From Rituals to Relationships

In our Bible readings, there are two “Why?” questions that relate to the practice of our faith and the content of what we believe. First, in Zechariah, the people ask the prophet “Why do we continue to fast to remember the destruction of the temple when the temple has been rebuilt?” For years, the people continued to mourn and fast from mid-November to mid-December as a way of grieving the loss of the temple that was destroyed by Babylon. This had gone on for 70 years and in the meantime, the situation had improved and the temple had been rebuilt. Now the people were wondering, “Should we continue fasting?” And they sent a delegation to the prophet Zechariah to see what God’s will was on the matter.

To understand this question and the prophet’s response, it is helpful to know something the practice of fasting and its role in the spiritual life on the people. Fasting was a common spiritual discipline throughout the days of the Bible and even continues to be commonly preached into the modern age.

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth says that Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes. This fasting, which involves abstaining from all food and drinking only water, could last a few days, weeks, even up to a month. The purpose was to set aside something very common that often controls us, namely our appetite, for the purpose of focusing on God within us and among us. It was not a way to lose weight or even to lodge a political protest, but a way to focus on God and God’s wills.

In the days of Zechariah, a public fast would have been as common a spiritual tradition as gathering together for a Thanksgiving service and meal. This fast, connected with the destruction of the temple would have survived an entire generation, it was not only a way to remember a difficult time, but share a common experience that would bind the community together.

Now it is 70 years later and the people are wondering should we continue this? This temple had been rebuilt, things had gotten back to normal. Why fast? They go to the prophet and pose the question: “Should we continue this: as we have for so many years?”

The prophet Zechariah doesn’t answer their questions, at least not directly. Instead, he reframes the question and puts it right back to them. When you fast who were you fasting for? When you feast, who are you feasting for? Whether you fast or feast, the important thing is that your focus be on God. The ritual of fasting is meant not as an end in itself, but a means to a deeper relationship with God and with each other. The ritual is intended to move you into deeper relationship.

Zechariah makes this point clear as he conveys the word of the Lord about what’s most important:. Render true judgments. Show kindness and mercy to one another. Be fair and good to others. Look after those in need… the widow, the orphan, the alien, the poor. Work for good-do not desire evil, against one another.

The people must have wondered…where did this come from?  The asked Zechariah a simple question about a fast and he gave them the third degree, along with a sermon on ethics. The people had lost sight of the purpose of fasting, the focus on God and the drawing together those with common needs. The people had become self-satisfied and were only looking to do away with a ritual key thought had become worthless instead of recapturing the spirit behind the ritual, along the ritual to move them into relationships with God.

This text reminds me of a couple who had been married 60 years. When asked what kept them together, they said good communication, we listen to one another and each night after supper. They said they “took the dog for a long walk.” Even though their marriage outlived the dog for over forty years, they continued each night to go for long walks, enjoying the company of one another, allowing this ritual to strengthen their relationship.

Rituals, traditions are important. They can strengthen the relationships we have with each other and with God. They are not, however, ends in themselves. If we do them only for the sake of doing them, they can lose their meaning and significance. We can get to the point where it seems like we’re just going through the motions. If our focus, however, is on God and what God can do through our rituals to build relationships, we will find, like the couple married 60 years, that they draw us together and give meaning to our lives.

In our Gospel story this morning, there is another question Sadducees approach Jesus with a question about the afterlife. It is a complicated question, about an absurd situation where a woman is windowed seven times and they ask, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” This absurd question is made even more ridiculous when we realize that the Sadducces did not themselves believe in the resurrection. They are trying to trick Jesus, to get him to show that belief in life beyond death is ridiculous. But Jesus stands firm and challenges them with a statement, “God is the God of the living, not the dead. Death is not the final reality for those who believe. God has throughout history proven that new life is possible-that in life and death we belong to God. God is the God of the living.

Just as Zechariah challenged the people by moving them from ritual to relationship, Jesus challenges us by moving us from thoughts of death to new life. He shifts our focus, just as he shifted the focus of the Sadducees. The resurrection is not a crazy notion. It is a living truth made possible in Jesus Christ. Our lives are given new meaning because in Christ we are not just inching closer toward death with each tick of the clock, in Christ; we are constantly moving in the presence of the living God builds relationships out of rituals, builds confidence out of doubt, brings new life out of death.

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