Formations 02.14.2016: The Lenten Fast

Isaiah 58:6-14

Volunteers of America soup kitchen, Washington DC, 1936.

Volunteers of America soup kitchen, Washington DC, 1936.

The church of my childhood didn’t do Lent. The message that church conveyed—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—was that Lent and many other traditions of the wider church were nothing but empty ceremonialism that “real” Christians were better off avoiding.

It was a shock to me to find out that there were, in fact, Baptist churches that followed the Christian liturgical calendar, Lent included.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to read the Bible, where I learned that fasting was a common practice in both Testaments, and that it happened sometimes privately and individually and sometimes corporately as part of a group. (The members of the leadership group at Antioch were fasting together when God instructed them to set aside Paul and Barnabas for missionary work. If it was good enough for Paul, maybe it’s something I ought to think about!)

I also learned—and I admit I learned this as much from personal experience as from biblical study—that I’m not especially good at being holy or resisting temptation, so it would probably be a good idea for me to give special attention to these areas from time to time.

On this First Sunday in Lent, therefore, it is fitting that we explore a passage about fasting. It’s the kind of passage that speaks to the same concerns that motivated the church I grew up in. Rather than mere abstinence from food, the prophet declares that the fast God chooses involves abstinence from unjust behaviors—not for a season, but for all of life. When God’s people practice justice, they will experience the healing they need (v. 8). God will hear their prayers, guide them, and provide for their every need.

Discussion

• Is Lent part of your Christian discipleship? Has that always been the case?
• What specific acts does this passage enjoin upon God’s people?
• How can we put these things into practice today?
• Why is concern for the Sabbath (vv. 13-14) included in the things God calls the people to address?
• What does it mean when people strive to do good yet still face hardship?

Reference Shelf

Fasting

Fasting, abstaining from food and drink, was practiced by the people of the OT both individually and communally. Most fasts were occasional events, prompted by some crisis in the community or in the life of an individual. People fasted as a sign of mourning at the death of loved ones (l Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 1:12; 1 Chr 10:12).They fasted also in preparation for receiving divine revelations, as evidenced by the examples of Moses (Exod 34:28), Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8), and Daniel (Dan 9:3; 10:3). Individuals fasted as a means of gaining divine compassion or assistance in the belief that fasting reinforced the urgency of the appeal. This is why David fasted when his newborn child became mortally ill (2 Sam 12: 15-23). Ahab fasted as a sign of contrition and in hopes of winning God’s approval (1 Kgs 21 :27). Nehemiah fasted and made confession for the sins of the Jewish people (Neh 1:4). The author of Ps 35 recounts his experience of fasting and praying for others when they were sick (35:13).

Entire communities also fasted during times of distress or emergency. After the people of Israel had lost a costly battle to the Benjamites, they fasted for a day and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings to God (Judg 20:26). Samuel gathered the Israelites together at Mizpah for a fast as a sign of repentance and a plea to God for aid in their fight against the Philistines (1 Sam 7:6). Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah as a part of the people’s plea to God for assistance against their enemies (2 Chr 20:3). Ezra led the returning exiles in fasting and prayer as they sought God’s protection for their journey to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21 -23)….

Fasting, like other religious observances, was open to abuse. When practiced mechanically, apart from sincere repentance and prayer, fasting became a meaningless ritual. Several of the prophets speak words of warning and judgment against the abuse of fasting (Jer 14:11-12; Isa 58; Zech 7:5-7). Joel, on the other hand, calls for prayer and fasting from all the people as he urges them to repent (Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15).

Mitchell G. Reddish, “Fasting,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 296.

True Worship

In Isaiah 58, God admonishes Israel because of her sin. The passage indicts Israel for saying they are following God with her lips and then living a different lifestyle than they are professing….

In the second half of Isaiah 58, the writer/prophet offers two examples of how the people are to worship. First, the people are instructed on what true fasting really looks like. In vv. 6-12 true fasting is outlined. True fasting should be centered on others and not on our own need and is to be a time of drawing nearer to God. Verses 11-12 add a word of blessing for the person who enters into a fast for God with pure motivation. God promises to meet the person’s needs; they will be strengthened, and they will be a rebuilder of broken things. All three of these blessings have particular import for those who returned from the exile. To a people badly in need of hope and encouragement, Third Isaiah reminds them of where true hope lies—not in artificial acts of piety or show, but in true worship with acts of spiritual discipline designed to draw us nearer to God.

The second example of true worship offered by Third Isaiah is found in Isaiah 58:13-14. The people are instructed to honor the Sabbath. Three times in v. 13 they are instructed to make the Sabbath a special day for God. They are not to do their own thing or “what they please.” The Sabbath day is the weekly high holy day for the devout person who seeks to practice the Jewish faith. This simple command is foundational in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20 records more commentary and instruction on this command than any of the other commandments. A blessing is also added in Isaiah 58:14 to all who honor the Sabbath by keeping it holy or special. They will find joy in the Lord.

H. Wayne Ballard Jr., The Exile and Beyond, All the Bible (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014), 42–43.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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