Speaking Notes – Caveat
These notes are my speaking notes and are provided as an accompaniment to the recording. Please accept that they are not intended to be a published grammatically correct essay. I do hope and pray however they help you move towards Jesus.
Now onto the content…
Well, done for being here today. Congratulations on making a decision to come to Sunday Church. Or did you not read the the news sheet last week? Did you miss the fact that this week we are taking a short break from Matthew and today’s topic for our worship is Fasting?
I only mentioned it because I suspect that there are two topics that we English like to avoid talking about in church. The first is money and giving. We like to avoid that subject mostly because we are English and that is a very private matter. Well, we shall tackle that subject in a couple of weeks and we will see if that is true.
The second thing we English Christians don’t like to speak about is fasting. And good news, we don’t like to avoid that because we are English. No, we like to avoid talking about fasting, because frankly, it sounds like it’s only the super holy who do it, it sounds a bit like the sort of thing a cult would do. It just sounds a bit weird to us here in the twenty-first century.
All that to say, well done for coming with an open mind so that we can explore this practice of the followers of Jesus together and discover if fasting really is as weird as it at first seems.
But before we discover the truth about fasting I need to make a confession.
In the past, I have been rubbish at the spiritual discipline of fasting.
I desire to be an apprentice to Jesus.
I believe apprentices to Jesus or Christians as we call ourselves should fast.
And yet for the last twenty years, I have only dabbled with fasting.
But no longer. In my preparation for today, I have studied and prayed and I have come to the conclusion I perhaps should have come to years ago. As an apprentice to Jesus fasting needs to be a core part of my walk towards Him.
Food & Spirituality
What is fasting?
Let me explain why, by asking the rhetorical question what is fasting?
It’s not a trick question fasting is what you think it is. It is abstaining from food or water but normally food for a short period of time. I want to suggest that Christian fasting is abstaining from food in order to make a spiritual connection with God.
The problem is, we as twenty-first-century enlightened individuals we have separated the spiritual from the physical. But that was never the way of God’s people, and that was never the way of Jesus. For us, the idea that doing a physical thing could impact our spiritual life is alien, but for Jesus and for early Christians the physical and spiritual were intertwined.
Jesus prayed so fervently at one point that blood dripped from his head. (Luke 22:40-46) That is the spiritual and physical intertwining.
We also know the physical impacts our emotions. We have even invented a word to describe the impact hunger has on our moods.
Hangry, to be bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.
If our emotions are impacted by the physical body, why be surprised that abstaining from food could be a spiritual thing to do
What is not fasting?
And while I am on the subject of abstaining from food let me also correct something that I personally believed for a long time. Fasting is not just giving something up. Abstaining from watching TV is not fasting. It may well be beneficial especially if you use that time to pray. Christianity has a long history of abstaining and it may well be all you can do because of medical reasons. But it is a different thing to fasting.
Fasting is about giving up food in order to connect with God because food is an important part of our spirituality and our walk towards Jesus.
So now that we can agree what fasting is, the next obvious question is why fast? If fasting seems so weird and alien to us, why might we consider doing it? After all nowhere are we commanded to fast, nowhere does it say to be saved you must fast. Jesus did that on the cross. So why fast?
Jesus said we should fast.
Well because the God who hung on the cross taught that we would fast. In our Gospel, he uses it as an example of what a holy person might do. He says the Pharisee got it wrong in how he did it, but Jesus obviously believed we should do it. In fact, elsewhere he shows how the Pharisee got it wrong.
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. 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. Matthew 6:16-18 (NIVUK)
Did you catch that? When You fast. Not if, but when. Jesus obviously believed that his disciples, his apprentices should fast.
And not only that, Jesus fasted.
4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. Luke 4:1-13 (NIVUK)
No kidding he was hungry. But was Jesus weak? No Jesus was hungry but spiritually He was strong enough to resist the greatest of all temptations from the Devil. It may be a mystery, but there is a spiritual connection between fasting and our strength to resist temptation.
The early Church fasted.
So Jesus did it, but after all, He is God. People in the Bible did it, but that was before enlightenment. Surely it’s not part of our Christian life today? Well, the truth is it always was part of Christian life. It is only in more recent times that it has waned and not been a part of Christian life.
