How to make a sermon on fasting interesting? Or relevant? Or fun?
Well, I’m not sure I accomplished any of the above, but I did make it practical. We distributed a very clear Call To Action at the conclusion: a church-wide fast on Monday, February 6, complete with instructions on how to fast and what to pray for during it. You can see that CTA at the end of the message.
The message’s bottom line: Fasting isn’t for Somebody Else. It’s for Everyone Here.
This is an odd time in US history to do a message on fasting, isn’t it? Because in so many ways, food has a more prominent place in our collective mindset than ever before. There’s a Food Network now. There are celebrity chefs now. There are contests and melodrama around the next celebrity chef! Who would have thought that what started out just with Julia Child & the Galloping Gourmet would now become this phenomenon with Rachel Ray, Emeril Legasse, and others? And just when it couldn’t get any more pervasive, just when you wonder how food can get bigger, they come up with Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (AV).
Food is everywhere and in some ways it has become art form, entertainment piece. It’s no longer just for nutrition but for entertainment. No longer for sustenance; it’s a competition. People in our land no longer eat to live; they live to eat.
So it’s interesting. In the middle of all this celebration of food, I’m going to do a talk on prayer and fasting. Some of you are like, “huh?” Like the father who announced to his wife and 5 year old that he was going to fast and pray that day. And the little girl said, “No! You can’t fast! You’ll die!” And the dad answered her and said, “Honey, I can do this. Many of the men and women in bible days fasted.” And the girl answered with warning, “Yeah, and they’ve all died, haven’t they?”
Well, so they have. But that five year old really touches on something that many of us who feel anything at all about fasting feel about fasting: it’s for Somebody Else. It’s for the religious elite. It’s for the spiritual overachievers. If we’ve heard of it at all, that’s how we usually respond: “Whew! Glad other people are handling that part of the Xnty thing!” For Somebody Else.
And then ome of you may have never really heard of fasting – which is going without food for a specific time in order to draw close to God. Others perhaps have thought that only Muslims do it during Ramadan. Still others of you are familiar with it but hoped to goodness that you would never be confronted with it. And still others, probably a very few, have done it and had your spiritual lives blessed and strengthened by it.
There’s a little bit of interesting history here. Fasting in order to grow in spiritual strength and intimacy is common in several religions. Like I said, a lot of you know that Muslims go without food from dawn to dusk every day of Ramadan. But fasting pre-dates them. Certainly back as far as our Jewish brothers and sisters. And in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, many of the religious leaders – See? The ultimate in Somebody Else! Religious overachievers! — would fast (in that case no food during daylight hours) on Mondays and Thursdays. You know why? Because those were the days that Moses was supposedly on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments! Conveniently, these days were the biggest market days of the week, so the religious leaders would oft parade up and down the market place, drawing attn. to themselves and their fast.
But look how Jesus describes it in Matt 6:16:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
When it says that they “disfigure their faces,” it actually meant much more than that. Fasters in those days – public fasters, at least – would pour ashes on their body, they would purposely mess up their hair and not wash it, they would make their faces purposely dirty and grimy, and – get this – they’d not bathe. So you could SMELL a faster coming! You can already tell this is not MY kind of deal! (The part about unkempt hair gets me right at the front!) So on Mondays and Thursdays you had religious leaders looking, acting, and SMELLING the part: they are fasting and it is HARD. And, by the way, we are elite, we are Somebody Else.
So Jesus comes along and says, “no, no, no. That’s not what fasting is all about.” Notice that he says in v. 16 “when” you fast. Not “if” you fast. Not “should it be convenient for you to fast.” “When” you fast, so he assumes that his followers will do it. He also gives this little talk in the middle of a section on giving and praying, neither of which are optional or recommended in the life of a Xn. They are simply part of the deal.
But there’s more that he says. Look at 6:17-18:
17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
When you fast, make your body clean, make your clothes respectable, look good! Look hot! Jesus is saying not only to keep it a secret (unlike the public fasters) but while you fast you should really enjoy life. You can be clean, spiffy, normal and even though you’re not eating, you are enjoying life.
And we’re like, huh? How are we supposed to act like everything is OK, in fact, better than OK, when we’re fasting?! And then I get it: you can enjoy life when you fast and pray because it’s all . . . so . . . real. See, with our food, we fill ourselves with STUFF – stuff that is tangible, tactile, filling. We eat for more than nutrition, don’t we? What’s it called? Comfort food. We crave these things that we don’t really need – whether it’s a really good chicken sandwich or chocolate bar – and sometimes we are enslaved by those things. The craving leads to enslaving. You’ve probably got them. Not chicken or chocolate for you, necessarily, but something, somewhere.
The thing is, that stuff is not real, it’s not eternal, it’s not enduring. Sometimes, as we’ll see, we even eat to cover up other, more difficult things going on in our lives. So Jesus is telling us that when we fast we should get dolled up. And Jesus tells us this when he’s telling his original followers this, and believe me, they were a ragtag group. A motley crew. The opposite of religious elite. And yet he includes them in the fun and here’s why: Fasting isn’t for Somebody Else. It’s for Everyone Here. It’s not about the religious elite; it’s about the spiritually starving. It’s not for the overachievers; it’s for all us underwhelmers.
