Transcription details: Audio 07 08 2018.mp3
Input sound file: Audio 07 08 2018.mp3
in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is going through what religious practices were popular in his day. Earlier in this chapter, he talked about the practice of blowing a trumpet when you put your gift into the offering. He talked about the practices related to prayer. And now, he talks about something that may not be very well-known to most of us. When you fast– now, there’s a lot of people who like to say, “That means that Jesus expects us to fast.” The answer I would say to that is, “It’s complicated.” It won’t fit into a 20-minute sermon. But Jesus certainly is trying to change what they’re focusing on in Jesus’ day. So the first thing that comes into mind when we think about fasting is if fasting has to do with going without food. And you know, that’s basically true. Fasting is a part of every world religion. Some religions have very specific rules for fasting. Jewish people, for example, are forbidden to fast on the Sabbath Day. That there are 25 other times that they are recommended to fast. Protestants generally have no rules for fasting. Why? Because we are Protestants. We like the freedom to do what we feel God is leading us to do and I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of us who feel that it’s God’s will that we not fast. [laughter] Let’s be honest.
But to most people, the first level of understanding in fasting is, it means to do without food. But there’s another level. There are people who, as a part of their spirituality, connect the idea of fasting up with mourning, grieving, repenting. They connect it up with religious customs that do the same thing. A great deal of that is sincere. But if you look on the Internet, if you pay attention when fasting is mentioned on Facebook. There is a disturbing theme that you will here. And the disturbing thing is this: “If you fast if you persecute yourself. If you go without and suffer, you can make God do what you want. You can get that prayer answered that you want. You can get that old boyfriend back. You can get that brand new car. Or, if that’s not enough money, that brand new combine. Nice and shiny, and, is it green or red? What’s the best color?
Green? Okay. [laughter] What would I know? [laughter] But there’s almost this little theme that if you can do it in just the right way, it’s like a little magic thing and you can get what you want from God, no matter what God feels about it. And you need to think just a minute about what it means to repent repent. Repent is not about you getting what you want. It’s about God getting what God wants. And so this is just wrong. And it’s so wrong that Jesus needed to address it. You see, in Jesus’s day quite often fasting was competitive. I fast better than you. I am more fancy than you with my fasting. It was a way for people to show off. The Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18:11. The Pharisee stood, notice how Jesus puts this, “The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself.” “God, I thank you, that I’m not like other men. I’m not an extortioner, I’m not unjust, I’m not an adulterer, I’m not even like this tax collector.” Verse 12, you can see the showoff here. “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.”
You see, in religious circles in Jesus’s day, your very public fasting was a way to be competitive and to show off. Luke 5:33, and other places in the new testament and they said to him, they came to Jesus in criticism, “The disciples of John fast often. And while they’re fasting they offer prayers. And so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours seem to be always eating and drinking.” That still comes down to today, doesn’t it? The disciples were criticized because they weren’t showing off as well as the others. This is wrong. And so we come to the scripture for today, Matthew 6. “And when you fast do not look dismal like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces. They throw ashes over their head. They smear their faces with dirt as if they’d not bathed for a week. They do this so that their fasting may be seen by men.” As Jesus said about the way they pray, about the way they give, “Truly I say to you they’ve received their reward.” God is sick and tired of our religious showing off.
God looks down and sees a stand-up, sit-down, kneel, sing loud, sing soft. God watches us putting on a show because we belong here in church. And God is tired of the show. It’s been in reruns for 2,000 years. He’s tired of the show. Our faith is not showbiz. Our faith is not going through the motions, acting in a certain way. But sadly, for a lot of people, it’s not gone from the hands to reach the heart it’s a matter of acting in a certain way rather than it reaching our hearts. God is tired of the show. God wants to see real faith. So Jesus says, “When you fast, don’t be throwing dirt on yourself. When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by men, but by your father, who is a secret. And your father who sees in secret will reward you.” You see, it’s not about what other people can see. It’s about what’s between us and God, and that applies to fasting, too. But fasting can also be more than food. This is the third level of understanding fasting.
It’s to be able to do something good with time and resources saved because you are not eating. Now I don’t know if you gave up chocolate for Lent, but the idea of this is, you take your chocolate. You give it to somebody else who needs chocolate. I don’t know myself anyone who needs chocolate, but there’s probably someone out there who needs chocolate. Somebody just waved at me. But maybe instead of chocolate, you might give the food that you were eating to the food pantry. You might do something good with that time. In Jesus’s day, they had to work every day in order to eat that day. Jewish families had to save a little bit out each day so there would be food to eat on the Sabbath. Poor people have to work or they can’t eat. So what does it mean if you decide to fast? I have a whole day now that I can devote to doing something that God wants to do. Keep track some day of how much time it takes to make the food that you eat. Keep track some day of how much time it takes to eat the food that you eat. Then add on to that the time it takes to clean up the kitchen and go to the grocery store. And if you just gave that time to God, you would find you have a lot of time.
This understanding of fasting is the idea that the purpose of fasting is to allow us to do what God wants, and free our time up from what might not be as valuable as we think. Now somebody might say, “Now if I don’t have those pancakes smothered with butter and maple syrup, how will I have energy to do anything for God, if I give up all those carbohydrates?” Well you know, a fact that the way your body works is if you run out of carbohydrates, your body switches over to burning fat, and oddly enough, it’s very efficient at burning fat. In fact, one of the problems if people fast, they quite often find they have so much energy they can’t go to sleep at night. You know why that is? a thousand years ago when your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, whatever got up in the morning, they did not have a refrigerator full of food. They had to get up and go get it even when there was no food in their stomach. And your body is made to find energy when you are not actually eating. And it will. So fasting gives us time, but there’s also energy to do the things that God would wish us to do.
