Ash Wednesday: Fasting, 26th February 2020

Ash Wednesday: Fasting, 26th February 2020

Homily. Ash Wednesday, ‘Fasting’.

Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Cor 5:20-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

Jesus is in the midst of the sermon on the mount. If we’d been there – listening – we would have heard him teach about the witness and characteristics of the kingdom. And we would have heard him teach what is a good person, what a kingdom shaped heart looks like.  From there he tackles two other desires. The desire to have the approval of others. And desire to make ourselves secure by material wealth. Two desires which if we allow them, would pull us out of the influence of the kingdom – the kingdom here meaning, the range and work of God’s effective will in our lives.

Jesus brings out three visible actions, giving, praying, fasting. The issue is not the action but why it is done. It is done because so that others see, or done hoping others will see. It is not done for the audience of God.  Os Guinness, English writer, says, about the Puritans. ‘’The Puritans lived, as if they stood before an audience of one – they carried on their lives as if that the only opinion mattered was that of God.’’ Jesus says – there are others, Jewish, religious, mostly Pharisees, who are giving, fasting, praying, and are doing in order to be seen and approved, not by God, but by others. 

You may say that is just an issue from the past. Maybe. A theologian DA Carson shares, he remembers a time, at church, people wore nice clothes, out of a sign of respect and reverence towards God.  However, before long, the quality of the clothes became more important than the reverence, people competing almost to look better or as good as others. Another example, from his uni days, he remembers, when Christians students were asked why not carry round their physical bibles. They would carry their law or psychology books for others to see. But again he later noticed some Christians carrying around exceptionally BIG BIBLES and it wasn’t because of eyesight – they were trying to establish or show a reputation for right living, for piety.

The matter is not that they are seen. The issue is that we want them to be seen by others. That is Jesus’ point, with our praying, giving, fasting, in fact all acts of Christian living How to do right–  Jesus suggests: that your right hand does not know what your left hand is doing. How is that possible? Dallas Willard shares. You cannot mentally tell your left hand – okay ignore what my right hand is putting in the bag. Your left hand knows now. He shares about a comedian, when as a child, told to stand in a corner and not think of a pink polar bear for 10 minutes. However, the only way you cannot think of a pink polar bear , to make sure you don’t, is to think and not think! A better comparison. When does your right hand do something and your left hand doesn’t know? Willard suggests – when you drive. It is instinctive, it flows from who you are. This hand does this or not. It comes out of you.  You are unaware of it. Your right hand does not know what your left hand does. You give, fast, pray, without thinking about others. Your character, your heart: I’m doing this for an audience of One, the only thought you are aware of deep below.

So Jesus – gives the reasons how to fast and how not to fast. He assume we will fast, fasting is part of the kingdom shaped life, of following him. I’m certainly not a regular faster. Please don’t think I am. I was challenged again to look at the bible…

Fasting means many things today – fasting from chocolate or facebook etc. (My Mum and sister story) But bible – it is voluntarily abstaining from food. OT. Not often required. Often happens when people died, they fasted – 2 Samuel 1. Repentance  Jonah – even the animals have to fast, creation affected by man’s sin! Nehemiah fasts and mourns when he hears of the destruction in Jerusalem.  It was part of the observance of the Day of Atonement. Purim – from writings outside of the bible – had a day of fasting before the festival. Isaiah 58 – says, we can fast, yet it is not like an ATM, put in the numbers, and out pops what you need – how can you fast, and expect to be heard when all this other stuff is going on. Cut those things out, and fast.

There is a time to fast? When you fast, Jesus has said. Jesus in Matthew 9:14, he is asked why his disciples do not fast, when the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist do. He says it is not right for them to do it when – he the bridegroom – is with them. But when he goes, they will fast. You could say – there a time not to fast, but also a time to fast.

Jesus modelled it.  Lent – 40 days – is shaped by the Lord’s time in the desert, being tested by the devil. We look at that passage on Sunday. He fasts. And one of the temptations comes to him because of his hunger.  To walk in his footsteps, I’d say includes considering, if we need to take time to fast?

Early Church. When we consider the church of Antioch. Acts 13: ‘’While they were worshipping 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.’’. 

Prayer – by the leadership was accompanied by fasting. Then this message is received – possibly through one of the prophets in the church. Then when they hear the message, there is further fasting and prayer, to discern the correctness of the voice, and to pray for the ones to leave, perhaps to pray for the next steps in leadership for the Antioch church in order to move forward.

