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“Finding joy in fasting?”

Date: December 14, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
3rd Advent candle is lit

Isaiah 58:6-11

No one here would be surprised to know that I’m a “foodie.”  That’s a colloquial word that encompasses two fancier terms:  gourmand—someone who takes great pleasure in eating good food—and gourmet—someone who enjoys cooking and is pretty skilled at it.  Mike and I enjoy trying different foods, although I’m perhaps a little pickier than he is:  he loves eel sushi, for instance, and I won’t touch it.[1]  And because, when we lived in Iowa, there weren’t a whole lot of ethnic restaurants around, other than Mexican, Chinese, and a little Thai, if I wanted such things as tempura, or chimichurri sauce for my steak, or the Nepalese dumplings called momos[2] we used to get at Saturday Market in Portland, I had to learn to make them myself.

(These days, through the miracle of the internets, you can find recipes for just about anything with a quick Google search, and if you need exotic ingredients not available nearby, you can order them.)

I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy eating, great varieties of foods.  Fasting, therefore, is not a spiritual discipline that appeals to me—honestly, it doesn’t even work for me, because I am not a nice person when I’m hungry.  The point of fasting as a spiritual discipline is supposed to be to focus our attention on God, rather than on our own needs and desires.  That totally backfires when I try to fast.

Fortunately, people of faith down through the years have offered some alternatives for those of us who really can’t quite manage fasting—or who shouldn’t fast, because of diabetes or other issues; I find it hard to believe that God would require us to practice a spiritual discipline that actually harms our health.

One of my seminary professors told us about a girl he knew, ten or eleven years old, who wanted to do something to mark the season of Lent, a season when fasting has traditionally been observed at least weekly by many Christians.  This girl loved to read, to the point that she sometimes preferred the world in a book book to interacting with actual people.  So she decided, during Lent, to fast from reading anything that wasn’t required by a teacher.  She also decided, during the time she might have spent buried in a book, to talk with people she might not otherwise have talked to.

I think she probably understood the point of fasting better than a lot of folks who just grit their teeth and skip meals.

Our reading for today addresses people who are committed to fasting as part of their faith.

The part of the text we didn’t hear this morning records their complaint:  “Why is God ignoring our fasting?”  And God has some fairly sharp words for them.

God’s words as reported here by the Third Isaiah[3] are rather similar to God’s words spoken through other prophets, especially Amos, Hosea, the First Isaiah, and Jeremiah.  The point God, through the prophet, is making is that doing everything correctly in worship is not an acceptable substitute for right behavior outside of worship.

But what on earth does this have to do with Joy, which is the theme for this Third Sunday of Advent?  Let’s see if we can find the connection.

The people’s complaint back in verse 3, before today’s reading, is, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  We are doing what we are supposed to:  our heads are bowed, our stomachs are empty, our bodies are wrapped in burlap, and we sit in the fire pit.  We go to worship and we say the prayers and sing the hymns.  So why are we not being blessed, like God promised?

God’s answer reminds me of a story Fred Craddock told on a recording I heard once.  On his way out of the sanctuary after preaching one Sunday, he picked up the bulletins that had been left behind in people’s seats.  On one of them was a note, presumably written by one worshiper to another, during the service:  “Let’s close the deal today.”

What was the deal?  A real estate transaction?  Some other kind of sale?  A business partnership?  Fred didn’t know, but he wondered whether the two people involved had gotten much out of the service.

God’s response to the people’s complaint about God not noticing their diligent observance of worship rubrics is, “…you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.…you fast only to quarrel and to fight, and to strike with a wicked fist.”  In other words, your backside might be in a pew, but your heart and mind are somewhere else.

And God says, “That’s not what I want.”

Today’s reading follows that, and we learn what God does want—what kind of “fast” is pleasing to God.  Take care of others.  Feed the hungry.  Push for changes to systems that oppress people or keep them poor.  Speak kindly, without gossip, fault-finding, or other nastiness.  Be generous to people whose way is hard.  If you’re doing that during the week, God says, then I’ll see and approve of your fasting and your worship.

But again, what does this have to do with joy?

This time of year, advertisers play on our desire to please friends and loved ones, to give them things they will appreciate and enjoy, to see them smile with delight when they open a package from us.  The reason those ads are effective is because we enjoy giving to others.  Unless a person is a monster, making others happy makes us happy, too.  Even helping someone in need, someone who cannot do anything for us, makes us feel good.  We are blessed when we bless others.

In our reading for today, and what comes before it, God is saying, “I’m not all that interested in your rituals because you’re not all that interested in them.  You’re only going through the motions.

You know what would make your worship authentic, your fasting mean something?  Get over yourselves.  It’s not all about you.  Look around and see all the people around you that you could do something good for.  If you act with justice and compassion toward them, it will bring you joy.”

Don’t believe it?  Try it and see!

[1] My aversion to eating eels has nothing to do with their taste, because I’ve never tried them.  Rather, it’s because I know an old folk song called “Lord Randal,” in which a young lady poisons her lover by feeding him eels.  Obviously eels are not poisonous, as long as they’re properly prepared; Mike remains forked end down in spite of having consumed many pieces of unagi sushi.

[2] Steamed dumplings stuffed with seasoned meat and other ingredients are found all over Asia—pot stickers, among others, in China; Japanese gyoza, Korean mandu, momos in the Himalayas, and manti in central Asia.  The differences mainly have to do with the type of meat or other filling used and how they’re seasoned.  (There are also ravioli and pierogis in Europe, although I don’t know if they have any common ancestor with the Asian dumplings.)

[3] Most scholars see three fairly distinct traditions in the Isaiah book, originating in different periods of history.  Drastically simplified, the three traditions are:  First Isaiah (chapters 1-39) are set in the days around the destruction of Israel by Assyria and the threat of Assyria, Syria, and Israel against Judah; Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) speaks to the Jewish exiles in Babylon; and Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) spoke to the returned exiles as they attempted to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple there.