There are still two days left to Lent this year, but this is the end for me. This is the last of my Lenten Reflections for this year, and I’m writing it because of the reading today of Isaiah 58:1-11. We began Lent back Feb 23rd with Isaiah 1:1-20, a reading which included these words spoken by God to his people:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
“When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies — I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
Today we hear similar words:
Thus says the LORD: “They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God… ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers… Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down your head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under you? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then… you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”
We begin Lent and we finish Lent with similar messages. It’s easy to get carried away with the special spirituality and fasting of the Lenten season. It is easy to become self-righteous because of the spiritual disciplines of Lent. It is easy to become so self-absorbed with our own righteousness that we ignore the broader responsibilities of being a follower of Jesus. Even though the Orthodox Church has kept to the rigorous disciplines of the early centuries of Christianity, these readings at the beginning and end of Lent remind us that the disciplines of fasting and prayer are not the whole message and purpose of Lent. Thanks to the prophet Isaiah, the Church has a built-in corrective to the natural human tendency to become self-absorbed and self-righteous.
But we have to read and listen to these messages that are built into the season of Lent. Next Monday night, many of us will sit in churches and hear the long Gospel reading from Matthew that includes chapter 23. How will we listen to the harsh exposure of hypocritical worship from the mouth of Jesus? Will his words shake us? Or will his words just form part of our “Holy Week experience” to be forgotten the minute we turn the pages of the Holy Week service book?
When Jesus confronted hypocrisy, he spoke in the same spirit as the prophets of ancient Israel. We need the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, not because of prophecies they allegedly made about the future, but because they reveal the heart of God to us, even in the 21st century. Their message is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago. During the regular Church year, we only read the prophetic passages that are presumed to be prophecies of the Messiah Jesus. Only during Lent do we read a prophet without reference to Messianic predictions. And that prophet is Isaiah every year. But there are other prophets besides Isaiah. We need all the prophets, they need to be part of our daily Bible reading. We need to be challenged by them every day. They knew God better than any other man or woman in history, except Jesus, who is in the bosom of God the Father (John 1:18).