SERMON 3 OF 5 IN A SERIES EXPLORING SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE, PREACHED 04 November 2012. READ Matthew 6:1-18
You don’t hear much about fasting these days, in fact in the worship surveys conducted at the start of the year some here noted that they knew little about fasting and that they have never heard teaching on it.
Well that is about to change!
I guess as we look around our culture we can understand why fasting may be out of favour.
It doesn’t fit!
If we want fast food – we want it now, and if they can’t serve us in only a few minutes we complain. Following trends set overseas we increasingly upsize our orders, and at a eat all you can buffet we end up eating more than we need, even more than we should – just because it’s there.
This attitude of having what we want when we want it extends to most aspects of life: texting, FB, entertainment. There is little we have to wait for. And we believe it’s our right to satisfy our desires whenever we want. So excess marks our landscape: and in the busyness of satisfying ourselves where is God?
God of course is where God has always been.
Waiting – just like a mother waiting up for her teenage son to come home. God is waiting.
Waiting for us to get our focus off of ourselves and to come home.
And this is where fasting comes in.
Fasting is the denial of something for the purpose of making space for God.
As with any spiritual discipline a fast can help us enter into God’s transforming presence, so that we live in the presence of God’s power; so that we experience the power of God’s presence.
So while fasting may be out of favour in our consumption driven society it is very much in favour in Scripture.
We just read from Matthew’s gospel this portion from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus has a bit to say about fasting.
Now note he does not instruct his disciples to fast: he assumes that they do fast.
Verse 16 Jesus simply says: ‘when you fast’ and he repeats this in the next sentence.
Shortly we’ll have a closer look at this but for now a quick overview:
- What is a fast?
- What does the Bible say about fasting?
- Then back to Jesus words in Matthew for an attitude check.
Typically and historically a fast involves food, or at least the giving up of food. It does not normally mean the going without all food rather it is a disciplined, there’s that word again, diet. During a fast, you still eat; you just abstain from certain foodstuffs. Traditionally, people have fasted by eliminating luxury items from their diets, such as meats. Or chocolate and other sweet foods or you could fast by eating whatever you want, but drinking only water. No beer, no soft drinks, no fruit juice, no Gibbston pinot, just water.
The simplest way to fast is to just omit an item or two from your regular diet—something that you would normally eat in the course of the day. Every time you get an appetite for those items, you will be reminded of your fast and that will remind you of the reason for your fast, and you can pray instead of eating.
This can have immense spiritual benefit. You are simply using your belly as a spiritual alarm clock – a call to prayer.Another way would be to choose a day in the week when you decide to fast during lunch or breakfast – by all means have a glass of water, but use the time normally set aside for eating for prayer and reading God’s word.Alternately fast from something else, remember that some people should not abstain from food, for some of us abstaining from Coro Street may be of more benefit than giving up meat; others may find a fast from the internet, or FB may be advantageous.
But whatever you put aside replace it with God time.
I made this mistake last week; I deliberately went without breakfast but I did so on my busiest day – fine way to start the day but I needed to be available to God when the hunger began to bite, but by then I was immersed in activity and forgot that I was fasting.
I believe it’s best to fast in such a way that you make space for God in your day.
The Bible has a lot to say about fasting; I haven’t done the sums myself but some say that there is more teaching in the NT on fasting than repentance and confession! And that Jesus taught more on fasting than on baptism and the communion!
From the Old Testament we learn that God’s people fasted when in …
Great sorrow. In Esther we learn of such a time. The king issues a decree that on a set day every Jew in the nation—young and old, women and children—were to be killed. And so we read the people’s response Esther 4:3.
In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
seeking God’s forgiveness, Lev 16:29-31; and when
praying for others. In 2 Sam 12:16-17 David fasted and prayed for the well-being of his newly-born son. We read
David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.
Likewise in the New Testament
Jesus fasted when facing a time of severe testing, Matthew 4:1-11
The church at Antioch, Acts 13:2-3, fasted as part of worship and discernment, and for Paul prayer and fasting was a natural part of commissioning new elders, Acts 14:23..
One thing all these examples have in common is prayer. Fasting and prayer belong together.
For together these humble us and help us develop an intimacy with our God.
And this brings us back to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
For it is apparent that fasting in and of itself does not please God. Indeed fasting when done with an attitude of superiority, pride, smugness misses the point entirely. Fasting which does not result in the conforming of our character to that of Jesus displeases God
You may recall a few weeks ago Deborah reminded us of this when she quoted Isaiah 58:6-8
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Fasting does nothing but break God’s heart when it is just a show.
Jesus knew that many in his time liked to put on the spiritual face. To be seen in public to be holy; so they would make a point of being seen in the synagogue, they would make sure that people noticed their generosity, their prayers, their humility, their fast.
Much like today I guess: some and possibly some even reading this, make sure they are seen to be holy but behind the scenes, when others aren’t watching they live a different life.
Their heart is not truly converted.
So Jesus says by all means fast, but don’t make a big song and dance about it. Don’t let the hunger in your belly show on your face. Matthew 6:17-18
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting,
Do your hair, put some make-up on, wash your face, and don’t make a show of your piety.
Notice also that Jesus gives his teaching on fasting in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that is a radical call to live out the life in Christ with justice, compassion, love and prayer.
Fasting is connected to prayer and again as in Isaiah fasting that pleases is connected to humility, other-centeredness, and non-violence: in other words fasting that pleases God is connected to our transformation: as we fast and pray and live out the life of Christ in us we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds and the character of the Christ will be seen in us with ever greater clarity.
So should we fast?
I cannot see why we wouldn’t!
If we are to follow the example and teaching of Jesus we will fast.
Besides that why should we fast?
I suggest for similar reasons to our forebears.
We should fast when seeking God; when expressing sorrow, when praying for others, when discerning God’s word.
While fasting may have benefits such as breaking habits, losing weight, saving money, saving time the greatest benefit is that it draws us in humility to God.
It enables us to focus on God and to put ourselves in the way of God’s transforming presence.
As we fast we reverse the pattern of this generation and learn to wait upon God rather than making God wait for us.
So how should we fast?
In our private spiritual life it would be good to fast when we are facing moments of big decision. When concerned and praying for loved ones, when feeling far from God and seeking to draw close.
And also we could and should be fasting together at times.
In small groups;
in leadership groups;
I suggest for example we add fasting to our monthly prayer day, and call the entire church to prayer and fasting. Imagine the impact of that?
Fasting, whether alone, in small groups or as a whole church is a discipline that helps us step away from our culture of excessive gratification and to step into the presence of God.
Fasting with humility and a real desire to seek God and be transformed by God is fasting that pleases God.