There are some symbols are universally recognized. A black and white question mark with a circle around it is a sign that you can go to that place to have your questions answered. Any symbol with a large circle and a slash across it means that whatever action portrayed in that symbol is not allowed. For the people of God that we hear from in our Old Testament reading today, one such symbol was the yoke. The yoke was used to bind two oxen to make them work together and more powerfully. Symbolically, though, it was used as a sign and signal of oppression, something with which these people were intensely familiar.
While in exile, God’s people held fasts; they had hoped that their great repentance could turn God’s favor toward themselves and that their burden, that their yoke, would be removed. Instead, here we hear that they felt ignored and that their sacrifice was unappreciated by the Lord. But the Lord responded and asked the people how their holy rituals engaged their righteous moral action. Once they see that their redemption and relief is intrinsically tied up in others, then they will see the light of dawn break forth and their healing shall spring up quickly. The author here puts forth several “if….then” statements to God’s people. “If you remove the yoke from among you…if you offer your food to the hungry…then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” God responds to the people’s anxiety that their fast had not been of any use by reminding them that if they want God’s freedom, then their actions must be bound up in the freedom of others.
As we set out on our Lenten fast today, we are tasked to fully engage our holy ritual with righteous moral action. Like the people of God here in Isaiah, we cannot merely do the work of social justice and moral responsibility without our spiritual disciplines, for once they are separated they are no longer worship to God. Over the next forty days as we engage in the observance of a holy Lent, and our fasts have to not only impact our relationship with God, but also, like the people we hear about in Isaiah, with how we treat and engage all those created in the image of God. Because even if we keep our fasts perfectly, if we are not oriented to others, we are not doing the work with which we are tasked. As the writer says, “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?” This is the fast we choose; we choose to name the truth that if our fast doesn’t challenge us, it won’t change us. We choose to begin this holy season with the acknowledgement that these 40 days will not solve all the world’s problems, but that if we engage them faithful, they will no doubt change us. And we choose to start this holy fast by going out bearing the symbol of the cross on our foreheads made of ash. We are set to go out bearing the symbol that relays that the one whom we follow defeats the very death of which we have been reminded of today, the very death into which sin drags us. And as we live out our fasts, imperfectly as we will, we have to remember that our fast must be intrinsically tied up with those who the Lord loves. Because this is the fast that we choose: to lose the bonds of injustice, on ourselves and for others.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.