So, they are fasting, worshipping,  – then the Spirit speaks. No indication that they were particularly seeking the Lord on a matter. But they drew near in worship and prayer. And on that occasion they fasted. Part of the lifestyle of the leadership.

Many scholars say, the THEY can refer to the whole church – the church were fasting for a day… and coming together. I have been part of that idea of a church fasting together three times – as a missionary we fasted as a missionary school for 2 days. And at the reformed church we worked with, fasting from Good Friday until Easter Sunday morning. But we did not join together in prayer or worship. We did mostly our own thing. We joined at the start and end.

It is one of the few times the Holy Spirit directly speaks – speaks to Philip, he speaks to Peter on the roof, speaks to a church. This is the first time and only time in the NT the Spirit speaks to an group.

This fasting and prayer, is repeated. It is connected to the appointment of elders, presbyters – ‘’when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.’’ (Acts 14). Every appointment.  Discernment. Prayer for them.  Here, iut is two people, Barnabas and Paul do this. As was done for them when they left Antioch, they did for others.

Part of Paul’s lifestyle. 2 Cor 6:5 – as we heard. In beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labous, in sleeplessness, in hunger – GK for fasting.  2 Cor 11:27 I have been in labour, and hardships, through many sleepless nights in hunger and thirst, often without food – fasting Gk word again.

Matthew 17: when the disciples cannot drive out a demon, Jesus responds – it is usually a footnote in your bibles – that this kind does not come out with out prayer and fasting. For certain spiritual challenges, power and prayer together through fasting.

Part of our biblical witness. It is possible to say. I cannot do it.

Fasting may not be welcome for medical reasons. To go without food or water, for some can be impossible or dangerous due to health conditions. At university, the RC Chaplain, an amazing guy called Father Mike, he was diabetic, and he told me, he could not fast in the traditional ways because of his health.

But for some of us, we perhaps see Jesus words as pretty words. Nice. But unrealistic. Nice to think about on a day like today. In fact to do it, we may think, to use the words of Jesus – means we would be sombre, unhappy.  We could say – well, I don’t want to be that. Yet. Is that a message of our culture or surroundings – that we want an instant easy spirituality.  Without the need for discipline, difficulty, challenge, or sacrifice.  Fasting is uncomfortable. And it means waiting til that drink or meal. Waiting and uncomfortable. Not words popular in our society?

You may feel you wouldn’t last the fast. You’ve tried it. It will be difficult. However, Jesus when he is tempted, says ‘’Man does not live by bread alone but by every word. But just before that Deuteronomy says: ‘’He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with mannas, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell in those forty years.’’ On every word. The connection is to manna. What came from his mouth – the word of manna. Supernatural provision.  Out of nowhere. By his supreme act.  Sustained in his fasting.  However it does not mean you don’t get hungry – Jesus was hungry in the desert. Yet sustained as well to as well, to be as spiritually sharp when the most evil being in the world came.

What if you cannot fast? There are other means suggested. One example. Open Doors often  suggest this for its youth programme:

No Instagram. No Facebook. No What’s App. No gaming. No Spotify. No phone. No internet.

Spend up to 48 hours offline to raise money and prayer for silenced, persecuted Christians. Can you stay quiet?

You are sponsored to do it. You spend time in prayer for persecuted believers. You spend more time with families and friends. Why not do it as a group? Strength in challenge! You may say, ”I’ll go without food thanks!”

So if you did such a fast, or something similar. Remember the early church connection. Use some of that time saved, to worship and prayer, invite the Lord to speak. Choose a topic / a people / to pray for – for your street – each day a different house even if you don’t know.

So what do I say? This is not about a law. We are people of grace. Yet the person –full of grace and truth – Jesus did it, taught about it, assuming we’d do it, like we give and pray. The earthly church – through personal use and corporate use – did it. So it would appear to be part of the kingdom shaped lifestyle.

I present this to you on an open hand – to go for it – than a closed fist, you must.

There it is : when you fast. Not if.

Fasting and worship – from time to time, to do it together

The power of fasting – the demon will not come out – as you face a certain spiritual challenge

For guidance – to discern who is the elders / priests

The power – praying for the task they face – P and B.

General rhythm – to fast with others, worship, prayer… and suggested by the example of Antioch, to invite the Lord to speak… The NT does not lay out a time of year to do it. So choose a time in your year when to do it…

This is an invitation tonight to do it. And to follow Paul and Jesus example, to even follow Antioch’s example and do it with others, to meet and pray together…

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.