Isaiah 58.1-12 & Matthew 6.1-6,16-21

Is this the fast that I choose,
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?

It's a funny business, Lent isn't it? A lot of Christians are really quite sceptical of it and some have taken it to extremes by giving up Lent for Lent. In the Church of Scotland, where I grew up, we didn't do Lent and neither do most of the reformed churches. Perhaps because of my Church of Scotland background, I had to be pretty convinced about it before I would observe Lent. And I have been convinced and yet each year my preconceptions about it are challenged. And this year again, God seems to have been challenging me about what I'm really doing during Lent. Honestly, is he never satisfied?
Well, that seems to have been the feeling of the people of Israel at the time our passage from Isaiah was written:
'Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?'
At the heart of this passage is the age-old problem of unanswered prayer. Since time immemorial, people have had a sense of being at the mercy of a power or powers greater than themselves and we have called that god or "the gods". And from the earliest times, we have tried to get this god or these gods to be a bit kinder to us and in order to do that, we need to get ourselves noticed.
And the obvious way to do that is to please the gods and essentially humanity has always tried the same old tricks to achieve this: sacrifice, fasting and religious ritual.
The principle behind sacrifice is simple. You give the gods something they like and they'll be happy. At best they'll reward you (a sort of divine Thank You Note) and at worst, you hope that you're gift will put them in a better mood so that they'll be less likely to get bored or moody and look around for someone to smite in order to pass the time.
Its' a practise we still see today. There is still a remnant of the old churchgoing that's basically about pleasing God. "I've been going to church for 40 years and on the cleaning rota too! Surely God must be satisfied with that. What more does he want?" Or we see it coming out at times of death too. People who ignore God for the vast majority of their lives suddenly come to church (just the once!) after the funeral of a loved-one or on the anniversary of their death - just to keep God on side.
But lest we are tempted to laugh at the silliness of these heathen, we had better recognise that we - the enlightened, the born-again, the true elect - we do the same thing! It's almost impossible not to: when you give a little more generously this week, when do something kind, when you refrain from sin, don't you catch yourself, deep down, thinking "I'm in credit for that one"? "All these years spent refraining from debauchery - surely he's going to reward me for that!"
The trouble is, Jesus says, that if you think like that, you've already received your reward. I used to tie myself in knots over this as a young Christian. Every time I made the right choice between temptation and righteousness, I found myself thinking "that's one in the bank for when I get to heaven. Doh! I've done it again - had my reward already. Need to start all over again." Every time I stored up some treasure in heaven, I'd get all smug about it and lose my reward! So every time I did something for God I would desperately try not to notice in the hope that it might just stick in the bank long enough to be there for me in heaven! And the more you try not to notice something…the more obsessed you become by it.
And I had really big trouble when I went forward for ordination, because then I was really giving stuff up wasn't I? Just last week I was telling you in pious tones how good it felt to give up my safe profession and my steady income to go into ministry and I gave myself a public pat on the back for it, but there was another side to it, you know. Because inwardly I got smugger than ever before God. "You really owe me now God!" And outwardly I became even more miserly with the material things I had left "Come off it God, surely I've given up enough already?"
But the trouble is, says Jesus, that if that's how you're thinking about things, all you're doing is investing, not sacrificing. You're still dealing in the treasure of this world. You're expecting God to reward you for giving up the things of this world because you still think the things of this world are somehow treasure. And where your treasure is, there your heart is also. But it's not real treasure. The real treasure, as we were saying last week, is the kingdom of heaven. It's about living in relationship with God in his loving eternity and experiencing the pure joy of the one true way to live.
For Jesus, sacrifice was not about giving stuff up to please God, but about laying aside the valueless rubbish that we consider treasure and taking up the real treasure. The problem is that we don't see the real treasure because we're blinded by sin. And that brings me on to fasting.
Because humanity pretty quickly realised that God didn't particularly take notice of their sacrifices. "Why not? It must be because he's angry with my sin - that's why he's not accepting my sacrifice." The story of Cain and Abel is the classic text on this one. So we purge ourselves to atone for our sin. Sackcloth, ashes, fasting and self-flagellation are all ways of trying to convince God that we're sorry for our sins in the hope that he'll feel sorry for us and let us off. And they're also ways of training us to avoid sin rather like Pavlov trained his dog. "If I can make my mind associate naughty thoughts with nasty punishments maybe I can stop the naughty thoughts dead in their tracks!" But, as God reminds us in Isaiah, that's no use either.
