You know the routine when you go to the hospital for any procedure. “Don't eat anything after midnight.” Most of us can comply with that simple directive until morning. I've noticed a few places they've added “No breakfast” to the “Don't eat anything after midnight” mantra apparently because some people just don't get it.
NURSE: Ok, Mr. What'syername did you eat anything after midnight?
MR.WHAT'SYERNAME: No ma'am I didn't, went straight to bed ate nothing all night and only had coffee and waffles at breakfast time.
Kind of missed the point didn't he.
This morning I want to talk to you once again about fasting with three questions and three answers. And I want to start with the first question, “How can I ruin a perfectly good fast?” And I'll give you a hint, eating something has nothing to do with it. Please open your Bible to Isaiah chapter 58.
Now then, please stand as you are able in honor of the reading of God's word. (Read Isaiah 58:1-14).
How to ruin a perfectly good fast? vv1-5
The whole chapter and indeed the next chapter are wrapped around the same problem. The people of Israel were, to a certain extent, “doing all the right things” and yet for some reason their religion wasn't helping them at all. And the reason is firmly embedded in Isaiah 58:1 and 59:2. They were fasting, praying and whatever else they were doing but they were certainly not repenting. They honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him (Isaiah 29:13)
So here's how to ruin a perfectly good fast: Make it religious instead of righteous.
Religion, according to Karl Marx, is the opiate of the masses. I agree. Don't get me wrong; if we define religion as being synonymous with Christianity than that would be false, but religion as we understand it is not synonymous with Christianity. Christianity involves a personal relationship with The true and living God through Jesus Christ. Religion is the acting out of ritual as if it pleases God, or more than likely as it pleases ourselves.
Religion is the perfect way to ruin a perfectly good fast. You can do all the right things, in the right order with the wrong heart and it's the wrong heart that will nail you every time. The people of Israel had religion down pat. They could do the ritual and they could make it look good but in the end, God calls on Isaiah to be blunt, honest, and loud to the people about their sins, because it doesn't matter if you fast, go to church, wear nice clothes, attend prayer meeting or speak from a pulpit, or teach a Sunday school class or give lots of money in the offering plate. If you harbor sin and you refuse to let go of it than you need to know that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that he does not hear.”
Religion without repentance is useless.
And the people had figured out the useless part. They come to God complaining in verse 3, “Why have we fasted but you don't even notice?” So God tells them.
The only reason they were fasting was to try and coerce God to give them something. And when they fasted they were just going hungry, they weren't concerned with the things God was concerned about; things like giving their workers justice and living in harmony with others. So much the opposite really. On the day they fasted they looked for their own pleasures, and they fought and bickered to the point of fist fighting. Oh, yeah – a happy bunch of hypocrites they were. It's a good thing we don't act like that.
Or do we? How many of us will finish church this morning which is our “act of worship” and then argue on the way home? How many of us argued all the way here? Have we come to church to seek after God today, or to help us feel better about ourselves? Did we sing the worship songs because we really dig the tune, or because it was an expression of our hearts of love, gratitude and utter dependence upon God?
What's going on in your heart in the midst of your religion? Are you wasting your time and God's because you've got this secret sin you're hanging on to and yet you're praying, singing and coming to church, your fasting, feasting or seeking to serve God but you're not going to let go of that sin? Let me just say it again: Religion without repentance is useless. And if you don't repent God will literally shut his ears to your every prayer.
So what do we need to do to make it a success?
How to succeed with a perfectly good fast? vv6-7
Short answer: Make it righteous instead of religious.
How do you do that? First I'd say it's time to do a heart check. Why are you fasting? Are you fasting to feel good? Or step outside of fasting, think about the 'religious' things we do. Did you come to church today to encounter God or because you're hoping you'll enjoy the service. Let me ask you for just a moment, what is it that makes a service “enjoyable?”
We instinctively know the answer. Someone might answer, “I enjoy a service when the music is the type I like and the teaching is vibrant, energetic and I don't feel like drifting off to sleep.” Now just consider how selfish that answer is. That's not an answer wrapped around seeking God. That's an answer about seeking your own pleasure. Because church is suddenly not about God it's about you.
