OT Lectionary 9th Feb Lent -4 Isaiah 58:1-12

What’s in it for me?

Of course, now that we’re in Ordinary Time most of my dear readers will be taking the opportunity legally to construct their own teaching series (as suggested in my How to … Preach Strategically Grove Worship Series W211. http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/cart.php?target=product&product_id=17550&substring= ) But for those sticking to the lectionary, here’s some thoughts on the OT reading for next Sunday.

We’re four Sundays away from Lent, but this passage from Is 58 has a distinctly Lenten feel to it, with its talk of fasting and practical good works. As in much of this section of Isaiah there is a feel of post-exile ennui: we’ve been through the tough times, God miraculously rescued us, but now what? Life is no longer lived in a foreign land, under oppressive rulers, that ‘wartime spirit’ is no longer necessary, thank God, but yet we still somehow miss it. So what are we supposed to be doing with ourselves?

What we see behind these words is a bunch of people who have turned to religion. They seem to be doing the kinds of things which they believe God likes, fasting and praying, for example. But they nevertheless sense his absence. We’ve done the right stuff, but you just haven’t noticed, O Lord.

God’s immediate response, through the prophet, is to call them ‘rebellious’. Yes, they are going through the motions, but there is no depth, and no practical care either for one another or for the poor and oppressed people who have presumably escaped Babylonian exile only to live as slaves in their own land. The prophet lists some practical things the people ought to be doing (v 6-10a), and the results in terms of God’s blessing if they do start living better. The images of blessing are strangely both rural and urban: flourishing in a desert land, but also rebuilding streets and houses from the ruins of desolation.

I am struck once again by the unashamed appeal of the Bible to reward as a motivator for good works. Protestant Christianity doesn’t find this easy: paradoxically Ignatius Loyola is our hero:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;

to give and not to count the cost;

to fight and not to heed the wounds;

to toil and not to seek for rest;

to labour and not to ask for any reward,

save that of knowing that we do your will.

Yet the Bible is full of promises of reward for those who obey God wholeheartedly, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount, which uses the word ‘reward’ nine times. As we approach Lent it is easy to begin planning how we might make our lives just a little bit more miserable for a few weeks, but true fasting, according to Isaiah, is both practical in its care for others and unashamedly keen on getting something for ourselves out of it. So now might not be a bad time to begin thinking about what we’re hoping for this Lent, and how we might go about living and praying in order to get it.

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