Is this 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?
We can't just carry on being sinful and expecting to get away with it afterwards by doing penance. If we're really sorry, we need to change the way we live. We need to root out sin completely. But we're in a catch 20/20 here though aren't we? Because one of the problems in our society is that we have almost the opposite attitude to the people of the Old Testament. So, when bad things happen to us, instead of wondering whether our own way of living might have contributed to it, we expect to live as we please and still to have God look after us. And when bad things happen to us, we blame the God we didn't believe in anyway!
But actually, the old attitude does still exist. Think if carbon offsetting, for example. We can pollute all we want, so long as we pay someone else to plant some trees somewhere in the third world to offset the pollution we create. It's the classic old fasting attitude again. But it doesn't work. We need to acknowledge that our sin is at the root of the problem, but need to respond by rooting out sin completely- changing the way we live.
And that brings us to religious ritual. Religious ritual was traditionally a way of separating good from evil. Out of the muck of this world, we set aside a special place and a special way of behaving that is good and pure and undefiled. That's why you can't run in church, or take out pews, or change the liturgy, because religion has to be separated from ordinary things. It has to be otherworldly and holy. It's also why we used to sacrifice virgins and avoid touching lepers (and a whole list of other people who might make us ritually unclean): it's basically the same thought process and it's completely wrong. True religion, as Isaiah reminds us, is to feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked. And, as Jesus reminds us, it's primarily about our relationship with our Father in heaven and doing his will. So it is very much about the muck of this world: engaging with it to transform it.
The trouble with separating the religious from the muck is that we actually belong to the muck. So when we take that attitude, we discover that we're being thrown out onto the dung hill, not sitting in the pearly splendour.
So I get back to where I started: is there nothing I can do to please God? No, actually, there isn't. Why? Because my sin means that my every impulse sends me off at a wrong tangent. I'm approaching it all the wrong way. I'm still sacrificing for reward later. I'm still fasting for show. I'm still practising a religion that is divorced from the realities of life. And however hard I try, I keep doing it.
So is there no hope? Oh yes, there's hope all right. Why? Because the real sacrifice, the real fast and the real religion are all done for me by Jesus. And my part in this is as easy as it can be: to receive it as a gift. We can't please God through our own efforts, but then again we don't have to either. It has already been done for us.
You know, the supreme irony of this passage from Isaiah 58, is that it was written in the aftermath of the Exile in Babylon. God has just saved his people from the greatest catastrophe of their existence: certain oblivion. And he has restored to them an impossible dream: they are back in the home they thought they'd never see again. They have just experienced one of the greatest miracles of human history and they're asking God why he doesn't notice them, or answer their prayer or accept their fast. Wake up people! Look at what he has done!
But the same is true of us. We want to know why God is silent, why he doesn't act, and yet the very word Christian means that we follow Jesus. Jesus, whose name means "God saves" - in Jesus God has already answered our prayer, already reached out to us, already done everything we need. And he has already told us what he wants from us. And it's so easy: love him back and love his people; prize what he's given us and treat the rest as rubbish. Get rid of it from your life and live his life instead. We try so much rubbish to get God to notice us and we don't notice that he's already noticed us.
If God seems far away, you have to ask yourself "who's moved?" If we want to be close to God, then we can do it by noticing what he's already doing and joining in - by feeding the hungry, by welcoming people into our homes (as we will be doing during our Lent course), by covering the naked. We're close to God when we stop pointing the finger and speak well of each other instead of speaking evil. Then your light will sine like the noonday. Then we will call upon him and he will say "here I am."
That's the fast that makes the difference. So what does it mean for my Lenten fast? Well, whatever I choose for my fast this year, it has to do some good to others, it has to cast off some of the rubbish I previously thought was my treasure and, above all, it has to make space for me to receive the true treasure.

Preached: Bolton (joint service), Ash Wednesday 2011