This passage from the Prophet Isaiah that is often part of our worship on Ash Wednesday is a challenging one. The prophet tells us just how badly we have been getting it wrong.
You’ve been getting it wrong, Isaiah says. You haven’t been loving God or your neighbor in the ways that you should. And not only that. You’re hypocrites! You make a big show of your humility and holiness while harming those who are most vulnerable and fighting with each other.
God’s vision of faithfulness, Isaiah tells us, is something quite different. To be truly faithful, we must set aside false humility and empty holiness. Instead, we can express our faith by embracing practices of connection, compassion, generosity, and justice.
Isaiah’s words are hard to hear. And in some ways they represent everything that people worry a service like Ash Wednesday will be like: heavy on the guilt, setting impossible standards, making us feel terrible about ourselves.
I do think Isaiah has a point. So much of what passes for religiosity is awful, from glossy cards filled with harmful platitudes to people wielding scripture as a tool of hate. You can find someone who calls themselves a Christian supporting just about any position or platform. And for all of us, it is a challenge to let God’s law, God’s love, change our lives as profoundly as it could.
Isaiah has a point. So much of what passes for religiosity is awful, and all of it is imperfect. We get confession and remorse wrong, too. A lot of the negative feelings that we carry around about ourselves have nothing to do with sin. Instead, they are harmful judgements from within or from without about our bodies, and our accomplishments, and our self-worth. Even when we feel badly about the right things – even when we recognize our true sins, the things that really do separate us from God – our regret is heavier and more permanent than it should be. We carry around so much shame and guilt and self-hate as permanent baggage.
God requires none of this heavy lifting. Centering our life on God, we are invited to free ourselves from all harmful judgements and recognize our true worth. And once we have repented for the things that have really stood between us and God, God offers to take their weight off of our shoulders too. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, Jesus says, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
What can we receive, if we take Jesus up on his invitation? What can we receive, if we decide to heed Isaiah’s warnings? What can we receive, if we release our burdens and confess our sins and accept God’s forgiveness?
“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 God will say, Here I am… The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Good news. Good news, for us and for all.
What harmful judgements about yourself do you need to let go of, recognizing that you are God’s precious and beloved child? What sins can you confess today, so that God might unburden your heart? What might change, if you chose Jesus’ easy yoke, and God’s healing? How could you rebuild your heart and be part of the movement to restore our communities?