to fight, argue, and cause injustice to those in your community. God is proclaiming to them that their worship of God and their faith practices are anything but righteous because they are steeped in their own self interest and need of control over others.
God lays out to God’s people through Isaiah what true righteousness or faithful living looks like. God reminds them what the covenantal community that God created is all about. “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? 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.”
God is proclaiming that true righteousness and faithful living towards our relationships with God and one other is about love, humility, justice, and compassion, not power and self interest. God is reminding God’s people that true righteous living is a way of life that cares about relationships that exist in our life, especially those in God’s created community. Righteousness was a characteristic of God’s covenant community, which is why it is talked about a lot in the Old Testament. In the Psalms it proclaims that by living a life of love and humility or by walking in righteousness we come to God.
To be clear, for the reformed church, righteous living is not a test we must pass, or a prerequisite FOR life with God, but righteousness or faithful living is a step by step process OF life with God. Righteousness and faithful living based on love and humility grounds us back to the core of our covenant community. Meaning it grounds us back towards our relationship with God, and our calling to care for all of God’s created community.
I am sure all of us would acknowledge that our ideal world and community is one where all in the community are just as important as the other, and we all view each other equally in the way we give our time, compassion, and blessings. As we worship this night on Ash Wednesday, we remember the reality that our own self interest and sin, and others self interest and sin has caused a conflicted community. A questions to ponder tonight is what are things in our life that God would call us out on that are self driven and hurtful and is causing conflict in our relationships with God and one another? Maybe there are things or practices we need to fast from in our lives that are causing a barrier to faithful relationships with God’s covenantal community.
A WAY FORWARD
This year during lent we will be exploring A Way Forward in our relationships with God and one another. Specifically we will journey together over these next 40 days exploring spiritual practices that ground our relationship with God, and our relationship with God’s created community. Practices that will ground us toward righteous living. We will explore spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, confession, hospitality, spiritual reading, and Sabbath. In her book Soul Feast, a book we will study during Sunday School, Marjorie Thompson says that spiritual practices, “has to do with God’s ways of relating to us and our way of responding to God.” She writes, that our spiritual practices, “point to a path—to choices of belief, value commitments, patterns of life, and practices of faith that allow Christ to be formed in us.”
Tonight as we begin our Lenten journey and a way forward may we acknowledge our faults and sins in this world. May we turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel, allowing Christ to transform our conflicted relationships with God and one another to a life of righteous relationships with those in our covenantal community.
As we seek a way forward in our relationship with God and with one another may we seek to fast from the things and ways of the world that stand in the way of faithfully relating to God and God’s created community. As we remember tonight the frailty of our lives and relationships, and we are dust and dust we shall return, may we cling to old and new spiritual practices that will ground us in righteous and faithful living towards God and our covenant community. As we seek a way forward and turn from our sinful ways, may we all remember that God’s steadfast love will guide us continually, and God’s grace will satisfy our needs in those parched places and bring healing and wholeness to God’s covenantal community. Amen