Because he wants to show ALL OF US that he is more important than food; that man really cannot live by bread alone. He wants you to know that paradox that as Richard Foster says it, “when you’re fasting, your feasting.” It’s the opposite of what you’d think, but there is something about that process of emptying your body of food, stuff, needs, that makes you so, so much more open to being filled with God. Filled with stuff that is eternal and real and true. You won’t know what it’s like til you try it. When you fast and pray, God empties you of what is tangible in order to fill you with what’s real. And why would God reserve that for the few when it can bless the many?
Like when you fast and pray – let’s say you go 24 hours without food, from dinner one night and don’t eat again until dinner the next night – God empties you of that food, that sense of fullness. And in part at least he does it to fill you with an AWARENESS OF YOU UTTER NEED FOR HIM. Look at Mt 4:4: Man shall not live by bread alone. See, when hunger pangs set in for most of us North American Xns, it is often a phony sign. Your stomach has been conditioned by the clock and not by real hunger. And so what you think you need is food. That if you don’t eat you can’t take another step.
No, no, no. In this chosen fast, that weakness serves to remind us that we re utterly dependent on God for everything. Food does not sustain us! God does! Mt. 4:4! So you say, “Lord, I am hungry right now. I can’t take the next step on my own. Will you take it for me? I am powerless without you.”
A few years ago we were having a healing service on a Monday night. And I had decided to skip breakfast & lunch on that day, sort of to be “prayed up” for the service. My plan was to eat dinner – so I’d have enough “strength” for the service – when I heard a word very clearly (and remember, I don’t say this often): Miss dinner. I’m like, “Huh?” Came again: the service will go better tonight if you miss dinner. “But Lord, do you know what I’m planning for dinner?” “MISS DINNER.” So I did! And it was so cool, the weaker, the hungrier I was that night, the stronger the prayers flowed. Probably our most dramatic healing service ever. That was enjoying life, to see God move like that when I acknowledged my complete dependence upon him. .Fasting isn’t for Somebody Else. It’s for Everyone Here.
I believe in that emptying God will fill you with an awareness of sin. Sometimes we use food to cover up areas of our lives – it’s a coping mechanism against anger or guilt or even despair. And when you go without that covering up, when you’re emptier, sometimes that stuff rises up. I’ll be honest: when you start fasting, you’re likely to become more irritable. More angry. More selfish. Especially if you forget going in that fasting is an oil your face, dress up, enjoy life kind of affair!
But when stuff rises up, it can make us keenly aware of our shortcomings before God. Fasting gets us out of denial. Someone here is in denial about a relationship that is verging on an affair. Someone else is in denial about your level of porn usage and whether or not you can control it. And someone else is in denial about the impact your temper is having on everyone else in your house. “They’re OK with it,” you think. “They know it’s ‘just me.’” Uh, no they don’t. Fasting can bring you face to face with that which you have been moving to a hidden room in your life. This is not to make you wallow in guilt but to make you aware of sin and denial. Not user-friendly, easy Xnty! Just true. It’s a bit like what Abe Lincoln did on 4.30.1863 at the nadir of the CW: he called on a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer. Listen: READ. Can you imagine such a thing now? .Fasting isn’t for Somebody Else. It’s for Everyone Here.
And fasting fills you with a BURDEN. This is probably the heart of what fasting is about. Many people get enter into a day or season of fasting because of a specific need or burden. When that prayer burden for that issue or that idea becomes so enormous, so overwhelming, that you just have to show God how serious you are, you fast. And do you know the best burden? I’m speaking to Xns n the house right now. It’s this: wandering, searching, lost people. People you know that if they died tonight they face an eternity without Christ. I Timothy 2:3-4 This is good & pleases God our Savior who wants ALL PEOPLE to be saved & come to a knowledge of the truth shows us that God’s heart beats with that burden. He longs for the welcoming home of lost and searching people. What he’s about.
A few years ago I was praying for someone I knew to come home in that way. And I’d gone 36 hours. But again, I heard very clearly: “can you give me breakfast? Is this soul worth you missing breakfast as well?” Oh, I hoped that I was just speaking to myself and giving myself false info, but I know that’s not the case. It was from the Lord. I know that cuz the burden is the same. REFRAIN and it has to do with sharing burden with God.
So here’s my invitation. If you’re diabetic or pregnant or have a history of eating disorders, please consider yourselves exempt. But for everyone else, tomorrow, 2.6.17 in fact, let’s fast 24 hours. Some of us may go 36. But let’s go from dinner on tonight the way through at least dinner tomorrow. Choose that burden. Every meal time that you would have spent eating, don’t now instead work. Or watch TV. Or reading, even. Spend it in prayer. We will be filled with burdens, eternal burdens, that we will give to God in desperation and in humility. Water, juice, and breath mints are fine. No food. And my prayer is that from this one-time, church-wide fast, you’ll be just refreshed enough, just close-to-God enough, that it will become a habit. A Not Eating Habit. And we will watch with expectation to see how God answers …