There is an apocryphal story told of the Apostle Peter in which he one day encounters a blind man by the roadside begging. Peter, taking pity on the man, pauses before him, touches his eyes, and in the name of the risen Christ, heals the man of his blindness. This elicits no joyful burst of praise but rather a torrent of abuse from the man: “You fool! What have you done? You have taken away the means of my livelihood,” whereupon the man gouges his own eyes from their sockets.
It’s a rather confronting image but perhaps more so because we know we’re familiar with making the same sort of choices the blind man made. We know, from experience, just how attractive opting for the “comfortable known” can be when confronted by having to make a decision involving the choice between business as usual or starting something new, perhaps totally foreign. The disruption and pain that is likely to be involved in choosing anything other than the known and long practised is obvious.
The ‘comfortably familiar’ has a magnetic attraction for us which becomes even easier to go with when we find ourselves surrounded by friends and family who are, of course, most likely to reflect the same take on life as we ourselves.
The reading from Isaiah this morning says this is not just a contemporary problem. It gives the account of those who have returned from exile and have started to rebuild the city and rehabilitate the community. They are a particular cohort of people who have become captured by the same dreams (even fantasies) and focussed on realising the same ambitions and assuming the same logic about how life should be, now that they had come home. But what they had hoped for wasn’t happening. What was wrong?
Well most of the people who had returned were the leaders, the well educated, and the well-off. Their time in exile, about 50 years or so, had not been quite as punishing or as costly as they had assumed at the beginning it would have been. In fact it was those who had been left behind who appear to have suffered the most. These were the poor of the land according to the 2nd book of Kings. So when the exiles returned, many having lived quite comfortably in Babylon, they found a land still bearing the signs of the ruin and desolation that had been created 50 years before. There was rubble where once stood the walls of Jerusalem and several seasons of drought had simply magnified the distress of the people.
In exile these middle class and well to do folk had maintained their religious observances and longed for the day of their return. But there was something that they couldn’t comprehend and they were confused
And Isaiah sheds light on just what that was. They were carrying the assumption that had always guided their living that their religious knowledge, their keeping the feasts and fast days and their scrupulous attention to piety just had to be linked to the favour of God. It was, for them, an obvious equation.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
This was their reality. But there is another reality and it takes a more observant one, the prophet, to bring it into view:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
You fast but you don’t see. You dot the I’s and cross the T’s of private religious routines but you are cut off from the struggles of people all around you.
You imagine you can organise the world to suit yourself, blind to the reality of the suffering of your neighbor.
This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and this time next week is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. That season has been diminished in the minds of many people to simply the Christian season of fasting and it seems to have either been brushed aside with a seasonal joke: ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ or, at the very least, not been particularly prominent in our Baptist tradition.
So when we encounter the spiritual discipline of fasting, which we are this week focussing on in our current series, we might find the call to explore the discipline of fasting one that seems a bit removed from other of the more obvious spiritual disciplines of hospitality, the reading of the scriptures, prayer and so on.
But the New Testament reading may give us a reason to think more about our approach to Lent this year.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ 40 day spent in the wilderness at the outset of his public ministry we’re made to see that, discerning what is truly real in life and then pursuing that reality, is never a painless exercise. It frequently involves struggles that impact the whole of one’s being, mind, body and spirit.
There’s understatement in verse 2:
… for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
Yes, at the very least. However we are to imagine the Devil’s temptations to turn stones into bread, to plunge from the top of the temple etc. clearly it is the duration, the time, as well as the location that is intended to be the setting for a greater awareness for discerning clarity of purpose.
Fasting is not meant to be some act of self-denial done to win divine favour, or conducted conspicuously to cultivate an image to impress the neighbour. Rather there is a certain hiddenness involved in spiritual exercises (Matt 6:1-8) that are more likely to be associated with a “seeing” of other realities.
In keeping with Luke’s emphasis of the work of the Holy Spirit, we hear in the Gospel reading today that Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit” was led by the Spirit into this barren location – a fitting environment for Jesus’ deep struggle to be encountered in spirit and body. But it also tells of the communion that is at the heart of this wilderness time, one that involves the interplay, the communion and loving care of Father Son and Spirit.
