If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
February 3, 2016 — Lent begins in one week. Yes, it comes mighty early this year (February 10). In 2008, it fell on February 6. That’s the earliest in recent memory, but it can fall as early as February 4. In case you want to plan ahead, in 2018, Ash Wednesday* will fall on February 14. Yes, that’s correct – Valentine’s Day!
No matter when it falls, the Lectionary readings for the day are always the same, which saddles a preacher with the burden of how to present similar material in a new and refreshing way.
I am already working on my midweek homily for Ash Wednesday. We are celebrating a Eucharist at noon at the Lutheran Center (which you more commonly call “the Synod office”). Everyone is invited and welcome.
As I reflected on the scriptures for the day, I couldn’t help but note the alternate Old Testament reading from Isaiah 58:1-12 (click HERE for the entire reading). Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 is the more widely used OT lesson, an invitation to the reader to return to the Lord. But Isaiah strikes a harsher, more chastising tone, with lots of law and a somewhat conditional gospel.
“IF you remove the yoke from among you…THEN your light shall rise…” (see verses 9b-10 above).
These words, “if-then” are enough to make any good Lutheran uncomfortable as they seemingly evoke a works righteousness approach to salvation. When I read these words, however, I am reminded of our baptismal calling as expressed in our rite of Affirmation of Baptism found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship [p. 236]:
· to live among God’s faithful people,
· to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
· to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
· to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
· and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
The word of God, as heard through the prophet Isaiah, encourages God’s people to live in loving relationships with others, especially those in need; this includes doing justice, sharing with others, showing compassion, taking care of others, being life-giving persons.
I can’t help but cling to these words as we begin the Lenten season. The reasons are many:
We are in the midst of a bitter presidential election campaign that only promises to become more mean-spirited in nature as the weeks wear on.
We are gripped by the fear of terrorism that makes us increasingly suspicious of anyone who looks different each time we hear of an incident of violence.
We are progressively distrustful of law enforcement as a result of those whose questionable acts resulted in the deaths of unarmed people of color.
Despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, we live in an age of economic disparity where some 47-million people languish in poverty, some cities don’t have access to safe drinking water, and upwards of 15-million children go to bed hungry each night.**
And these are but a few examples of the injustice and oppression that take place among our sinful humanity.
It would be easy to surrender to the ways of the world. It would be easy to yield, to give up, to cave in. What, after all, is the point of trying to live faithfully when it doesn’t seem to make any difference?
But as we prepare to enter the 40 days of Lent, it is helpful to understand several things:
You are not trying to fix things. Nor are you going to. That is humanly impossible. However, God has already done that through the life, death and resurrection of God’s son, Jesus Christ.
You are not trying to “get right with God.” Your acts of faithfulness always come after God’s acts of generosity and mercy. God is forever seeking you out.
Your acts of kindness are merely a reminder to draw near to the one who draws you near in the first place. You return to the one who claims us in baptism.
Lord, guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places. By your Spirit, strengthen our faith, that we may be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Amen
* Ash Wednesday occurs 46 days before Easter. In the next years it will fall on these dates:
· 2017 – March 1
· 2018 – February 14
· 2019 – March 6
· 2020 – February 26
· 2021 – February 17
**Source: ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving