February 17, Ash Wednesday

*Be sure to read the Preface if you haven’t.

Reader: “Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.”

Response: “Tell my people of their sins.”

Scripture:  Isaiah 58:1-12

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.

    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.

Tell my people Israel of their sins!

    Yet they act so pious!

They come to the Temple every day

    and seem delighted to learn all about me.

They act like a righteous nation

    that would never abandon the laws of its God.

They ask me to take action on their behalf,

    pretending they want to be near me.

‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.

    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?

We have been very hard on ourselves,

    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.

    “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.

Even while you fast,

    you keep oppressing your workers.

What good is fasting

    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?

This kind of fasting

    will never get you anywhere with me.

You humble yourselves

    by going through the motions of penance,

bowing your heads

    like reeds bending in the wind.

You dress in burlap

    and cover yourselves with ashes.

Is this what you call fasting?

    Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:

Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;

    lighten the burden of those who work for you.

Let the oppressed go free,

    and remove the chains that bind people.

Share your food with the hungry,

    and give shelter to the homeless.

Give clothes to those who need them,

    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,

    and your wounds will quickly heal.

Your godliness will lead you forward,

    and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.

Then when you call, the Lord will answer.

    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.

    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!

Feed the hungry,

    and help those in trouble.

Then your light will shine out from the darkness,

    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.

The Lord will guide you continually,

    giving you water when you are dry

    and restoring your strength.

You will be like a well-watered garden,

    like an ever-flowing spring.

Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.

    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls

    and a restorer of homes.

Reader: The word of the Lord from the prophet Isaiah.

Response: Thanks be to God.

Some thoughts:

As we live through the season of Lent this year, I am confident in saying that the things in the world and in our lives are much different than at this time last year. What is the same as last year is that God is sovereign and unchangeable. In this pericope, God instructs the prophet Isaiah to speak the truth to his people in no uncertain terms! The sins of Israel are not unlike our own as nation’s, no matter where you are living in the world. (There are subscribers from around the world.) We all can identify! I’m afraid there is a fair amount of “pretend,” feel good worship happening too often. How could we say such? Look at the results. Israel’s fasts were very self-focused. There were quarrels and failure to treat other people with respect. In other words Israelites, “Your conduct toward each other is awful. Your words and actions don’t jive. The heart of your relationship with God is false. You are not honest with God.” 

Fasting was a regular practice of the Israelites and frankly, ought to be in our lives today as well. After all, Jesus said, “When” you fast, not “if” you fast. With good health in mind, perhaps you may wish to fast in some way during this season in order to more deeply focus on your walk with God. 

The Israelites, however, were fasting to impress God, manipulate God into doing what they wanted. In a sense they were bargaining with the Creator. It was an outward show. God looks at what is done, not what is said. God is also very clear about what he expects. For example, if someone is wrongly imprisoned, what have you done to correct the situation? How have you helped people who are in need of food, shelter, or clothes? Or, are you all “intending to do?” Actions like these bring healing. These are good actions for a fractured society like ours. God is more specific yet. “Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!”  

We have certainly seen plenty of such. Let’s get specific in this Lenten season. Are there relatives in your family you could help in some way?  Rather than “giving up something for Lent,” is there something you could take on? Maybe fast a meal, or a day a week to pray specifically for something or someone instead of eating? Perhaps you make a covenant with the Lord to pray daily for that person who annoys you to death. You might even decide to use half the time you pray to be quiet and listen for God’s voice. If you are like me, I tend to spend my time of prayer mostly talking and doing little listening. God’s fasting is action. Read the passage again, noting God’s phrase, “This is the kind of fasting I want”. This Lenten season in 2021 only happens one time in all of eternity. Let’s live for eternity through these days.

Though Haddon Robinson preached one of the most memorable sermons I’ve heard in my 48 years in ministry, this sermon in 2012 relates specifically to today’s passage. There are two minutes of intro, then he preaches. Frankly from my perspective, he is one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. He passed away in July 2017 at age 86.

Bonus: “Have You Heard The One About…The Case Study Of A Mugging?” – Haddon W. Robinson     28 minutes  (2 minutes intro)

Music: “With Broken Heart and Contrite Sigh” St. Patrick Presbyterian Church 

With broken heart and contrite sigh,

A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry: 

Thy pard’ning grace is rich and free

 O God, be merciful to me.

I smite upon my troubled breast,

With deep and conscious guilt oppressed;

Christ and His cross my only plea:

  O God, be merciful to me.

Far off I stand with tearful eyes,

Nor dare uplift them to the skies;

But Thou dost all my anguish see,

  O God, be merciful to me.

Nor alms, or deeds that I have done,

Can for a single sin atone;

To Calvary alone I flee;

  O God, be merciful to me.

And when redeemed from sin and hell,

With all the ransomed throng I dwell,

My raptured song shall ever be,

  God has been merciful to me.


Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  ―BCP