Fasting, Luke 4
Also Matthew 6: & 16-18.
May the spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living word, your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
‘’I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent,
by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading
and meditating on God’s holy word.’’
These some of the words we heard.
Secondly, as tragic horrible events started to unfold in Ukraine, Pope Francis, called on Roman Catholics and invited the wider church, to join in a day of fasting and prayer.
He wrote: ‘’I renew my invitation for everyone to take part on 2 March, Ash Wednesday, in a Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in #Ukraine.’’ Our Archbishop – Justin Welby – supported this call and invited Anglicans to join in where possible, in that day of prayer and fasting.
When we focused on the Sermon on the Mount, in our Jesus Lifestyle series, we did not speak about fasting. Part of the reason was due to time for the series. But I was challenged, I believe by the Spirit, to come back to it, as Lent began. The assumption in our ‘lenten invitation’ is that we will fast; Pope Francis feels, with Archbishop Welby, this is an appropriate action to take as we raise the dreadful war in Ukraine to God.
John Wesley once wrote: ‘’Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.’’ Wesley quoted in Foster, Discipline, p.59.
Jesus fasts in the wilderness, that is clear, at the start of his public ministry. This is also the only time recorded in his ministry.
We assume as a faithful law observing Jew, he would have fasted on the national Day of Atonement.
Yet it seems, at all other times, his disciples and he did not fast. Luke 5 – ‘They said to him, ‘’John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.’’
Jesus answered: ‘’Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, in those days they will fast.’’ (Luke 5:33-35).
Yet Jesus taught his disciples, in Matthew 6,
‘Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 16 ‘When you fast, do not look sombre 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.’’
Jesus gives them instructions how to do it, and he expected them – and by association us – to do it, as much as he expected them to give and pray.
Yet I think, I agree with John Stott, that many of us live as if these pages were torn out of our Bibles – we will agree the importance of prayer, and sacrificial giving, but few people would place importance upon fasting. Many of us would not be keen ‘fast-er’s!
Is it possible our Christian religion can become all about inward what is happens in our hearts and spirits. So a bodily practice like fasting, we may not feel comfortable with.
We may ask – isn’t this something only from the Old Testament so not relevant now? Didn’t Jesus say his followers do not fast, we may suggest? Could it be, fasting means going without, and we don’t think we could manage it, or perhaps, we don’t want to be made uncomfortable?
Well. Jesus fasted, for forty days and nights in the wilderness, as we heard.
Secondly, as we heard: Jesus answered: ‘’Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, in those days they will fast.’’ (Luke 5:33-35). Jesus was taken – he ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father – we are in those days.
And in the Sermon on the Mount, as he teaches, he says : when you give,…
when you pray… when you fast.’’
In the early church we see references to fasting. Just two for now. When the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church of Antioch and says to set aside Barnabas and Paul for the work he has for them, we read: ‘’So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them, and send them off.’’(Acts 13:1-3).
Then when Paul and Barnabas are appointing new church leadership in the newly planted churches, we read – which suggests this was their normal practice – ‘’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)
Christians leaders down through the ages have practised fasting: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, David Brainerd. Charles Finney.
What is fasting?
It is a total abstention from food. It can mean, also, going without food partially, as well as totally, for a shorter or longer time. It gets you thinking that we call the first meal of the day ‘breakfast’ – since with our first meal we ‘break our fast’ – the night period when we ate nothing. We all fast!
There are different purposes for fasting.
There is a strong connection between ‘humbling ourselves before God’ and fasting.
Isaiah 58:3 & 5-6 ‘’Why have we fasted, they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed.’ …’ God said: ’’Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble myself?’’
Humbling before God. This could be over pentience for sin – individual or national.
In Nehemiah 9, the community gather, they are fasting, and they confess their sins and the sins of their community. Daniel prays for the nation and confesses their and his sins, as he ‘pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, in sackcloth and ashes.’
And Saul, after his conversation, for three days did not eat or drink (Acts 9:9).
Yes, we do not need to confess our sins only through prayer and fasting. At anytime we can confess our sins.
But I think as John Stott said: ‘’Sometimes still today, when the people of God are convicted of sin and moved to repentance, it is not inappropriate as a token of penitence to mourn, to weep and fast.’’ (Stott, Sermon on the Mount, BST, p.136).
Dependence / cry out for mercy
We humble ourselves before God, in crying out for mercy for ourselves, for others, for a nation. David in Psalm 35:13 – ‘when they were ill , I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.’ David fasts, humbles himself before God, in prayer for others.
In scripture we see prayer and fasting more often connected than pentience and fasting. Again, this is not suggesting a regular practice ie when we pray we fast – but something occasional, deliberately chosen, when we need to seek God for a particular direction, or blessing or mercy, we turn away from food and all other distractions. We fast and pray. The situation is that important, we are willing to turn from food, we need that time to pray, at that point we feel our prayers are more important than our food…
Jehosphaphat, he saw the armies of Moab and Ammon advancing – he proclaims a fast across the nation and cries out to God for the threats approaching (2 Chron 20:1f).
As Esther prepares to approach the King on behalf of the Jews and the genocide planned, she asks for her fellow Jews to fast with her for 3 days.
Ezra before he begins travels back to the promised land, ‘I proclaimed a fast so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us.’’ (Ezra 8:21).
