“Going Through the Motions”
Ash Wednesday/February 22, 2012
High school was a time of going through the motions for me. With the exception of my eternal struggle to understand math, I didn’t find it very challenging. I had one thing that kept me going, and that was Varsity Choir – and boys. Okay, that's two things. But Varsity Choir was my true love and my saving grace, and I focused on that, and stuck it out in everything else because I had to. The understanding in my family was that getting an education was not optional. College was a given, and in order to get to college, I had to be in high school. I had to get through it, so I went through the motions.
High school is not the only time in my life where I’ve felt as though I’m only going through the motions. I’ve had jobs that have been the same way. You just try to make it through every day, look like you are into what you’re doing and go through the motions. As my friend Chris says, “You fake it till you make it.”
Every aspect of life can feel this way at times. Even things you used to do with great passion and energy become rote. I notice this at times in our worship. Usually with the things we say or do every week – like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. In the Apostle’s Creed we are confessing what we believe, and we may believe passionately in the words that we utter. But think about how it sounds when we say it.
Hear the most monotone voice you can imagine in your head, then these words …
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …”
Perhaps we are just going through the motions.
For the Israelites, fasting, religious ritual and their other religious observations had become times of going through the motions. They participated in the rituals and kept the observances, but their heart wasn’t in it.
In the particular context in which Isaiah wrote, fasting was not the devotional practice that it is today. At that time fasting was done during a time of mourning or as a response to a crisis. And the Israelites have certainly reached a crisis. Commentators and biblical scholars refer to these last chapters of Isaiah as Third Isaiah. Although this is controversial, it is speculated that a third person writing in Isaiah’s name was continuing on with the prophetic tradition. And in these last chapters of Isaiah, third or otherwise, the Israelites have returned to their homeland. They have been rescued out of exile in Babylon – they have been redeemed from their time of banishment. They have come home.
Even though this particular homecoming has been years in coming, the novelty has now worn off. The hard work has begun. The returning Israelites are faced with the enormous task of rebuilding, and they are starting to despair. They are starting to lose hope. Yet they continue to worship, they continue to practice fasting, but their heart is not really in it. It’s almost as if they no longer believe in the promises of God and in his words spoken by the prophets.
Because the Israelites were going through the motions of worship, their fasting was not so much a way of practicing righteousness as it was a way to manipulate God. It’s as if they were declaring to God, “Look God, if we fast then you will see our devotion to you and our righteousness, then you will have to do what we want you to do.”
Yet God does not answer to this kind of false worship. This is why at the beginning of chapter 58 the Israelites complain that they are not being heard by God. Their fasting is not being noticed.
God has noticed. And God reminds them that true worship, true fasting is loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, it is sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house. It is covering the naked and not hiding yourself from your own kin. It is letting your light break forth like the dawn.
This is the worship we are called to offer to God – worship with our whole being, heart, soul and mind. It is not taking the grace we are given for granted. It is active, not passive. It is manifesting God’s love in the very real, very broken world. Worship is more than just going through the motions. Amen.