Isaiah 58:6-9a: God speaks to Israel through the prophet’s words
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?
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 them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and God will say,
Here I am.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These are the ancient words used on Ash Wednesday as the mark of the cross is made on the worshipper’s forehead with a smudge of ash. On this day that marks the beginning of Lent, Christians are reminded of our mortality, our vulnerability, our frailty and moral failures. We remember a central fact of what it means to be human: that our lives have limits, the most notable of which is that we will all die; and that our individual lives and the life of our societies are fraught with brokenness, injustice, violence, and destruction.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
It does not take the insight of faith to see these things, of course. Everyone alive knows that he or she will die. We know all too well how vulnerable we are to disease and to the forces of nature. And simply listening to the news or reading the newspaper reminds us of the violence and destruction that humans inflict on themselves and others and nature. It does not take the eyes of faith to see that there is a lot that is broken.
But the eyes of faith see something else. The eyes of faith see that we are not just random accidents of nature; we are creatures of a Creator. The boundary of our lives is not simply our chronological life span. We have been called into being by God, and we are invited to find the true meaning in relation to God.
The words of the prophet Isaiah represent a breakthrough in religious insight in the ancient world. For many other peoples, the gods were arbitrary and capricious. It was easy to offend; prayers and sacrifices were needed to appease. But Israel knew a very different God. The Holy One was a God of justice who expected and hoped that God’s chosen people would emulate God’s ways. Isaiah makes this clear: the right way to worship God is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the poor and remove the injustice in society that leads to poverty.
But God is also a God of mercy whose steadfast love endures forever; who forgives us when we betray one another and ourselves and God; who longs for us to find our way back to right relationship with one another and with God.
Lent is an opportunity for us to focus – to step back from all the things that ordinarily seem so very important, so pressing, so demanding. To step back and focus on the relationship that in fact will lead us to our true selves. God invites us to discover once again who we are and whose we are and where our true fulfillment lies.
The God of justice shows us the path. The God of mercy invites us to start over and over and over again. The path leads to life. The path leads us home.
Cynthia M. Campbell