This sermon on Isaiah 58 was preached by CSBV director Helen Paynter during Lent of 2022. Watch it on YouTube here.

Photo credit – see below

It’s cockcrow on a Friday morning in Jerusalem, and in the pre-dawn grey, two men are experiencing a familiar but ever-fresh rush of adrenaline. It’s the third day of Rosh Hashanah, a minor Fast day, the Fast of Gedalia. Every day in the Temple is important but today matters more than many. From sunup to sundown they, like all the people, will not eat or drink, as an act of devotion. [1]

In the northwest corner of the Temple, Mattithiah ben Samuel the priest is beginning his morning duties, along with many of his colleagues. He is the officer in charge of the allotment of responsibility. There is an exact, detailed, procedure for his duties, and as always Mattithiah is careful to observe it in every particular.

First, he knocks on the door of the Chamber of the Hearth, where a priest is waiting who has bathed before sunrise. Mattithiah calls for him to come forth. This priest casts the lot to determine which priests will serve today, and which duties they will have.

Mattithiah now takes the keys and enters through a little gate into the Temple court, followed by those priests who drew the lot to form the temple patrol today. Each of them carries two torches. Now the patrol divides in two, one going clockwise and the other anticlockwise around the colonnade. When they meet on the far side, they give the ritual greeting. “Is all well? All is well.”

Now Mattithiah assigns a priest to make the habittin, the baked cake for the cereal offering. He also assigns a priest to clean the altar of ashes. Again a ritual instruction rings out: “Be careful not to touch the sacred vessels before you sanctify your hands and feet at the laver; and see that the coal-shovel is in its place.” Now the assigned priest begins his duties, winding the wheel to raise the laver from the wall, taking the silver shovel to dispose of the ashes, drawing aside the portions of yesterday’s sacrifices which have not yet been consumed, re-laying the altar and re-kindling the fire. Mattithiah watches with satisfaction. All is well. The ritual is proceeding as authorised. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and strength.” He mutters the words from Deuteronomy under his breath.” His service exemplifies that love.

Nearby, Jonathan the Levite is also beginning his day. His assigned duty is to be part of the temple guard. One Levite will stand at each of the five entrances, one at each corner of the temple, one at each gate between the courts, one in each chamber, and one behind the most holy place. Jonathan takes his position with not a little pride and a deep sense of the honour of the role. He knows that if he is caught asleep at his post, the captain of the guard will punish him, perhaps even burning the shirt on his back. But he has no intention of being caught napping. He takes his responsibilities very seriously indeed. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and strength.” He knows the scripture. And he does indeed.

A little later, Mattithiah and Jonathan find themselves off-duty at the same time, warming themselves in the Chamber of the Hearth, where a fire is kept burning for the purpose. They know one another quite well – they often travel up to Jerusalem together, as they live close together in Jericho. Last night, though, they had travelled separately. So after greeting one another, and enquiring about each other’s families, they compare notes.

Old road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Photo credit Granpic, creative commons

“You hungry yet?”
– Getting there. It’s always harder to fast after a feast day.”
“Ay, it’s cold, too. Especially on the journey yesterday.”
– “Yes, after eight hours of walking I was glad to get here and warm up.”
“Didn’t you break your journey at the inn on the way?”
– “Not yesterday. I was in a hurry. You?”
“Ay, it wasn’t too busy. But did you see that bloke?”
– “The one on the road? Yes, nasty business. Those bandits are getting bolder. Time was, they’d just rob you. Now they rough you up, as well.
“Ay, poor chap was in a bad way. They’d taken his clothes, too.”
– “Was he alive? I couldn’t tell from the other side of the road. Couldn’t risk going over, of course. Can’t arrive unclean and unfit to serve!”
“I think so. I mean, I was in a bit of a hurry, but I’m pretty sure I heard him groan.
– “Ah, good. Hopefully someone was able to help him, then.”
“Yes, I hope so.”
– “Right, enough of this. Must get back to the Lord’s work.”

**

On behalf of God, Isaiah says these words.

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion…
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness  ~
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
You cannot fast like you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high. …
Is not this the fast that I choose…
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?

In answer to the question “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus said this: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Mattithiah and Jonathan, you cannot fast as you do today, complicit against the bruised and the bleeding, and expect your voice to be heard on high. God will not listen.

**

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Mattithiah and Jonathan. After all, they are only characters in a story that Jesus told. [2]

So let’s have a story that’s a little more up-to-date.

It’s Monday 7th March, 2022. A man is preparing to lead God’s people in worship. It is Clean Monday, the beginning of Great Lent; today is a strict fast and he will eat nothing all day. [3]

He washes carefully, and combs his beard. He dresses slowly, donning the dark purple of Lent, in a robe still richly ornamented. On his head he wears a white cowl, topped with a stiffened point bearing a cross – this is his koukoulion. He makes his way into the darkened sanctuary. Candles are burning on the altar. The gold of the icons flashes in their light. An altar server is swinging the incense.

woman in black dress painting
Photo: icon of the Virgin and Child at St Paul’s, London. Photo credit Ruth Gledhill, creative commons

Because this is Great Lent, today the liturgy will take place from the Lenten Triodion. The full Divine Liturgy will not be celebrated, because the joy of the Eucharist is contrary to the attitude of repentance which is expected on these days. But it is especially important to receive the Holy Mysteries during this season, so the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts will be celebrated instead. A portion of the Body and Blood of Christ, which was reserved the previous Sunday, will be brought to the prothesis table. Now comes a solemn great entrance where the Holy Mysteries are brought to the altar, and then the remainder of the divine liturgy will be observed, including holy communion.