Moms, how many of you have given up a night's rest to sit beside the bed of a little one who was sick? How many of you have expressed in a time of a child's need that you would gladly endure what they endure so that they would have comfort instead of complaint? It is in a mother's golden nature (prov31) to sacrifice herself for the sake of her children. How much more should we recognize this principle in terms of fasting.
Fasting, in Isaiah 58 is given a greater purpose of sacrifice and selflessness. This fast, unlike every fast before it is not a fast for our own or other's spiritual benefit, but it is a display of true love to forgo a meal so that someone who may not otherwise have one could eat. For love is not expressed merely in the saying of sweet things as clearly as it is expressed in the willingness to endure hardship without complaining for the sake of another.
Look at the list he gives in Isaiah 58:6-7. Let's get this first thing straight: Isaiah isn't replacing the external observances of 58:2 with external observances of 58:6ff. He is pointing to the behaviors which indicate a faith which cares about the same things God cares about. In other words the externals like going to church and fasting and praying and singing really loud don't mean a thing without a changed heart! But the things like honestly caring about sin and seeking to undo it's influence, delivering the oppressed, and getting involved with those in bondage in order to break that bondage, helping the hungry because you love them, and sacrificially giving of what you have for the sake of others these things are indications not of rituals followed but of true repentance that has been found in your heart.
Those are the things, not because they are done but because of why their done, they sincerely grab hold of God's attention. God looks at a fast like that and says, “what can I do for you?” So let's answer that question. What will God do for you in response to religious observance born not of ritual but of righteousness?
What can you gain from a perfectly good fast? vv8-14
Just look at this list, it's dauntingly beautiful in it's comprehensiveness. (Read Isaiah 58:8-12,13-14)
He says, Your light will break out like the dawn. That word “Break out” is like an egg splitting open. Go crack an egg and watch how it all the stuff inside cannot help but come out. Have you ever watched the sun rise? Dawn creeps slowly but when the sun actually crests the horizon light floods everywhere. What is your light? Righteousness.(Isa. 58:8,10; Isa. 60:1,3; Matt. 5:16). Jesus talks about our light, our Good Deeds shining before men so they can see our Good works and glorify our Father in Heaven.
The first benefit of a perfectly good fast goes way beyond people noticing our righteousness it means people noticing our righteousness and as a result being drawn into a relationship of praise towards God. In a word: Salvation.
“The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard” He's talking about the blessing of every type that involves God's presence (v8)
An answer to your prayers (v9)
You will call and God will answer, you will cry and He will say, “here I am”. Who here wants an awesome prayer life where you speak and God listens? There's no magic involved here, it starts with repentance. If God closes his ears to those who harbor sin (Isaiah 59:2) than he opens his ears to those who repent.
Guidance through hardships (v11)
Note that this doesn't mean the hardships will go away and you'll suddenly have a good time. No, but it does mean that when you're in the midst of hard times, God will walk with you through them. And even in the midst the barren desert where the sun is unbearable the mercy of God will uphold you with strength sufficient to the task, and even where there is no water, you will be like a watered garden, producing fruit in it's season not matter the circumstance.
You will restore faithfulness in many (v12) Your faithfulness will result in a stream of faithfulness in others! That's pretty amazing. In a time when we are pleading with God for revival – that revival must begin with us, it must begin with me, it must begin with you. If we want God to repair the breakdowns in our society we can see here that the labor to do so will begin with us. Not by signing petitions but in a righteous life that overflows into others. A righteousness that begins with sincere repentance.
This message isn't' a message of judgment unless you've got those sins in your life that you're just not going to let go of. This message is an invitation to feast on and delight in the outrageous blessings of God. Not by merely fasting, praying, coming to church, singing, reading your Bible. But by coming face to face with our selfishness, our greed, our idolatry, our unfaithfulness to God and our spouses and above all our disaffection for God expressed in sins we refuse to turn away from.
If, and only if we're willing to come face to face with that sin, to own up to it, to turn away from it, to bath it in the cleansing blood of Christ and to sacrifice it on the altar of sincerely seeking after God in our righteous acts. Religion with repentance will yield an abundant harvest.