Ash Wednesday 2009 @ St Barnabas
I wonder what was your reaction when you heard about the Archdeaconry Day of Prayer and Fasting? I guess, none of us have an issue with the call to prayer. Most, if not, all of us pray regularly and we know that prayer is important in helping us learn more of God and discover His will for our life. But what about fasting? Fasting is a subject that we talk about rarely, and it’s a practice that’s often misunderstood.
And maybe one reason for this is that we find very little instruction about fasting within the Bible itself. Apart from the fact Paul mentions in a couple of places in 2 Corinthians the fact that he went hungry, there is no mention of fasting at all in the epistles, and there are only a smattering of references in the Gospels and Acts. Yet, although Jesus only occasionally talked about the subject, He quite clearly says in Matthew 6 – When you fast – not if you fast, or if it’s in your tradition to fast, but when you fast and it seems hard to avoid the conclusion from this verse that He expected His followers, at least from time to time, to fast. Although, I have to confess, for various personal reasons, this is not a habit I have regularly practised over the years.
So as we prepare for the Archdeaconry Day of Prayer and Fasting, I thought it would be helpful for all of us to take a fresh look at the subject and ask ourselves: what is fasting? why do we fast? and, just as importantly, how do we put this teaching about fasting into practice?
What is Fasting?
First of all, what is fasting? Fasting is a spiritual discipline which involves abstinence from food in order to devote oneself more fully to the Lord. It is not a discipline confined to the Christian faith, and it can some-times involve things other than food. The modern idea of “giving something up for Lent” is perhaps the last remnant of the once widespread practice of fasting, although people often tend to forget that the point of giving something up is not to make yourself feel more virtuous, or to rein in your household spending, but to recognise that our relationship with the Lord is more important than anything or, indeed, anyone else.
In extreme cases short periods of fasting can involve abstinence from both food and water, although from a medical point of view this is rightly considered extremely dangerous. Thus, for example, in the book of Esther we find the queen commanding the Jews to go without food or drink for three days as she prepares to go to the king, even though it is against the law (Esther 4:16). More commonly, and more sensibly, fasting involves abstinence from food, and, of course, the supreme example of this is Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which forms the basis for our celebration of Lent.
But for most of us, living busy, hectic lives, the most practical form of fasting, I believe, is that of the prophet Daniel who while busy serving the king of Cyrus spent three weeks eating no choice food and abstaining from meat and wine (Daniel 10:3). If our lifestyle will not allow us to fast completely, or if there are medical reasons, – and I guess this is true for many of us – then Daniel’s example of a partial fast as he sought God’s will is, I believe, a good one for all of us to follow. It might be going for 24 hours, for exam-ple, on bread and water, it might involve missing one meal out of three. But whatever the exact details, the whole point of fasting is that it involves some cost on our part, and an intention to go without in order to go deeper with God.
After all, Jesus’ teaching about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount is less concerned with hard and fast rules, than with the attitude of the heart, and this suggests that to some degree, the form our fasting takes is between us and God. This does not mean, however, that fasting is simply down to our own individual choice, and that we do it whenever we please. Many examples of fasting in the Bible are of groups of peo-ple, or indeed the whole people of God, coming together to seek God’s will, and indeed corporate fasting has often been a hallmark of a church seeking and longing for revival. So although it is one sense up to you how you respond to the archdeaconry day of prayer and fasting, it is important that all of us fast together, and encourage one another in our fasting.
So when March 6th comes, will you fast?
I love the story of King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles, chapter 20, Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea. It is already in Hazezon Tamar” (that is, En Gedi). Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to enquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him. Wouldn’t it be good if all the people of God in these churches and in this deanery came together as one for the purpose of seeking God’s will? Admittedly we are not faced with invasion and destruction of all that we hold dear. But I think there are few who are not concerned about the decline and possible extinction of the church in this area.
Why do we Fast?
And of course this leads us on to the whole question of why we fast. And an important answer to this question comes from our Old Testament reading, from Isaiah 58. Because although there was a reason why the Israelites’ fasting had no effect (and we’ll come onto this later), it seems that they knew well enough why they were supposed to fast. Verse 2 , day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. How eager, I wonder, are we to know God’s ways and for God to come near us? It’s very easy when we look at one of Isaiah’s prophecies to congratulate ourselves that we haven’t fallen into any of the Israelites’ sins, but I look at the spiritual temperature of our churches and wonder, if you’ll excuse the pun, just what appetite we have for God.
Fasting, you see, is a sign that we are serious about doing business for God, and it involves opening ourselves up to whatever He wants for our lives. That is why, after all, Jesus went into the desert after His baptism in the Rover Jordan. He had been confirmed as the One and Only Son of God, and He knew that a public ministry of preaching and teaching would lie ahead of Him, but He needed the time and the space with His Heavenly Father so He could perfectly know His will.