And as we have shared, the early church fasted and prayed for Barnabas and Paul before they moved into a new stage of public ministry; and themselves did the same later when commissioning new church leaders.
Again as Stott says helpfully: ‘’The evidence is plain that special enterprises need special prayer, that special prayer may well involve fasting.’’ (Stott, ibid., p137).
The third reason. Self control.
Various writers – like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard among others – have identified how there are Spiritual disciplines, activities which we can engage in which help us become increasingly in the likeness of Christ, that help us in our journey of sanctification. There are disciplines / activities of engagement – proactive practices we do. They attach us, connect us to our heavenly father. These include: study, worship, prayer, service, fellowship with other believers, confession of sins.
There is another complementary set of disciplines which deal with the aspects in our lives, where God’s rule and reign have not yet broken in, which sanctification still has to take root you could say. These disciplines are disciplines of abstinence.
The disciplines of engagement are directly related to our relationship with God. The disciplines of abstinence are directly related to our body and our normal needs such as for food, sex, companionship, sleep, activity, material comfort, or security.
By abstaining from them, for a set period of time, it helps us become detached from the drive to satisfy them. In our drive to satisfy those needs, there can be other motives and needs influencing our drive to satisfy– eg sinful habits, co-dependencies etc.
So we do not eat only because we are hungry, we eat because of this reason or that…
We discipline the legitimate need, but we help ‘crucifiy and put to death’ as Paul says, the illegitimate sinful desires within / influencing our needs.
So one of those disciplines of abstinence is fasting. The purpose of fasting, is for spiritual purposes. It may challenge our greed, it may strength self control (we do not eat simply when we feel like it), or it may bring to surface other, unhealthy desires which may be lurking below.
Self Control and Spirituality.
Jesus own experience of fasting reminds us – fasting makes us depend on God. His words speak to us – as we abstain from food, we humble ourselves to depend on God sustaining us. Jesus declares he will depend, like Israel depended upon in their 40 years in the wilderness, God will sustain.
In fasting we feel weak, it is a battle, perhaps a headache, our stomachs growl, we think about food. Yet in it, we cry to God for his help, his strength. As Richard Foster says: ‘’Although the physical aspects of fasting intrigue us, we must not forget that the major work of scriptural fasting is in the realm of the spirit. What goes on spiritually is much more important than what is happening physically.’’
There are different kinds of fasting. I use the titles by Alexander Venter.
- A regular fast – perhaps maybe once a week, once a month – Jesus shared, when you fast…
- A needed fast – when a need is faced, or a crisis or issue needs to be resolved, we like God’s people of old, fast and pray
- A full fast – for 3 days – no water or food – like Esther and the Jews of Susa did.
- An extended fast – more than 3 days. It takes four days for the body to purge itself of toxins and to stop craving food, then there is a different dynamic in the body.
- Total fast – anywhere between 21 days and 40 days or more – hunger pains will return, depending on the person, this is the first stage of starvation and the pains, signal, that the body has used up its reserves and started to draw on living tissue. The fast should be broken at this time. (Foster, p.72)
- Partial fast – fasting from certain foods, liquids, like Daniel did in Daniel 10. It can also mean fasting more broadly from things that dominate your attention – again this is about self control – eg tv, people, technology, mobile phone etc. In Lent we hear of individuals who fast from social media, or their smart phones (a digital fast).
With fasting we bear in mind our health and current situations. Some people due to health reasons cannot fast – it is not safe or sensible. If we are on medication we need to talk to our doctor first.
An extended fast – needs supervision during but also when you finish and advice how and what to eat. Breaking an extended fast, is broken at first with small amounts of fruit and vegetables. Remember in an extended fast your digestive system has gone into a kind of hibernation. Second day after, fruit and milk. Day after hopefully fresh salads, cooked vegetables. Do not over eat when you end an extended fast.
For those who have not done it, it is best to start off small, for example one meal, or breakfast to breakfast. When I was working in OM, we fasted from the Good Friday service, until Easter morning when, after our Easter Dawn Service, we would eat together as a church community.
Fasting should fit with your daily commitments and work rhythms. To do a full fast – 3 days or long – while working on a full time job is not advisable. The fast we undertake, may mean we need to talk to family or those we live with, in case the fast needs other arrangements making.
There are good reasons to fast – whether for pentitence, or for prayer, or for self discipline. Jesus takes it for granted that it will have a place in our Christian life. He teaches, to make sure we do it for the right reasons.
It is important to ask ourselves why we fast? Remember Jesus words in Matthew 6 challenge our motivations to fast – to serve our own interests. That is also the challenge in Isaiah 58.
So we do not fast, out of no reason, or for wrong motivation.
Fasting, as Alexander Venter reminds us – scriptural fasting is associated with a range of ideas, ‘repentance, mourning, crisis, intercessory prayer, service, justice for the needy, and ongoing spiritual health. Fasting makes space for us to do all these things and for God to encounter us and work in our situation.’’ (Venter, Spirituality, p.347). People were fasting on Wednesday, to pray for Ukraine.
So when we choose to fast, ‘’we should decide on one or two specific reasons for which we fast, in order to focus our intercession, meditation, penitence and waiting on God.’’
Jesus modelling fasting, and he taught ‘when you fast’. Let’s consider when and how we can follow the voice and example of Christ, and in the footsteps of many of God’s biblical people.
Shall we pray.
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit;
we invite you to teach us about fasting;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,