[This message was delivered at Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, on 2/5/23, based on Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20. It can be seen on the Gates YouTube page.]
The great American feasting season is almost over. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Epiphany with Three Kings cakes, and now just one to go: the Super Bowl in one week, which seems to be getting later each year. I think Doritos has something to do with that. This year, the Bills again left us the option of just skipping the game. But I expect even Bills fans will be watching and perhaps eating more than if the Bills were playing. We might just watch it for the commercials, the half time show, and the nachos, guacamole, Kansas City wings and Philly steaks, and beer. Who cares which team wins?
But wait. Check your calendar carefully. February still has Valentine’s Day, just two days after the Super Bowl. We can eat dark chocolate. But there is one more day of note. You have guessed it, haven’t you? February 22. Not George Washington’s birthday, though it is that. But we have taken care of that with Presidents’ Day on the third Monday, which sort of combines Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays but can never fall exactly on either one. Abe and George were robbed by this third Monday business. We might just as well call it “Third Monday in February when all mattresses are on sale.”
This February 22 is on a Wednesday and perhaps you have guessed what it is: Ash Wednesday, the beginning day of Lent. A true holy day, but much neglected. Who gets excited about spiritual disciplines? About giving up stuff that we like? Who wants to think about fasting? Give me the choice between feasting and fasting and I’ll take feasting every time.
I like preaching from the lectionary because it disciplines me from just preaching what I want to be preaching. The Isaiah text selected for us this morning seems to be saying, “Let’s make Lent even longer this year. You get two extra weeks to drop that winter weight you started putting on back in late November.” I note that this Isaiah 58 passage is often assigned to Ash Wednesday, but not this year. We get it two and a half weeks before Lent. Then what is assigned for Ash Wednesday, February 22 this year? It is the section of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6 where Jesus says: “And whenever you fast, do not look somber, like the hypocrites, for they mark their faces to show others that they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:16.)
The point of fasting in the Bible is not to lose a few pounds and certainly not to impress God with our self-discipline. Rather, it is to say no to something, whether for a season or longer, in order to say yes to something better, something of lasting value. It is learning to say no in order to say yes, or, better, to do yes. To make changes. Positive changes. The Bible has some good words for this and about this. The leading one is repentance. Which is a turning from the old to the new, from the unhealthy to the healthy, from sin to salvation, from selfishness to self-giving. Fasting is but one expression of that.
Before Jesus mentions fasting in the sermon on the mount, he tells who we are. That begins with the Beatitudes, which were read last Sunday. Today he goes further, telling us that we are salt and light. Jesus doesn’t tell us act like salt, but to be salt. He doesn’t tell us to pretend we are light, but to be light.
Salt chiefly serves two purposes: it seasons and it preserves. And it just takes a little salt to do either. In seasoning, the goal is not to taste the salt, but to allow the salt make everything else taste better. Too much salt can ruin a meal; not enough salt and the meal is flat and uninteresting. As a preservative, salt helped the human race survive before refrigeration. When I was in a Wegmans supermarket last week, I looked at the salts. Do you know there are at least a dozen salts available? And they aren’t all white. Some are pink, some are red, some are gray, and some are black. There is kosher salt and sea salt. Salt has amazing variety, as should the Church. Salt makes life more tasty and interesting, as should the Church.
Light is different. How is light defined? Not easily. Here is a simple attempt: “Light is a type of electromagnetic radiation that allows the human eye to see or makes objects visible.” Light is the fastest moving thing we know in the universe. Can you imagine anything moving at 186,00 miles per hour? Light moves that fast per second. I can’t grasp that. Throughout the Bible, God is shedding light, giving light, bringing light. There are those glorious words we read at Christmastime: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. What has come into beingin him was life, and the life was the light of all people.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.” (John 1:1, 4-5)
How are we to be salt and light? Last weekend my wife and I went to see “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, a musical revue of the music of Fats Waller. Before the show, I was reading in the playbill the little briefs about each actor. At the end of one, she simply wrote Matthew 5:16. I knew that I would be preaching eight days later from the passage in Matthew 5 where that verse is found. I had it in my pocket on a 3×5 card. I pulled it out and read: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I thought, that’s how I want to live too. That’s how I want the Church of Jesus Christ to live, doing good deeds that bring salt and light to the world.
We are just 17 days from Ash Wednesday. We still have the Super Bowl in seven days, Valentine’s Day in nine days, and Presidents’ Day in 15 days. Even as we prepare for that great season of preparation, we are called to be salt and light. We are called to a kind of fasting that says no to what hinders us that we may say yes and do yes to shine the light and bring flavor to life
This is how God describes the right kind of fast: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps 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.” (Isaiah 58:6-8)
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” Then our light will break forth like the dawn.Are you remembering a song we learned years ago as youngsters, a song about letting our light shine? I am and I want to sing it with you now:
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….”
When Christmas season is completed and Epiphany is winding down, I remember this little poem by Howard Thurman each year:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”
That kind of living is for every season and every day, to let our light shine before others that they may see our good deeds and glorify our God. Let it shine, let it shine, let is shine.