The passage reminds us that there are always choices that confront us involving alternate realities and that it’s the Holy Spirit who works to bring before us these alternative worlds and to nudge us into the lived experience of God’s reality, helping us to step away from what looks like more logical, natural options.
In the same Gospel we’ve seen that Mary doesn’t know exactly what is in store for her as mother of the Saviour. She feels frightened – with good reason, it seems, as Simeon tells her a bit later in the Temple that a sword of suffering will go through her soul as a result of bringing Jesus to birth.
But the Spirit catches her up into the new reality.
The Spirit’s role, Luke seems to be saying, is to bring us to the place of seeing, even wanting to see (unlike the blind man) another reality and then giving us courage to enter in and face living together with the Spirit inside that reality.
We have all probably had the experience of unexpectedly discovering a reality in the very place where none was apparent. I connected recently with a friend with whom I’d had no contact for close on 20 years. He is an intelligent, well educated and energetic man. I had heard from someone that he had organized a panel discussion on the plight of refugees on Nauru and Manus Is. The speakers he had invited were well read and experienced on the subject. And, unsurprisingly for me, my friend had so thoroughly promoted the evening in the wider community that the church was full. (He also pointed out that the overflowing facility had no more than 5 or 6 people from the church itself). I was surprised that he had taken on this challenge – I had never known that he had ever been so passionately engaged in such issues. And he, himself, acknowledged the same. It seems he had a sort of epiphany. He had found himself, quite accidentally, sitting across a meal table with a person who in sharing his life’s story, had presented my friend with another reality, one to which he had been blind. The man sitting opposite had been a refugee having arrived on one of those leaky boats. And my friend had been drawn in to that space, and had discovered a new reality as well as a new solidarity.
Isaiah paints a picture of people confronted with two realities: one in which life, conducted according to long established patterns of religious observance, had been the “comfortable norm” for decades but which left them undisturbed in their piety, and blind to a wider reality and the call of God upon their lives – a piety that could no longer spot the incongruity between personal comfort and shared pain.
And that’s the deadening effect that the comfortable norm has. The “edge” of spiritual life becomes dulled –the eyes become dim and the ears of faith lose their acuity, and the possibility of entering another deeper, wider and more hopeful reality ceases even to be an option.
They fasted but said you (God) don’t see. And the word came back to them, no, you don’t see.
The fast you need to practise is to ‘take a break from injustice.’ ‘Give it a rest’, the prophet calls.
That sort of fast had never occurred to them. It would require a shake-up in lived experience. Fasting has that effect.
So how might we approach this season of Lent with its invitation to explore the discipline of the fast?
What might help us from these two passages?
Perhaps something that is, first of all, likely to slow down the rhythms of life so that something else can happen.
“The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape.
“… living in expectancy – living in awareness, … eyes sufficiently open and … mind sufficiently both slack and attentive to see that when it happens – has a great deal to do with discipleship, (Rowan Williams, Discipleship)
Involved in that is the ingredient of time. The duration of Jesus wilderness experience was not irrelevant to what was happening. Time is an element if we are to practise looking and listening for whatever sights and sounds (so to speak) that are part of other realities.
The ingredient of place is not insignificant, either. And whilst it’s not likely to be in a desert place for any of us, the quiet place removed from the familiar was often an option Jesus sought and can prompt other patterns of thinking and feeling.
However these ingredients might be employed, their intention is to disturb us sufficiently that we can shake free of our unchallenged routines. The idea of a fast is that our whole being becomes involved, mind, spirit and, not least, body. Whatever sort of fast that is chosen (and not all fasts are from eating) its aim will be to attend to God’s presence (the I Am) and there to “see” and “hear” the sights and sounds of other realities.
As we prepare ourselves for the season of Lent in this coming week may we discover a refreshing sense of the vitality of the Spirit’s presence and the opening up new ways to be in God’s world.