Sermon on Isaiah 58:3-9
Fasting, limiting or refraining from food, is all the rage. I even have had people ask me how to use it to get closer to God—and get more healthy. Our text flatly denies that any outward, physical act we do can achieve holiness, or bring God closer. While many Christians saints have fasted, by itself, eating food has nothing to do with faith in Christ, the true God. Our Lord, in fact, was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, because He did not partake of the 1st century fasting craze. Good Muslims celebrate their month of Ramadan by fasting during the day, but do not know the true God.
It seems like a great sacrifice—to give up eating, for a time. After all, we get hungry—we are used to eating several times a day. So God must reward this sacrifice, right? It’s a holy thing, because it’s hard? But He does not, because holiness is more than menu planning, it starts with loving God and following His will. So the complaint goes up by Israel: ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ We did this for you, God—why isn’t it working?
It is not a sin to fast, but this human decision and act of the will cannot elevate one to God. Holiness is far more than doing without meat, deserts, or alcohol for a time. Food does not change you, and neither does withholding food. In fact, I get mean when my stomach growls, not more loving, patient, and kind.
God responds as to why Israel’s fasting is worthless: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.” “Ouch, that hurts”—your sacrifice is all about you, He says. Any action can be done for selfish, sinful reasons—and our flesh always seeks its own good, not God’s. Giving up what God created for us—does not please Him. Just like over-eating or going to a buffet three times a day does not bring one closer to God. Does God hate red meat, so that giving it up, appeases Him? No, He created the animals and gave them to us—to have dominion over them.
But fasting, and even going to church or Bible study can be used against God, in the heart. Doing stuff, not matter how religious it looks, does not cover up an evil conscience. To sit in a pew or open a Bible is not righteous to God for the sinner. These are fine things we should do, but why do we do them—that is the question. Our Lord gets the heart of the matter—our heart and His righteousness will: Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. God never intended the sacrifices and offerings, festivals and fasts listed in the Old Testament to be bare acts of the flesh. No, they were meant to be done in faith, trusting God’s goodness.
But we live decadent and indulgent times. We have everything we want—one click on our phones can bring goods from around the world and luxuries to eat. This is not a godly thing: to indulge in physical things so that the hunger for God’s Word is diminished. Many around us are on full on delectable meats and rich foods, but are starving for forgiveness and the knowledge of the Lord. But if fasting, or eating more, is not the answer, what is?
God wants our humility, but this is not about counting calories. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? How do we do this, then—what actions must we do? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Our actions, whatever we do, are the problem—we cannot act with a willing heart. We do not please God from within—because of our sin.
Our humility is not about bowing down or getting on our knees. We do this in our heart, by acknowledging to God our sins, and no longer pretending we are righteous. If our goal is to look religious and holy before men—we are like the Jews who used fasting against God. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.
God does not want us to look righteous or spiritual, but to do righteousness, truly from the heart. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? But we don’t and can’t. We are to fast from injustice, from hatred, from looking down on our neighbor. But it’s easier to give up chocolate cookies, isn’t it?
Your God wants humility, the lowering of what you think of yourself before Him. So humble yourself before your God and stop trying to con Him by playing charades. The humble righteousness required by God has been performed by Jesus—His acts of righteousness supply what you lack. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the actions we need, but we don’t contribute to them—they are already done. Our righteousness is in Christ.
Jesus did not suffer to look good, but to make you look good to the Father. His holiness was hidden under our sin—to make you radiant. This is the source of righteousness—the humility to receive from Jesus—to trust Him, that He makes you holy to the Father, cleansed of all sin.
The abuse of Christian freedom is the main problem today. Because God does not require specific sacrifices, exact tithes, detailed external worship practices, or precise religious actions, we think it doesn’t matter what we do or how we live. This ignores the reality of sin and makes God’s will imaginary, something that doesn’t matter. But goodness is in the Lord, and we can deny Him by how we live, sinning against Him in unbelief—thinking our actions are more righteousness than He is.
It is not humility to think God doesn’t care what we do—that righteousness, good works, generosity are optional for the Christian. They are not. God forgives sin, but He does not condone it, nor give permission to indulge the flesh. Our Lord was crucified for sin, how can we go on indulging in sin against Him? We must die to it today, so that Christ is our master—not our flesh.
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” This means we must fight against sin and not expect God to change us against our will. He does not prevent us from being miserly, harsh, or gluttonous. But He gives us His Spirit, and renews us to follow Him truly and willingly. Baptism means a new life in Christ, one of righteousness—truly fighting against sin.
This will giving up some luxuries and earthly freedom, not as a self-pleasing diet program or to brag about on Facebook, but out of love for God. If you do anything for yourself, God does not receive it. As Christ’s hands, you are to serve others, where He has put you. Faith is in the heart, trusting the goodness of Christ, despite what happens to our bodies. Without the humility of faith there is no true worship in anything we do. So, act, yes, but never let your actions be apart from Christ’s righteousness applied to you in the Word.
True fasting, the humility of the heart, might actually be shown in eating: 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? This fasting of faith means sharing our bounty with our neighbors, covering their sins and poverty. It means putting others above yourself, like Christ did for you.
Christians are to support the preaching of God’s Word, not out of ingratitude, but generosity, knowing it helps others, who need the Gospel. There is nothing more necessary—this food of Christ is better than all the food in the world, which will kill you, in the end. We don’t have to give and support preaching, but we don’t have to have pastors or church services either. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
The problem is not fasting, giving, or any religious work, but not doing them in the Spirit. The Law is not optional, but it is spiritual and holy. Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. It might be good to demonstrate that food and money do not have mastery over you, by giving them up partially, because you live free in Christ. Without faith, though, everything is a dead work. So master your flesh and make it your slave—don’t be a slave to it.
Christ gives us His Spirit, so we are new to God. It is humbling to receive what Christ has done in our place. The Gospel is not meant to make you lazy, indulgent, hard-hearted, or prideful, but results us humbly and willingly serving the true God. Good works are done out of love for Him, who loves us. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. So fast from sin in your entire life, whether you are eating or not eating, righteous through faith in Christ. Amen.