Much of the world that we live in can be called disingenuous at best. We live in a culture of “reality” TV … programs that, more often than not, are anything but real. We live in a culture of empty calories … foods full of things that don’t do one bit of good for our bodies. We live in a culture that is at times so focused on our online worlds – our worlds of facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets – that when we gather in a room with one another, we spend more time “interacting” with people online than we do with the person sitting right next to us. We spend hours upon hours staring at screens – computer screens, tablet screens, smartphone screens – tapping and tapping and tapping away … and when our heads hit the pillow at night, we wonder why it is that we feel so out of touch, so disconnected, so lonely.
This detachment … this ungenuine way of being … this lack of authenticity is not what God desires for us. This is not the life for which we were created. And yet somehow, this is what fills our hours, our days, our lives. Even as we embark on our Lenten journey this evening, as we turn our faces toward Jerusalem with Jesus and set our feet on a path that we know will only end at the foot of the cross, we strive to be our own authentic selves.
But this authentic self … this is the “self” that God calls us to be. This is the “self” that God wants us to be. This is the “self” that God created us to be. We hear God crying out for our authentic dedication through the words of the prophet Isaiah. God gave Isaiah a powerful command: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” God recognizes that the people have been seeking after a relationship with God, but their seeking is far from authentic. Their fasts are empty fasts. Their words are empty words. Even their praise is empty praise. And so God lays out this insincerity before their eyes and their wondering, wandering hearts: “Look, you serve your own interest on your own fast day … Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”
Jesus’ own words in Matthew’s gospel are no less convicting: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Jesus warns against a “showy” piety – a faith that looks perfect on the outside to hide the imperfect lives we all lead. He makes it clear that God does not desire grandiose, public displays of our faith. Extravagant giving for the sake of those who witness the giving … loud and flowery prayers for the ears of the one praying … conspicuous fasting displayed for the world to admire … this is not the genuine way of faith for which we were created.
Instead, God speaks through both Isaiah and Jesus to the power of authentic actions of faith – actions that come from the deepest needs in our hearts and the truest needs of the world around us. Theologian Frederick Beuchner describes it in this way: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This is the place where we find our authentic selves. This is the place where we find our authentic practice of faith. Isaiah calls us to this authentic practice – being God’s hands and feet among those who are struggling, pouring out God’s grace and mercy in a world desperately in need. And Jesus calls us to authenticity in our hearts – to give and pray and fast because we truly desire nothing more than to journey closer to God. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Tonight, we gather as God’s own children – weary, worn-down, searching, questioning, in need of a Savior. We bring only ourselves because in the end, that is all we have to give to God. We gather to remember our own mortality. We gather to repent – as a community and as individuals – bringing to God all those things about ourselves that we’d rather forget … those things that we’d rather not see … those things that we try to hide. We gather to embark on this journey of Lent together because we realize that we have been blessed to not have to walk this road of life and faith and humanness alone. And we come knowing that even when we are far from perfect, God desires us as we are – real in our need, authentic in our repentance. In this authentic faith, we find blessing. Isaiah said it: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly … Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”