The man is pleased with his preparation. All is in place. All protocol will be observed. The ritual will be performed with godly order. Surely The Lord will be pleased with his servant.

For decades this man has spoken publicly to his nation. Has declared it a sacred fatherland, with a mission to spread its culture beyond its own borders. He has conducted ceremonies of blessing over its armies and its weapons, has consecrated nuclear warheads. [4]

Just ten days previously, he praised his president’s “high and responsible service to his people”; he sent “hearty congratulations” to his country’s armed forces, and urged them make fuller use of military “high-tech systems”. 

The following day Vladimir Putin’s armoured vehicles rolled over the Ukrainian border, and people began to die. His own people; the Ukrainian people. Young, confused conscripts and innocent civilians. Hospitals were bombed, a nuclear power station was shelled. Babies were born in bomb shelters and hundreds of thousands of people abandoned their homes in terror.

What did Patriarch Kirril say to condemn this war? Nothing. He stood by the blasphemies he had already uttered. But on Monday morning, he will celebrate the first holy communion of the Great Fast. It’s the Lord’s work.

**

He might have done well to remember these words of Isaiah

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion…
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God…     
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?…
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please…
Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high…

Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
“Is not this 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?

In answer to the question “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus said this: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Patriarch Kirril, you cannot fast as you do today, complicit against the bruised and the bleeding, and expect your voice to be heard on high. God will not listen.

**

But perhaps Russia feels rather remote from us. Let’s consider a story a little closer to home.

This story is about a group of people. I won’t name them, but they are devout people. People who love God and long to see his kingdom come, and his glory go out to the ends of the earth. They have given their lives to this cause. They joined an organisation dedicated to the evangelisation of the whole world. They threw their energy into making it successful. Poured in their skills and talents. Prayed their socks off. And it worked. Thousands were touched by the ministry. So many converts in so many countries.

I don’t know their spiritual practices exactly. Would they fast for Lent? Maybe. Or maybe at other times. Fasting and praying to seek God for a break-through. For sure they were regular at church. Probably twice a week, maybe more. Some led churches, others were in the congregations. They held Bible studies and ran home groups in their spare time. Some led worship on a Sunday morning. Some probably served in their church’s social programmes.

These were good people. Anyone could see that. Ask them why they did what they did and they’d tell you. For the love of the Lord.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

One day a story broke. Allegations were made about the man who headed up their organisation. Some women were making accusations about what the great evangelist had done to them.

One particular allegation was that this man had targeted one of his supporters – a woman who was still working through the effects of her father’s sexual abuse. It was alleged that this man had groomed her, had befriended her and her husband, established an emotionally close relationship with her, and had then manipulated her into exchanging sexually explicit texts and sending him nude photos. [5]

persons left hand on black background
Photo credit Salman Hossain Saif creative commons

And when they heard this allegation, these good people, these people who fasted and prayed to see God’s kingdom come, these people who loved the Lord so much, did nothing. They made no enquiries; they held no investigation. What they did do, was raise a lot of money for an expensive legal defense. To shut her down and make sure their famous, successful evangelist could keep on going.

And then they filed a counter-lawsuit against the complainant and her husband. They made a counter-allegation. She was trying to extort him. She had sent him unsolicited images to blackmail him.

Eventually, the evangelist settled with his accusers out of court, paying the woman a quarter of a million dollars in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement.

But none of those good people asked what was not being disclosed.

The matter was treated as closed, and he continued his ministry. And his abuse of other women.

Money was diverted from the charitable donations that the organisation was receiving. A lot of money. It is estimated that these good people spent $960,000 of ministry money on the lawsuit against the woman and her husband. They took money intended for apologetics and used it to enable and defend a sexual predator.

All so that he could continue his ministry. Which he did. And along with it, his abuse.

But they were doing the Lord’s work – weren’t they?

**

They would have done well to remember the words of Isaiah.

 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion…
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right…
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?’…
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
“Is not this 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?
Is it not this:
when you see the naked, to clothe her,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry…
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

In answer to the question “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus said this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Ravi Zaccharias Ministries, you cannot fast as you did in those days, complicit against the bruised and the bleeding, and expect your voice to be heard on high. God will not listen.

**

But perhaps that story still feels rather remote. So let’s bring it right home.

Are you fasting for Lent? Engaging in a heightened spiritual practice? I have just one question for you, and for myself, then. Is this the sort of fasting that God will hear?

black cross on person's forehead
Photo credit Ahna Ziegler, creative commons

We speak a lot about God’s welcome, his open arms, his readiness to hear us when we pray. But sometimes we forget that there are times when God will not listen to our prayers. When he closes his heart against his people.

When we are bringing our gift to the altar and remember that our brother or sister has something against us. Matthew 5.

When a husband is abusive to his wife. “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” 1 Pet 3:7.

And here, in Isaiah 58.

Raise your voice like a trumpet, shout it aloud. If on the day of your fasting you exploit others; if you do as you please, if your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, with malicious talk and pointed fingers, and if it perpetuates the yoke of oppression, then God will not hear you.

What does it mean to do the Lord’s work? What is the fast God has chosen?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind and strength. Yes, certainly that. But also love your neighbour as yourself.

… and then your light will rise in the darkness, and even your night will be like the noonday.

[1] information about the duties of the priests and Levites in the second temple period is drawn from here
[2] Luke 10:25-37
[3] information about the Orthodox rituals described here was derived from this source
[4] Patriarch Kirril’s stance on Russian nationalism is a matter of public record. See, for example, here, here and here
[5] Details of this story area matter of public record. See, for exampe, here and here

A Violent Fast
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