Transforming Lives and Communities
Bible Readings : Isaiah 58:1-12 / Luke 4:16-21
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
We stand, between two seasons. Behind us is Epiphany, the period in which We begin our Lenten journey towards Easter with a world which is full of hardship and difficulties. The European war, East coast floods, and the heating up of politics before an election are wanting to dominate our thinking. But Lent traditionally is a time for prayer; fasting; and almsgiving (helping others). Lent is an opportunity for us to focus on our relationship with God and deepening our faith and spirituality; reviewing and simplifying our lives and making changes for the better; and taking concrete steps and contribute to a more humane, just world.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. Are you ready to come on a journey together? A journey that started last Wednesday and finishes at the cross? Would you like to come on this journey?
Lent is a time of preparation where we explore the logic and mystery of God’s love in our lives. When we reflect on the profound Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Lent invites us to once again hear the story of how love can change everything, to transform lives and communities. Lent is our opportunity to open up God’s Word, to share our spiritual insights together and allow our hearts to be realigned with God’s heart. Are you willing to come on this Lenten journey together?
Traditionally Lent has been a time to simplify our lives – that is where the idea of giving up something for lent came from. It is not a punishment or penance, but rather it is to make our lives less crowded and make more time or space for God and for spiritual reflection. I don’t know about you but there is too much happening in the world right now. With war, floods, deaths, upcoming elections, and still the cloud of covid … there is so many things demanding my attention that I am not sure if I am capable of entering into this simplified spirit of Lent this year … and yet, God is offering us an invitation. An opportunity to make a fresh start, to draw closer to God and to experience the fullness of a right relationship with God. We are invited to deepen our faith and spirituality, to review and simplify our lives, to make changes for the better and to make steps and contribute to a more humane and just world? That is something that I want. Are you also willing to be on this journey of simplifying and reflection with me?
To help and guide us on this Lenten journey of simplification and spiritual growth, the church over its history has prioritised three spiritual practices during Lent – Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
Prayer is fairly self-explanatory. We are invited to simplify our lives to make room to spend in prayer. To be praying for the world, to be praying for our friends and to be praying for the communities we live in. But also, to have times of more silent prayer, allowing time and space to just be in God’s presence, to listen for the still, small voice of the Spirit as it prompts, or guides, or reveals things to us. To spend time in prayer just meditating on a verse, or journaling on a thought, or pondering a question or issue. All of this is prayer and Christians over the centuries has found that spending extra time in prayer is helpful for there spiritual growth and aids in their ability to receive that deep spiritual blessing that comes to us at Easter.
Are you willing to come on this journey? Would you make a commitment to pray more this Lent? As your pastor I would like to offer you three ideas for praying this Lent – see if any of these might resonate with you.
- I would love for us to pray together. If you are chatting with someone, especially if it about an issue or a worry, I encourage you to consider quickly praying together right there about it. A thirty second prayer asking God to help. Let’s look for ways to pray together. Another idea I thought of was that we could write some prayers in our Church’s Facebook group (the TUC Community Group, not the TUC church page). If you are praying for something, just type it in the group so we can pray it together and encourage each other with our prayers and Amens!
- If you are not sure what to be praying for, I would encourage you to just sit in the presence of God, listen or just be. But if you wish to have some words to pray, there are plenty of resources online. Many of them are catholic (as they are probably the best at this Lenten spiritual practice) but they are all good. I have put a post on our website (scroll to the bottom of the front page to find it) which has a heap of Lent prayer resources which you might find helpful. There is even a prayer app (but it is one that will cost you).
- My third prayer idea is to encourage us to do some prayer walks into our local community. Kevin introduced this idea a few weeks ago, and if it ever stops raining, I would encourage us to give it a go. A prayer walk is simply walking around your local streets praying for the people and situations. Allow God to guide your prayers, but I find it best to pray for those in the houses I past, for the owners of the shops, for the parents in the playground etc. Just walk and pray and allow that spiritual disciple to draw you deeper into God.
Three prayer ideas but you might have others. Here is the challenge, if Lent traditionally is about the spiritual disciple of prayer and we are willing to go on this Lenten journey, what are you going to do over the next 6 weeks to pray more. Make the commitment, tell someone so that they can keep you accountable, (write it in the comment section … that will really keep you accountable) … and then enter into the practice and see where it takes you and the spiritual growth and blessings that it might bring.
But I also said that Lent is traditionally about three spiritual disciplines – prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Fasting is not something that we often talk about in church. The biblical understanding of fasting is when we give up something (usually food but it can be also other things) for a period of time in order to focus our thoughts on God. Fasting might be giving up one meal a day and with the time saved spend it in other spiritual practices such as reading the Bible, prayer or worship.
In the era when Isaiah was a prophet, fasting was something that the people of God were encouraged to do but it had lost it meaning. They were giving up the food, but not really using the time to reconnect with God. It was like they were just going through the motions, doing it but it wasn’t helping them in their spiritual life. (Does this hit a little close to home. Maybe not with fasting, but I know sometimes I feel the same about worship or other spiritual practices. I do them but they don’t seem to be connecting like it is supposed to)
Well, in the time of Isaiah, God noted this to. And this is the context for our first reading for today. God is not happy with the people of God but they want to argue back, “But we’ve done our fasting? Did you not notice.” God replies that they have missed the point. It’s not the fasting that counts … fasting is supposed to draw you closer to the heart of God, and that should influence our hearts and be reflected in the way we treat others.
