Isaiah 58:1-9

When All Else Fails,
Follow the Directions

Dr. Keith Wagner

One time we purchased a new steam cleaner. It looked simple enough, so I started putting it together. I had to make several trips to the tool box because I didn’t bother to see what tools were needed to assemble it. I finally got frustrated because I had some parts that didn’t seem to go anywhere. At one point I had to disassemble the cleaner and start over. I finally decided to give in and read the directions. In a matter of minutes I was able to complete the task. Hmm.

I am sure you have heard the phrase, “When all else fails, follow the directions.” It seems we humans are a bit stubborn when it comes to asking for help. We tend to rely on our own resources. We are simply too proud to ask others for assistance. Yet we make mistakes and sometimes choose the wrong path because we fail to follow the directions.

Isaiah was speaking to people who weren’t following directions. Their religion had failed to live up to the high calling of service, ministry and love. They were more eager to obey the laws and practices of their religion rather than help their neighbors. The people of Israel included the art of fasting as a symbol of their goodness. The ritual involved sack cloths and ashes, but beyond that there wasn’t any significant change in their lifestyle.

Ash Wednesday has always been a problem for me. Some churches practice the ritual of placing ashes on people’s foreheads but the tradition here at St. Paul’s has been a service of communion. I believe the scriptures support an internal cleansing as opposed to an external expression of one’s faith. A person can wear a cross on a chain around their neck, attach the “FISH” symbol on the back of their car or even carry a Bible wherever they go. Real faith, however has to do with how we treat our neighbors and each other.

As God’s agent, Isaiah, challenged the Israelites’ acts of fasting because their behavior included false humility, quarreling and even fighting. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” Isaiah said. According to Isaiah it was not a matter of going through some routine ritual, like changing our diets for a period of six weeks. God has different directions for us. God wants genuine repentance and genuine reform. What the Israelites needed to be doing was aiding the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?”

God was disturbed by Israel’s lack of social justice. Their fasting had become a means to boast of their righteousness rather than live out a faith where one cares for one’s neighbor. Today, however few people fast or observe Ash Wednesday. In fact, more attention is given to “Fat Tuesday,” than the observances during Lent.

On Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday as it is also called, people in New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras. It is basically one huge party where thousands of people get drunk and “pig out” on food and drink. This year, Mardi Gras came only two days after the Super Bowl, another “big party” of the year where people also “pig out” on food and drink. The party spirit has become an acceptable ritual in society. On the other hand, rituals that promote self-denial have become almost extinct.

Our society seems to have distanced itself from significant religious observances like Ash Wednesday and Lent. Instead it has used religion as an excuse for self indulgence. If you’ve been to the stores lately you will discover they are already gearing up for Easter. Some folks haven’t taken down their Christmas lights yet, but the stores are preparing us for yet another great religious party, Easter.

I apologize if I sound a bit cynical. Unfortunately the Church has not found a way to keep our religion relevant in today’s world. Who do you know who is willing to give up some of life’s pleasures for forty days? The party spirit simply overwhelms any attempt to practice self-denial or personal sacrifice. The secular world has kidnapped some of our Christian festivals and others have been totally abandoned because they are not centered around the self centered notion of “eat, drink and be merry.”

Isaiah had the same problem during his day. He said:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.”

One of the problems with the people of Isaiah’s day is that they used the fasting ritual as a means of saving money. But, it was at the expense of the common laborer. Those in the business world would avoid work for a period of time but this meant that their employees went without income during the fast. It put an economic burden on the common laborer. In other words they used “the fast” as an excuse to eliminate their pay rolls. They had a hidden agenda which benefitted some at the expense of others.

But, for us to point our fingers at those who are indifferent is one thing that Isaiah wants us to guard against. In other words, to take issue with others is not the direction we are to follow. Nor are we to bring attention to ourselves by making some religious statement. People outside the faith can easily call us hypocritical unless the faith we practice sets a higher standard for society.

“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?”

Isaiah has given us directions that have nothing to do with religious ritual or piety. They refer to the very basic foundation of our faith, “to love others as we love ourselves.” Isaiah wants us to choose a life of love over fasting because he promises that God will take care of us. If we continue to read on in this chapter we read that by following Isaiah’s directions,

“The Lord will guide us continually,
satisfy our needs in parched places
and make our bones strong.

We will be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.” (Is. 58:11)

Jesus also addressed this problem of using religious practices as a substitute for loving our neighbors. In Matthew 6:1-18 he said,

“Beware of practicing your piety before others
in order to be seen by them…

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues
and at the street corners.”

He goes on to say,

“And whenever you fast,
do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,
for they disfigure their faces
so as to show others that they are fasting.

But when you fast, put
oil on your head and wash your face,
so that your fasting may be seen not by others
but by your Father who is in secret.”

Just as the carpet cleaner gets the stains out of the carpet, Jesus wants us to get the stains out of our lives. To compensate for their failure to follow directions, Jesus told his followers that forgiveness is at the heart of what they should be about. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14) If we can’t forgive, then our religion is void and meaningless. Like Isaiah, Jesus presented believers with a set of directions that were being ignored. Just as my attempt to assemble the carpet cleaner was futile without directions, so is practicing our faith.

A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Thanks for your good work––a real life saver for me and, I pray, a life builder for my congregants.”

So, this evening you have made the choice to begin the Lenten season by sharing from this table. By participating in the sacrament of communion you are making the connection with Jesus and his disciples at the last supper. It is a ritual we observe, not to boast of our righteousness but to confess our sins and our need of forgiveness. May we leave this table with a clean heart, having received the forgiveness of Christ. And may the lives we live embody the love of Christ. When all else fails may we truly be able to say that we, at the very least, have followed the directions.

––Copyright, 2005, Dr. Keith Wagner. Used by permission.