During Lent this year, I’ve been memorizing and reflecting on Isaiah 58. I have to confess that fasting is one of my weakest spiritual exercises. I completely relate to the exhortations in the first part of the chapter. Whether it’s a one-day fast from eating or a forty-day fast from specific foods and activities, I find myself battling with discomfort and grumpiness. Quite frankly, I can be a real jerk. It’s interesting how much of my darker self — something I can usually manage most of the time — comes bubbling to the surface more easily during fasts. I’m more impatient, angrier and generally more selfish. By not having my way in specific areas during a fast, I find myself demanding my way in other areas.
I knew this about myself going into Lent, which is why I wanted to reflect heavily on Isaiah 58. I wanted to feast on this passage about fasting. And I’ve found it to be a time of needed correction and repentance.
But I’m also stumped by portions of Isaiah 58. Yahweh challenges Israel’s fasting, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”
This is how I view fasting — a time of personal spiritual discipline. But God expands the imagination with these words, “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?”
God’s preferred fasting is one that actually brings justice and rightness to the world! It is a kind of fasting that enables us to “share [our] food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when [we] see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from [our] own flesh and blood?” It is a kind of fasting that enables people to “do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk” and to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.”
And the question that reverberates in my head is “How?” My level of fasting is so inward, simply making me aware of how selfish I am. My kind of fasting seems to back-flush all the crap in my inner life to the surface so that it spills out in a rancid mess upon my immediate world. But the fasting Yawheh expects results in the outward breaking of injustice, releasing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, and providing for the needy. And I don’t know how. I’m not the kind of person right now in whom the fruits of my fasting yields goodness and rightness to the world.
But Jesus is. Isaiah 58 draws my reflections to Jesus’ time of fasting. He embodies Yahweh’s preferred fast. Although the New Testament doesn’t mention Jesus fasting before or after his 40 days in the wilderness, I have to assume he had a strong history of fasting. No one can launch into such a demanding and “successful” time of fasting without having years of training in this area.
My recent reflections have revealed to me that I’ve viewed Jesus’ fast as an optional extension to his life and ministry. But lately as I ask myself the question, “Would Jesus’ ministry have been complete without that specific occasion of fasting?” I keep coming to the answer, “No.” It’s like asking “Would Jesus’ ministry have been complete without his baptism, filling of the Spirit, teaching, crucifixion or resurrection?” No. This forty-day fast was an essential part of the fullness of God in and through him.
It’s not coincidental that Jesus embarks on an extended fast in the wilderness immediately following his baptism and immediately preceding his Nazareth proclamation. In Nazareth, before he actually begins his public ministry, Jesus not only quotes Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” but then declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Either he was endowed with a healthy dose of self-confidence or something has already happened. Although I think Jesus confidently understood who he was and what he was to uniquely accomplish, I think he stated that Isaiah 61 was fulfilled because of something he had already done.
I believe Jesus’ forty-day fast, embodied the “Isaiah 58” fast. Somehow, Jesus’ time of fasting loosed the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free and broke every yoke. Jesus entered his fast having already reconstituted the identity of God’s people around himself through the symbol of baptism and having been empowered by God’s Spirit to engage in the restorative mission God originally intended to occur through his people. As such, he enters the wilderness. In fact, the Spirit drives him into the wilderness.
The wilderness is Satan’s domain, the desolation into which the scapegoat was driven, carrying the Israel’s sins. By entering the wilderness, Jesus steps into the deepest and darkest place of humanity’s failure and enslavement to evil. In contrast to the original humans fumbling in the beauty and goodness of God’s garden, Jesus enters the barrenness, despair and misery of fallen humanity in the midst of Satan’s territory, picks up where the original humans failed, and stands firm against Satan’s assault.
In the opening chapters of creation, Satan was able to dehumanize humanity. We all devolved from people intended to uniquely bear God’s image in the world into subhumans who continue to inflict dehumanizing acts upon ourselves and each other. But Jesus’ embodiment of Yahweh’s preferred fast won back our humanity. He went toe-to-toe with Satan and emerged victorious. By embodying Isaiah 58, Jesus fulfills Isaiah 61. Embodying Isaiah 58 enabled him to embark on a public ministry that was the practical outworking of who he was as God’s reconstituted people and what he accomplished in the wilderness as the representative of God’s people.
So as I attempt to follow Jesus into his life, character and ministry, I must also learn to follow him into his fasting. Fasting as God intends includes, but far transcends merely being a spiritual discipline. As Isaiah declares, it is essential in participating in God’s mission in the world, both shattering injustice and despair and spending our lives in behalf of the hungry and oppressed.
As the last portion of Isaiah 58 states, proper fasting reconfigures my life from doing as I please to delighting in and honoring God’s redemptive Sabbath. As my life is reconfigured around God, as now exemplified as having the mind of Christ, I then find my joy in the Lord.