Sunday 2 July 2023

True Fasting - Job 29

Job looks back on better days in his life, before the current tragedy and hardship he is now in. He remembers God's intimate friendship and blessing. He recalls how he commanded respect in the town amongst young and old, with people speaking well of him. This was because of the way he treated people - all people regardless of their status. He would rescue the poor crying for help, the orphans left stranded, befriend the dying, and stand by the widow left to her own devices. He remembers putting on righteousness as his clothing, justice as his robe - in other words the way he lived his life exhibited these qualities that are often hard to find in everyday society. This was not just handouts - but acting 'like a father' in showing deep and genuine concern for people. He would even take up the case of strangers, and actively come against the wicked. All this commanded him great respect.

For us at Countess Free Church we know this language that Job uses of helping those in need - we find it in Isaiah 58 which describes 'True Fasting': to loose the chains of injustice, untie cords that keep people bound, and set the oppressed free. As a church we rehearsed these theological foundations ten years ago, spending the year looking at the justice and mercy of God as the foundations with initiatives such as the Foodbank, CAP and the Recovery Cafe and so on. In Isaiah 59 God seems to ask 'who will do these things?', and our answer as church became 'Us!'. That same chapter then talks of God coming down wearing certain clothing: a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation and so on. We know that to be Jesus, and as we now try to walk as Jesus did we look to wear the same clothing and do the same thing.

Yet in those Isaiah chapters the call for 'true fasting' leads to a promise (see chapter 58 verse 11): the Lord will guide you always, he will satisfy your needs, and you will be like a well watered garden. That is a promise that Job clearly doesn't feel right now! He doesn't see it - in fact his experience is now the opposite. So how do we reconcile this? On one hand is a straight and clear promise, but for Job it doesn't stack up?

First we should remember that while Job feels isolated from God's presence, how we feel and the reality can be two different things. Our previous key question asked about holding truths of God even when things are difficult. Sometimes we need others to hold those truths on our behalf, because at the moment we just can't feel it. That requires some skill for the other person - they must learn how to declare and then be - clearly yet gently declaring the truth of God (because that is solid), but recognising the pain and turmoil of your situation. There is a fine line between clearly declaring and persuading that becomes over-bearing ... so setting out what we know of God and then letting it just sit amidst the pain without further comment might be the best course of action.

Second we can look at how to take the promise of Isaiah 58 verse 11. For sure it can be taken materially, but we should also hold a spiritual interpretation - God will satisfy needs with spiritual resources. Job is certainly suffering physically and also materially, and yet he still sits in the spiritual resources of God. This creates a tension where again we need to be very careful. At one end sits the so-called 'prosperity gospel', which claims that if we truly follow God then we will certainly financially prosper. This is to be rejected because it doesn't fit the overall promises in scripture nor the way of Jesus. At the other end of the spectrum is a 'solely spiritual' view that tries to tell people 'you are not thinking spiritually enough - you shouldn't be worrying about your material suffering at all'. This extreme doesn't work either, because it advocates living in denial of real (and possibly acute) pain.

Instead we are called to walk with Jesus in a mysterious tension - learning to operate in God's resources which does not guarantee riches for us, but is not in denial of the reality (and perhaps the harshness) of our circumstances either. That is because the promise of Isaiah 58 is not a slot machine contract, where one puts in coins of 'true fasting' in order to get blessing out. Neither it is a bargain with God (I will do this if you do that). Instead it is a call to a deeper journey with God, into the struggle of His justice within which we can operate in His resources.

We can suggest seeing all the promises of Scripture like this, rather than simple exchanges or transactions. When Jesus started his ministry he preached 'on the mount' (see Matthew chapter 5). He used a series of 'Blessed are those ...' (or 'Happy are those ...') statements, which included struggle - those who are poor in spirit, who hunger & thirst for righteousness, are merciful etc., i.e. echoing the 'true fasting' of Isaiah 58 and the character of Job. It is in this struggle that Jesus is saying people can discover the spiritual resources of God, and so for our own lives of 'true fasting' we can expect struggle as well. In fact Jesus culminates the statements with 'Rejoice in persecution'! God's way can be hard - and people may turn against us ... yet this becomes a place of celebration!

Celebration because despite the hardship, struggle and setback it becomes the place where you maximally operate in God's resources. It is not easy ... but it is the way of Jesus.

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