Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday, Repeal and Replace, & True Christian Fasting

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.
Isaiah 58:5-7

     It's Ash Wednesday, a tradition practiced by some Christians for over 1,000 years. It's a tradition, first of all, not a command. And, it's a combination of two Biblical practices - fasting and repentance in sackcloth and ashes. Jesus makes it clear that even under the new covenant, His followers will fast, "But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don't show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6:17)  But, He says nothing positive about the external show of fasting in sackcloth and ashes, nor does He command it. He actually seems to discourage the outward attention-calling practices of sackcloth and ashes and points to an inward change of heart that results in a change of behavior.
     Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season. It's the Old Testament practice of repentance in sackcloth and ashes combined with a memorial period of fasting, repentance and reflection. It memorializes Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. Again, neither ashes nor 40 day fasts are commanded by Christ. Fasting, however, is expected. The length of fasting is not prescribed, but a change of heart is required. 
     Even under the law in the Old Testament, God expected more than lip service. The passage in Isaiah above makes it clear that when His people merely went through the motions of fasting, He was unimpressed. He said that they should deny themselves, but that they should also serve others. They should fast AND lose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, share their food with the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked stranger, and take care of their own family as well.
     Forgive me for using a popular (or unpopular) term, but they should repeal their regular religiosity and replace it with pure religion, "Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27) 
     God's heart did not change from Old to New Covenant. He has always expected His people to love their neighbor with acts of kindness and sacrificial love. Here is the Law of the New Covenant, "For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself." (Galatians 5:14) 
     It's still about loving and caring for others. Jesus describes the judgment of the nations and says that the difference is how they took care of others. To His sheep, He will say on that day, "For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me; I was in prison and you visited me." . . . "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me." (Matthew 25:35-36, 40) The goats who were not His people did some of these things, but not for Him. They did them only for themselves, perhaps as a religious act of penance or good works to earn a better place in eternity. 
     So, ashes or not, there's probably a need in most of us to repent of selfish religious practices like, "What did I get from church today?" Then we should replace those selfish practices with selfless, pure and undefiled religion - food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, water for the thirsty, justice and freedom for the afflicted and oppressed, clothing for the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner. 
     Ok, here's one last Scripture. Please do not use this to go off on anyone who has ashes on their forehead. They may well have entered into a 40 day period of repentance and service to others. Let God judge the motives of their hearts. You deal with your own.
     "Whenever you fast, don't be sad-faced like the hypocrites, For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They've go their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don't show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Mathew 6:16-19) Repent of sin. Replace with active service to Christ and the least of His brethren, meaning whoever He puts in front of you today.