Fasting is not a checkbox we need to tick, it is a spiritual tool to help us be more like God. So fasting means nothing if we are not loving those around us. I think the word of God says it better than I can. Let’s listen to how the Good News translates verse 3-5…
The Lord says to them, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. 4 Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? 5 When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?
So what kind of fasting does God want? If we are supposed to be focusing on Fasting during Lent, we need to know what sort of fasting God wants. God goes on in verse 6 to gives us an answer… Listen to this again from the Good News as this is the key passage that we are focusing on this Lent here at TUC. Are you ready for this… God says…
6 “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. 7 Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.
Take a moment and let that sink in. This Lent, the kind of fasting that God wants is to loosen the chains of injustice, to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and do not refuse help to those who need it.
Does that sound familiar? It should. It is almost word for word how Jesus described his mission, his purpose in Luke chapter 4, our other reading for today. At the start of his ministry, Jesus says this is what I am here for. This is my calling…
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
As we will see later on our Lenten journey, this includes the salvation that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but there is no doubt that Jesus is also speaking literally. He wants to help the poor and the marginalised and the oppressed. That is part of his calling and what God in Isaiah 58 calls us to do as well.
So this Lent, the challenge we have is what does it mean to undergo the spiritual practice of fasting? I want to encourage us to embrace fasting in the spirit of Isaiah 58 and Luke 4. This Easter, I want us to transform lives and communities by committing to loosen the chains of injustice, to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and not refuse help to those who need it. That can be our spiritual act of fasting this year.
As Leela Ramdeen, a social activist from the West Indies wrote, “Lent and Easter remind us that our baptism must mean something; it should transform our lives and lead us to hunger and thirst for justice and peace; it should lead us to commit to live by every value for which Jesus stood. As an Easter people, let us overcome indifference and recognise that we are God’s instruments to build a better world.”
So what do you think? Are you willing to come on this Lenten journey of fasting in this way?
Just think before you answer because we don’t want to be like the people of God in Isaiah’s time when they said yes but just went through the motions. God is looking for people of action, God is not looking for the priest or the Levite but rather for people like the Good Samaritan who is willing to do the simple things that actually help and make a difference. So, I ask you again, Are you willing to come on this Lenten journey of prayer, fasting in the spirit of Isaiah 58 and almsgiving?
I haven’t talked about almsgiving, but it is literally giving to those in need. So almsgiving during Lent is about making sacrifices to our own comfort (ie not spending as much on us) in order to during this lead up to Easter, to give to those who need it more. The key word there is that almsgiving is supposed to be a sacrifice, we are supposed to notice the impact that our giving has on the way we live. So instead of giving $100 to the flood appeal, almsgiving challenges us to give $1000 … because then it is a sacrifice that we will notice.
My challenge to all of us this Lent is to find 3 things or people or programs or situations and give generously to. I encourage these three things to be particularly in relation to the areas of Isaiah 58 – those suffering injustice or oppression, the hungry, homeless or those without, and those people we might know personally who need it. One advantage of a lot of things happening at the moment is that there is no shortage of people in need. Maybe if you have an idea for almsgiving, you can post it on our Facebook page so that others can consider it.
Is this getting hard or confronting yet? Are you still willing to come on this Lenten journey of prayer, fasting in the spirit of Isaiah 58 and almsgiving?
To help us on this journey during Lent, Kevin and I have put together a series of sermons and the three bible studies to do a deep dive into both the biblical and practical understanding of addressing poverty. And I need to give credit to the person who gave me the idea of splitting it up. I was reading a sermon from … Pope Francis – his first Lenten message after becoming Pope. He spoke about poverty (or he called it destitution) in three different ways:
- Material poverty … ie people don’t have what they need
- Moral poverty … people or society making immoral decisions which impact others.
- Spiritual poverty … which is summed up in the words of Paul from 2 Cor 8:9, that Jesus, though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich. Paul isn’t talking about physical wealth or possession here, he is talking spiritually.
So our plan is to offer you some sermons and an in-depth bible study on each … to explore what it means for us as Christians to understand and respond or make a difference when it comes to material poverty, moral poverty and spiritual poverty.
I am almost out of time in this sermon, but I am nowhere near finished. So I would encourage you to come along on Wednesday night for our large group gathering, where we will continue by looking at the Bible says about loosening the chains of injustice when it comes material poverty (and it says a lot), and some practical insights from different people including some great videos from TEAR Australia. Most of the things we talk about on the Wednesday studies will not be repeated in the sermon, and it really great stuff, so please come along, or connect in, or at least download the study from the website – but the best experience will be to come along.
And then next Sunday we will look at some more practical examples of how we might be able to transform lives and communities through our prayer, fasting (in the spirit of Isaiah 58) and almsgiving … but with a particular focus on helping those who are materially poor, those who do not have what they need. I have some other great videos to share with you next Sunday as well.
But for now, let’s finish by looping back to the last part of our reading from Isaiah 58. You see, in the typical upside-down way that God often works, when we commit ourselves to walking this journey of generously giving and helping through prayer, Isaiah 58 fasting and almsgiving; we find that this way of living actually … enriches us. In Isaiah 58:8-9, straight after God calls us to be standing up for injustice and the oppressed, to be helping the hungry and homeless, giving to those in need … God goes on to say …
8 “Then my favour will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. 9 When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.
This is my prayer for our Lenten journey together. That we will not only commit to genuinely engaging in prayer, i58 fasting, and almsgiving, but that we will also as we draw closer to the cross and Easter that we will feel the warmth of God shining on us, that we will experience the healing, protection and interaction in prayer that comes with being in God’s presence. I ask you one last time, are you willing to walk this Lenten journey together? Let’s go. Amen.