Now it might be that the thing that most consumes your energy is not eating, although we do understand that don’t we? Maybe the thing that most consumes your time is something like watching television. Average two, three, four, five hours a day for some people. Maybe it’s that you’re a shopaholic. Maybe it’s that you’re a workaholic. You spend hours and hours at work after it’s time to go home doing things that don’t matter because you’re a perfectionist and you just can’t leave. Maybe you’re some other kind of -holic. Maybe there’s something else that if you gave it up it would give you time to do the things that you want to do for God. But if you don’t need to eat that day, you can step aside from work and do good. Fasting is more than food. And in fact, fasting is service to your neighbor. I don’t want to take the time to read the whole scripture, but it’s on the back of your bulletin here. Where in Isaiah 58, God talks about the show. God talks about looking down from heaven and watching people weave, and moan, and cry out, and, “Oh.” So that everyone will notice them. God is so tired of the show. And the words are right there.
Look at verse 3, “Why have we fasted and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves and though takest no knowledge of it? Behold,” God says, “in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose?” God says, “A day for a man to humble himself is it to bow down his head like a rush, like a weed in the wind, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him. Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” Verse 6, “Is not this the fast that I choose? To loose the bonds of wickedness. To undo the thongs of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.” Implying every yoke of slavery. Verse 7, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house? And when you see the naked,” which refers to extreme poverty, “to cover him, and to not hide yourself from your own flesh. Then
shall your light break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily. There’s not room for all the verses there, but it goes on down to the fourteenth verse where God says, this is the deepest level, the purpose of fasting is that you would become a kinder and better person. Because God says, what’s the great commandment? Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And when God gets our attention, God says, I want you to look at your neighbor now. What are you doing to your neighbor? Where is their cruelty that needs to be replaced by kindness? That’s the fast that I choose, a changed you showing God’s love to your neighbor. That’s the deepest understanding. It has nothing to do with food.
John Wesley fasted and I want to tell you I’m quite an incredible hypocrite about fasting. For many, many years that I was a diabetic, I just simply said, look, it’s not good for my health to go without food so I’m going to go straight for Isaiah and ignore the food part. I have since learned that I was completely wrong. Because the act of fasting, of going without food, can be phenomenally beneficial to your health. But here’s how John Wesley did it. He did it because it was part of the rules of the Anglican Church of which he was an ordained minister. John Wesley would fast on Wednesdays and Friday. He would start by not eating anything after supper. Boy, that’s unreasonable. And then the next morning, he’d skip breakfast, and he’d skip lunch, and he’d eat an early supper at three o’clock, not even 24 hours. That’s what he did. Not only that, it was a partial fast. John Wesley allowed his followers to have any kind of liquid including that giant mug of coffee, that I enjoy so much, with milk in it, or maybe cream. In John Wesley’s case, it was probably tea, might have been fruit juice, might have been vegetable juice, as long as it was liquids. Because you see, it’s not about food, but about you choosing to do something for God.
In fact, Wesley would not ordain people, would not accept people into the Methodist Ministry if they weren’t willing to do this. And so I, for over 30 years– I’m not good enough for John Wesley. As time passed and he got older, Wesley changed, pulled back to just Friday which was the Anglican norm. But in his sermon on fasting, he went on and on about how unwilling people were to take this challenge. Jesus says when you fast– so if you fast, there’s some things we need to be aware of. Little practical considerations. If to you, fasting is going without food, first of all, if you have any sort of illness, particularly if you’re a diabetic, you need to talk to your doctor and get your doctor’s advice. Secondly, if you choose to fast, it should be for a period of one day or less, perhaps like John Wesley, nothing after supper, skip breakfast and lunch. You need to drink when you’re fasting. Most of the time, when people are hungry, well, it’s not because they’re hungry, but it’s because they’re dehydrated. If you find that you’re hungry, and you drink a big glass of water, a lot of times the hunger goes away. On the other hand, let me make a point just about hunger, anyway. When you go back to the salt potluck line for the third time, you’re not going back because your body needs the food.
You’re going back because your mind says, “Oh, oh, that pie. I need another slice of that pie.” But your body does not need another slice of pie. In fact, your body doesn’t care whether it’s pie or beef or vegetables or whatever. Hunger is mostly in the mind. But a lot of times it’s simply because we don’t drink enough. I tell you please pray for me to drink more. It’s very possible I was in the hospital because my being dehydrated in that hot Texas sun exacerbated a bunch of little things to become a big thing. Another very solid principle of fasting is if you feel ill, then you just stop. And finally, if you’re curious about this, come and see me. Let’s have a talk about it. But if you want, you can zoom right past the food part, and go straight to being a better person part, and begin to seek to do God’s will in your life.
Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, people around you in your day were always fasting. They were quite competitive about it. We’re not so competitive about it but Lord, for some of us, it might be a good thing. I ask that you would open our minds to the possibilities because for some of us, it would be your will that we do fast. For some of us, Lord, it might be your will that rather than fasting as doing without food, we might fast in order to focus more on doing your will. Please guide us into all that is holy and all that it means to be a Christian in our hearts. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen. I like to invite you to stand and let’s sing our closing hymn which is Spirit of the Living God Fall Fresh on Me.