Trinity School for Ministry—Isaiah 58:1-12
Ash Wednesday is about facing the fact that we are sinners, all living under a sentence of death. We’re not sinners because of how we’ve lived our lives, although we have all said and done things which give ample testimony to that fact. Rather, it’s a matter of simply having been born a human being, a condition inherited from our primeval forebears who opted to put themselves in the place of God.
We will, in a few minutes, receive a black mark on our foreheads as a reminder of our sinfulness and our mortality. Then, the rest of Lent—the rest of our lives, actually—will be devoted to walking the road that God tells us leads out of our universal human predicament, the road that leads to redemption and immortality. Part of that road leads through a territory called repentance. Before we receive our black marks, we’re going to do some public repenting. We’re going to get down on our knees and tell God we’re sorry for a whole bunch of things. We may or may not actually feel sorry, but we’re going to look and sound like we are. God, we can rest assured, sees what we do here, and hears what we say. We might well ask ourselves, how does the knowledge that God is looking in on us affect what we do and say?
I once listened to a prominent radio talk show host debate with himself on the air on whether to allow C-Span television cameras into his radio studio for a day. He was afraid that C-Span’s viewers would not actually see him and his staff as they normally are, but that people would dress differently and act differently and generally play to the camera. The knowledge that we are “ever walking in [God’s] sight” certainly does tempt us to “play to the camera.” “Look, God, I’m actually on my knees! And listen to the long list of things I’m sorry for; isn’t it impressive?” We want God to see. We want God to notice. And we’re distressed by the possibility that he might not be as impressed with us as we are with ourselves. In the words of Isaiah, paraphrasing the sentiments of his contemporaries, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Such words betray the insincerity of those who mouth them. Repentance is a show, and God is the audience, and if he’s not looking at the stage, then why bother?
If our reason for being here on this occasion is to impress God, then we may as well adjourn right now and go do something more worthwhile. Then again, maybe there’s enough of an emotional payoff from the act of saying we’re sorry for our sins that it’s still worth doing even if God may be looking the other way. It was once said that the job of a preacher is to “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em feel religious.” Just “feeling religious” can be kind of comforting in a vague sort of way, can’t it? Maybe if we can’t impress God, we can at least impress ourselves with an occasional display of piety. The problem with feeling religious, however, is that it is entirely subjective—focused on my feelings, my experience, what I want and need.
Through the pen of Isaiah, God pronounces judgment on this kind of repentance which is turned in on itself, concerned with “feeling religious”:
Is 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?
No, if our repentance is wrapped up either in the notion that God is approvingly watching what we do today, or in the warm feelings of religious piety that we will experience when we receive ashes and spend a long time on our knees, then it is not really repentance at all. Authentic repentance, the sort of repentance that is pleasing to the Lord, is found in the ordinary daily living of our lives, the extent to which our behavior is a reflection of God’s righteousness and God’s justice. Isaiah continues:
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 to free, and to
break every yoke? Is 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?
At the risk of saying something so self-evident as to sound almost corny, living in God’s righteousness and justice can be as simple as practicing the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I have, during my adult life, been both a landlord and a tenant. In fact, I still am a landlord. I like to think that, walking in both pairs of shoes as I have done, having been a landlord made me a better tenant, and having been a tenant makes me a better landlord. Stephen Covey, the late author of the best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests an exercise that I find both wholesome and challenging, and this is, when involved in conflict, to work on expressing your opponent’s position better than he or she can do so. That is living in righteousness and justice. Simple honesty and fairness—honesty in fairness with family members, honesty and fairness with fellow members of the church, honesty and fairness in our business dealings—this is living in righteousness and justice.
But it also has a social dimension. Our personal morality may be beyond reproach, but we are also participants in social structures that are systemically unrighteous and unjust. We cannot right all the wrongs in the world, nor does God expect us to make that our primary aim in life. But God himself is in the business of righting wrongs, and it would be a good idea to make sure that, when he engages in that sort of activity, we are not one of the wrongs he rights! It would be embarrassing. I wonder how the Christian owners of dilapidated rental properties, just to cite one example, sleep at night with that knowledge. Perhaps the most important thing that a citizen of a democracy can do keep a clear conscience in the area of social righteousness and justice is to vote responsibly. I am not advocating, nor will I ever publicly advocate, a particular political philosophy. (I have one, but it’s not only not my job to share it, it’s my job to not share it, if you can see the distinction, and I would entreat those of you in or headed for pastoral ministry to adopt the same self-imposed restriction on your public speech.) I honestly believe it is possible to be either a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican and a good Christian. But whatever philosophy you adopt, make sure it is grounded in moral considerations that are truly Christian, and not merely a reflection of your own self-interest.
Our faith is a sacramental faith, so outward displays are important. It is good that we are here today doing what we’re doing. But we are walking a dangerous road if our outward display is only that, an outward display. Our faith is also a spiritual faith, a religion of the heart, concerned with the interior life. We are walking a dangerous road, though, if our spiritual exercises on this occasion do nothing more than make us “feel religious.” But if our outward display, and our inward feelings, combine to produce words and actions that are consistent with God’s own righteousness and justice, listen to what Isaiah says will be the result:
Then your light will 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. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”
Who could ask for anything more?