Perhaps a good way to usher in Christmas this year (today is what is called the first Sunday of Advent) would be with fasting—a change of pace from the wild office party. In the incarnation of Jesus, the widow Anna set a good example of worshiping the Lord in the temple, “fasting,” and waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38). At the very least the coming of God to the world demands the contrition of humankind to receive him. Isaiah 57:15 reminds us that God dwells in the high and holy place but also “with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” This spirit is best captured by genuine humility and lowly fasting.
The real servant of Yahweh (not Cyrus or the nation of Israel) would come and die a vicarious death (Isaiah 52, 53). This would establish peace and bring the success of Yahweh’s word (Isaiah 54, 55). This in turn would lead to the salvation of the nations (Isaiah 56). Therefore Israel should put away all idolatry (Isaiah 57) and give themselves in humility to Yahweh (Isaiah 58).
But Israel’s eagerness to know and serve God was only skin deep. They were still just going through the forms of religion. They were more into spiritual theatrics so that God would notice them. Isaiah had to call them out for their hypocrisy. He would raise his voice like a trumpet (ram’s horn). He would declare (make known) their rebellion (transgression).
On the surface Israel seemed eager to follow God’s ways. They pretended to do what was right and tried to look as if they were not forsaking the commands of God. They even asked for just decisions (righteous judgments). For all intents and purposes they seemed like they wanted God to come near. Israel looked like they wanted God to notice their “righteousness.” In reality all their religious activities gave God a first-class yawn. He was not impressed with their pretended piety.
Israel’s seeming eagerness to follow God was really an excuse for doing as they pleased. Originally the only day of fasting in Israel’s history was perhaps the Day of Atonement in the fall (Leviticus 16:29, 31). On that day Israel was to “humble” (afflict) themselves, which might imply fasting. This evidently got practiced later in a more regular manner (Zechariah 7:3, 5; 8:19). But even fasting on special days was not enough to cause God to overlook the way they exploited their workers (Deuteronomy 24:14, 15; James 5:1-6) and gave themselves to quarreling and strife. To make matters worse they became violent, striking each other with wicked fists. They thought that God would pay special attention to them if they looked contrite and lay in sackcloth and ashes. But God cannot be fooled. Isaiah’s question is convicting: “Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
In contrast to Israel’s hypocritical fasting, through Isaiah God redefined fasting for his people. He marked out for them a type of fasting that went all the way to the bone in authenticity. It has within it the emphasis of Matthew 6:1, 16-18. Abstaining from food to have more time to pray and seek God’s will is noble. But inner righteousness joined with the spirit of authentic fasting will show up in outer acts of justice.
Authentic fasting is made known through enabling freedom and acts of liberation (Isaiah 58:6). God’s people should work to loose (open) the chains of injustice (wickedness). Where there are unjust cords of a yoke (bars restricting the oppressed—cf. verse 10 where we read satisfy the needs of the oppressed) believers should act to bring God’s mercy (Isaiah 42:1-4). Notice how close to this calling is the Messiah’s mission (Luke 4:18, 19).
Authentic fasting is made known through proactive benevolence (Isaiah 58:7). Sharing (dividing or breaking) food with the hungry—later in verse 10 it says spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry, providing the poor wanderer (homeless) with shelter, clothing the naked, and not turning away your own flesh and blood (fellow Israelite)—were all parts of authentic fasting (cf. Matthew 25:31-46; James 1:27).
When authentic fasting is embraced God’s people can experience God’s genuine healing. No less than six things are promised when false fasting is jettisoned. Light will break forth like the dawn (maybe similar to creation), healing will appear, righteousness will go before you (be your vanguard), the glory of the Lord willfollow them (even as it led them in the wilderness), prayers will be answered, and the night will become like the noonday (as in the Holy City, Revelation 22:5). Before the feasting of Christmas, give yourselves to authentic fasting.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Lesson study ©2018, Christian Standard Media. Lesson based on The Lookout’s Scope and Sequence ©2018. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.