The early church had fasting as a weekly part of their life. The Didache which was a pamphlet from the second century on what it meant to follow Jesus mentioned it three times. It’s not scripture, but consider it as though it was a text from the Archbishop. If Justin Welby wrote to the church, we would take note, wouldn’t we? As an example the Didache says.
Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Didache 8.1
Is that too far back for you in Church History? How about John Wesley. We sing enough of His Hymns
"...I fear there are now thousands of Methodists, so called... ...who, following the same bad example, have entirely left off fasting; who are so far from fasting twice a week that they do not fast twice in the month.”
Wesley and many other church leaders down the years have seen fasting as being a core part of our spiritual wall towards Jesus.
How To Fast
So now I have set up the background as to why those of us who want to become disciples of Jesus might fast how do we go about fasting?
Well, very simply as medically appropriate we take some time to not eat and use that time for seeking God. it’s that easy.
It might be that we choose to not eat a meal, or not eat during daylight, or not eat for twenty for twenty-four hours. But lest we are like the Pharisee in our Gospel reading, let us remember this is not about losing weight, this is not about being too busy to eat. This is about connecting with the God who loves you. It is about taking the time to be with him. It is about using the hunger pains as a nudge to pray with Him.
If we look at the Bible there are a number of ways the prayers of those fasting manifest themselves. I am going to look briefly at five ways. I am to skip over them and finish on the one I believe is relevant for our community at this time.
Changing God’s Mind
You might pray to seek God to change His mind. Thats, not a good start is it. My immediate reaction to that is we should not seek to change God’s mind. And I don’t pretend to understand this, but I do trust God, and I do trust that whatever He does is the best for us. But sometimes when we change our actions, it allows God to move in a different direction.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:10 (NIVUK)
When we change it allows a gracious God to change.
The second way might surprise you. But we see fasting in the Bible when God’s people grieve
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.Nehemiah 1:4 New International Version (NIV)
Interestingly we often don’t want to eat when we are grieving, don’t we?
Then we see God’s people fast as they call out to him for help.
25b ...they cut down another eighteen thousand Israelites, all of them armed with swords. 26 Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord. Judges 20:25b-26 New International Version (NIV)
Does this country need to call out to God right now?
One prayer of fast I would love to spend more time on, but don’t have the time for today is fasting as an act of repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin and turning back to God, and we see that there is a connection with fasting in the Bible.
When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed. 1 Samuel 7:6 New International Version (NIVUK)
We also see this elsewhere in the Bible. Our Catholic friends have a much more physical approach to repentance than we do, but fasting is one where we good Anglicans can join in as our mind, body and spirit walk towards God. As we repent to our God of our mistakes and sins we are forgiven by God because of what Jesus did on the cross. Fasting doesn’t aid towards our forgiveness, we are already forgiven. However, as we seek God in prayer and fasting we may well become more like Jesus and avoid sin in those areas again.
Knowing God’s Will
Changing God’s Mind, grieving, calling out to god, and Finally, there is fasting to know God’s will. Fasting to know God’s will I belive is the area that is most relevant for us as a community right now. We see in today’s reeding from the Acts of the apostles that the start of the church fasted to seek God’s will.
As they chose leaders they fasted.
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. Acts 13:2
And as they decide upon direction they fasted.
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. Acts 14:23
As we seek God’s Vision, Identity and Purpose or V.I.P for this church perhaps fasting should amongst other things be part of our armoury of prayer to God.
Which brings me to my conclusion and how we apply this knowledge that fasting, whilst a bit weird to us, is never the less part of our Christian walk.
I have said two or three times, that fasting needs to be in accordance with your medical needs. So with that caveat let me talk to you about Lent.
Lent has become a period of time to give up things in the Anglican church. And that is OK, but there is more to be had. Originally Lent was a time of fasting. Lent itself is of course forty days to reflect Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness.
In the past, it would be a season during which Christians would not eat during daylight, and only eat a simple meal without meat at sunset. Some people even suggest that Ramadan the Muslim festival of fasting was taken from the Christian festival of Lent.
So with that in mind, and with the fact that as a church community we are in a season of seeking God’s will for His church in Bedhampton, I want to invite you to join me and others in seeking God this Lent in prayer and fasting. You might choose as I have said to fast from one meal a week, during daylight one day a week, or even twenty-four hours a week. But the important bit is that we seek God’s will for His church, and that we feed what we hear in prayer and fasting back into the church community leadership here.
So come join me this Lent.