But as we have seen, Jesus is not the only person in the Bible who fasted. For example, when Nehemiah learns from his brother who has just come back from Jerusalem that his home city is in ruins, he spends some days mourning and fasting and praying before the God of heaven (Nehemiah 1:4). And I would reckon that it was through this period of prayer and fasting that Nehemiah came to understand that the Lord’s will was for him to be the person to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and to seek permission from the king for this expedition. Some years later his compatriot Ezra who is called to make the same journey from Babylon to Jerusalem calls a fast for his travelling party so that, as Ezra 8:21 puts it, we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.
Or again, moving forward into the New Testament, how do you think Paul’s great missionary journeys started? Did he suddenly decide one day that he was bored, or was given a diocesan strategy to implement by the elders in Jerusalem? Well, let’s listen to Acts 13:1-3, In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. And while we might be used to Paul being a great missionary, up until that point he had simply been a companion and helper to Barnabas, and still went under his old name of Saul. It was through this period of prayer and fasting that Saul (or Paul) discovered not only what God wanted Him to do, but also discovered a calling that would shape and mould the rest of his life.
And indeed part of the whole purpose behind the Archdeaconry Day of Prayer and Fasting is to enable us all to consider what God is calling us to do. I’m not saying everyone will suddenly hear a call to be a missionary or a minister or evangelist – otherwise we’d have no congregation left! – but wouldn’t it be great if one or two people clearly heard the voice of the Lord calling them through this day? I’ve been praying for a parish evangelist for over six years. Wouldn’t it be great if one of our number suddenly realised he or she had been given the gift?
How do we Fast?
Fasting, then, is about abstinence from food, or certain types of food, in order to seek God’s will, and we fast to show that we are serious about doing business with God. As we have already seen, there are very few instructions in the Bible about how we should fast, but we do have one or two clear principles which we would do well to put into practice. And the first one which comes straight out of reading from Matthew’s gospel is that it should not be obvious to other people. The purpose of fasting is not to draw attention to ourselves, as if somehow by doing this we are being super-spiritual or making ourselves particularly worthy of God’s attention. Indeed if this is our motive for fasting, then according to Jesus we have defeated the very object of our fast. That’s why He warns His disciples and us, When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. And while we might not even dream of doing such a thing, nonetheless this kind of warning, I think, can also serve as a reality check to us. Is what I am doing to honour God or satisfy my own pride? A question we must always ask when we set about doing serious business with our Lord.
And secondly, and connected with this, is there a link between my spiritual discipline and the kind of life I lead? We’ve already seen from our Isaiah passage that the people of God were not wrong to want to seek out the Lord and to know His ways. The problem was, however, that their fasting had no impact on the way they lived outside of the temple. Verses 3-4 …. on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Sobering words which I think we would do well to take to heart as we prepare for this day of prayer and fasting. How is what I am planning to do going to be of one piece with the way I behave at work, the words I use to my neighbour, the attitudes I hold towards my family and friends? We must get right away from the idea that spiritual discipline is about detaching ourselves from the world, and having a side of our existence disconnected from the everyday cares and stresses, and hustle and bustle.
And indeed, if fasting is about discovering God’s will, if it is about doing serious business with the Lord, then we must let our fasting change our deeds and our actions at the very deepest level. Which is exactly the same challenge Isaiah gave to his hearers all those years ago, 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 him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? And while we might say, yes, we agree with every single word he says, we need to recognise that to loose the chains of injustice may well demands money and time and effort on our part, that we might need to reassess the priorities of our busy hectic lives, that, even we may have to accept God’s call upon our lives and go in a whole new direction. But unless we allow our fasting to challenge and to change us, then we have defeated the very purpose of the exercise from the beginning.
Maybe all that I’ve said about fasting can be summed up in the one simple sentence that came from our reading at the end of our Matthew reading, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Now that in itself is not a difficult statement to understand, and it’s not a hard saying to accept. If, for example, your passion in life is cricket, then you will spend hours watching, playing and following cricket, and you’ll probably spend some of your time thinking and daydreaming about cricket. If, for example, your passion, is fashion, then you will spend hours buying clothes, reading about clothes, and watching fashion programmes, and you’ll probably spend some of your time thinking and daydreaming about fashion.
And if your passion is Jesus Christ who gave Himself for you and died to be your Saviour, well, what exactly? How much time, energy, sacrifice do we make looking to Jesus, reading about Jesus, finding out about Jesus’ will for our lives? Fasting is a discipline which forces us to give an honest answer to that question. And even if you have never considered fasting before, let me suggest that this day of prayer and fasting could be one that’ll change your life, and you may just be surprised by the results. Let us pray….