Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday Reading | Isaiah | Repenting of How We Speak

Isaiah 58:1-12

58Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such 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? 6Is 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? 7Is 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?

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

It seems seldom commented on, but worth commenting on, that Isaiah has an additional strong ethical concern in this passage to the ones most commentators point out. There is certainly concern for the poor, the widow, the oppressed worker, and the orphan. That goes almost without saying, and is more frequently noted. But Isaiah is equally concerned with this list:

a) The pointing of the finger
b) The speaking of evil
c) You fast only to quarrel and fight
d) Not to hide yourself from your own kin

The writings of the New Testament are also quite concerned with these sins of the mouth, these sins against community and relationship. James has great concern for the damage the tongue can do. Many of the instructions in Paul's and other letters deal with things like:

a) hypocrisy
b) slander
c) gossip
d) division in the church
e) Speaking that which will build up
f) not grumbling about each other, but rather,
g) praying for each other
h) and most importantly, maybe, confessing sin to each other, and
i) forgiving each other

One might also note that Jesus did not find the Pharisees to be greater sinners than other people, but rather, their great weakness was hypocrisy and show, so the language they used for worship ended up functioning as a cover for their sin, whereas those who were known sinners (though not greater or lesser sinners) were in a better position because their sin had already been named and they had no language to cover it with.

Maybe a good way to make this clear is to consider the greatest commandment. It is, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." If we change this just slightly to focus on the language we use, it would read, "Worship and pray to God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind; and speak as well of your neighbor as yourself." The language we use towards God and towards our neighbor are inextricably linked. When we begin to gossip and speak ill of our neighbor, our worship of God is weakened. When we lack faith and stop trusting God, our speaking of our neighbor will be less faithful as well.

I find the following verse especially convicting. Isaiah writes, "You fast only to quarrel and to fight." Is it possible that we get involved in battles over how we worship, what we do in worship, how we organize church, etc., and in so doing a lot of energy is expended that could be spent on caring for the poor and building up our neighbors, fellow Christians, and family? Is it even possible that we get in these fights on purpose, and get distracted by our method of fasting, as a way to avoid direct communication with God, and forgiving communication with our neighbor?

The restoration of the church and of Christian community in Christ is promised to look like those last few verses of the above quote from Isaiah--a restored city, strong bones, a watered garden. The church (and individual Christians) that will lead the way and shine like this will lead through repentance. It will begin with the language used between church members and in worship; it will result in the care that church shines on the poor, the oppressed worker, the widow, and the orphan. It will burst forth in praise of God, who has given us the Word made flesh, a Word breathed and enlivened by the Spirit. It will end in us speaking well of and directly to each of our neighbors, always speaking the truth in love.

On this Ash Wednesday, let us take these words of Isaiah to heart, trust in Christ as the authentic Word, the Word that should guide all the words we speak to each other and to God. Let us turn from our sin, repent, and seek Christ's forgiveness.
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