*** a sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 and John 60:30-35, 41***
Today is the beginning of Lent – a 4o day period of repentance and fasting as we prepare for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection in which we focus on our relationship with God, often giving up something as a sign of our desire to walk the way of suffering and sacrifice with Christ.
For many of us, this is not a new commitment; not a new journey. Many of us have, in fact, grown up in homes and churches where the Lenten language is familiar and fasting is common practice. Really, even the secular world now recommends that people participate in this Christian custom because of the health benefits associated with abstaining from certain meals or food groups.
So, at the beginning of this well-worn, world-sanctioned season, let us acknowledge that, like the Israelites, we are well-practiced in these particular religious rituals: we lament in loud voices, we come forward for the imposition of ashes with sad faces, we dress somberly, we dismiss our colleagues’ invitations to lunch with an offhand “I can’t. It’s Lent. I’m fasting.”
But often, like the Israelites, our outward actions do not reflect our inner state. Truth be told, we feel smug in our self-imposed suffering; proud of ourselves for our willpower, our discipline, our sacrifice. And just below the often-authentic desire to repent, to be different, lurks the unconfessed belief that God will owe us something good for what we’re putting ourselves through, for doing the right thing.
And yet, like the Israelites who went through the right religious motions, we miss the point of this period, of this practice, and the fast we offer is not really the kind of fast that God desires.
Sure, we may cut out sugar, but that means nothing if our lives lack the sweetness of God’s love. We may give up caffeine, but it’s pointless when we still cling to to our grudges, our disagreements, our prejudice. We may go without meat, but what does that matter when we show no concern for those who go without bread, without shelter, without dignity, without justice on a daily basis? We may even waive all but one meal a day, but if we won’t abandon our ambitions, our pride, our busyness it’s all for nothing.
This struggle is not a new thing. Even Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, wrote in the 4th century to the Christian community of the time:
“Do not limit the benefit of fasting to the abstinence of food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbour, forgive him his offenses. Do not let your fasting lead to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults – so all the labour of your fast is useless.”
How do we get it so wrong? And how do we, on this first day of Lent, put aside the “right” religious rituals to which we have become so accustomed and enter into a true spirit of sacrifice and penitence?
Our Scripture reading from John’s Gospel holds the key.
The story is set after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 where the crowd wants to crown Jesus as king, and a time of teaching at the Feast of the Tabernacles where the crowd wants to kill him for preaching against the legalism that binds them in favor of what God really wants.
In the conversation with those who have followed him hungry for more, the question from the people reveals their preoccupation with their history, with the beliefs and practices of their ancestors handed down over many generations: “What miracle will you do?” they ask him. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So what will you do?”
Jesus shocks, and even offends some of them, by explaining that he is the real miracle – the true bread sent from heaven to give his life for the world.
It is a disruptive moment in which Jesus challenges their tradition, their faith; in which he proclaims that they should not be following Moses, a man who worked miracles, but God in heaven who made such miracles possible. He contests their tendency to follow after that which is temporary and unsustainable while that which is transformative and eternal is right in front of them. He opposes their desire to be satisfied – to be full – by revealing that it is only in the brokenness of his body and the giving of his life that they can enter into the abundant and the everlasting.
Perhaps our preoccupation with tradition is why our fast fails; for instead of fixing our eyes on our Father in heaven, we focus on that song, that ritual, that preacher who – for a moment – made us feel satisfied.
Perhaps it is our infatuation with the tangible: we fast from food, from television, from Facebook, from the things that we can physically give up rather than the powers that possess our minds and our spirits – the lust, the fear, the hatred that has taken hold in our hearts.
Perhaps it is our absolute lack of understanding that the fullness of life is not found by mourning and praying and fasting for forty days but in a costly and ongoing commitment to the broken and shared life of Christ… which is why so many of his listeners grumbled. They wanted a ready supply of food for their stomachs, not a lifetime of sacrifice and surrender. And, honestly, are we any different?
This year, may the Lenten invitation be clear: not just to fast for the sake of fasting, or because that’s what we think good Christians do, or because we hope to earn God’s favor going forward for the rest of the year; but rather to feast on Christ, to feed on the eternal, to nourish our souls with God’s Word, to spend time in his presence, to open ourselves up to uncomfortable conversations, to make ourselves vulnerable and available to that broken and shared life, and to be surprised by the abundance…
of joy that emerges when this season centers around the Bread of Life and the fullness of life on offer in Christ.
A true fast starts with and is sustained by feasting on the One who gave up all that we would never be hungry, never be thirsty. Will you grumble and complain, or partake and eat in the Feast that is set before you?