A sermon given at Bethel CRC on March 28, 2012. The text is Matthew 6:1-21
Today is the fifth Sunday of Lent. As you know, Lent is the 40 Days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Because Lent is a time of reflection and repentance as we anticipate the celebration of Easter Sunday, traditionally fasting has always been part of Lent.
However, it seems that many Protestant Christians have stopped observing Lent – isn’t it something that only Catholics do? Moreover, it seems like many Christians have given up the practice of fasting altogether – after all, it’s a form of “works righteousness” isn’t it?
Today we are going to explore why fasting is an important discipline in our relationship with God. Let’s get started by watching a short video.
When it comes to fasting, I’m a combination of all these guys – I’ll find every excuse not to fast and then if I actually do fast, I’ll create a bunch of loopholes to make it a little bit easier and less uncomfortable. By doing this, I completely undermine the purpose of fasting and give up on the practice altogether.
So, what is fasting all about? Why does it even matter?
When I think about fasting, I think of food, or rather, the lack of food. When I think of the lack of food, I think about hunger. And when I think about hunger, I think about the Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games is a best-selling trilogy of books. Who has read the books? By now you’ve probably also seen commercials and posters advertising the movie based on these books – it is in theaters this Friday. The Hunger Games tells the story of 16 year-old Katniss Everdeen. When her father died in a mining accident, Katniss became the sole-provider for her mother and younger sister by hunting in the restricted zone and selling the meat and pelts at her local market. While she enjoys spending time in the woods, overall her life is very bleak.
Katniss lives in an area called District 12 in the country of Panem. Panem was created when Canada and the United States were amalgamated following a global war. Panem is divided into 12 Districts. Each District has a very specific industry for which they are responsible; District 12 is in charge of mining. Panem is controlled by a ruthless totalitarian government from a city called the Capitol; every District is kept in abject poverty and in near-starvation while the citizens of the Capitol enjoy extravagant wealth and luxury.
One of the ways the Capitol controls the Districts is through the annual Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is a gladiator tournament fought in an outdoor arena and broadcast across Panem. Each District must send two teenaged contestants – one male and one female – to fight in the Hunger Games. The contestants, or “tributes”, are chosen by lottery, unless someone is willing to volunteer. However, because the Hunger Games are a fight to the death, where the winner is the last person alive, volunteers are rare. Katniss’ younger sister is chosen to be the female contestant from District 12 for the 74th Hunger Games. In order to save her sister from certain death at the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place as tribute.
As you can imagine, Katniss’ already difficult life has become even more so. She lives in a world where fear, poverty, and injustice are the norm. And now she is being taken from her family to become a spectacle in a blood-soaked game designed to pacify the masses. Katniss longs for her family to be restored and she desires freedom from this vicious civilization, but she sees no hope for the future.
You’re probably wondering – what does the Hunger Games have to do with fasting? Sure, the citizens of Panem, which is Latin for bread, are starving and the contestants of the Hunger Games are fighting to win a life of luxury, but how does this connect to fasting?
Let me read to you from Isaiah 58:6-11.
If we think about it, the world of Panem is not too different from today’s world. We live in a world where over 1 billion people are forced to live on less than $1 per day, where 1 in 7 people goes without food every day, where 15 million children die every year because of hunger, where every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger and malnutrition, where global military spending is over 1.5 trillion dollars every year, where for the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years, and where billions upon billions are spent on entertainment and personal luxury items every year.
Neither Panem nor today’s world are the way God wills things to be. Both are worlds of starvation and spectacle where suffering and death are rampant. So the words of Isaiah 58 remind us of the purpose of fasting and why it is important.
We know fasting is important because Jesus himself fasted – in Matthew 4:2 we read that Jesus fasted for 40 Days and 40 nights. Jesus was continuing an ancient spiritual discipline that was practiced throughout the Old Testament and it was something that he expected his followers to continue as well. In our text for today, Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast” to his followers, he says “when you fast”. For Jesus, fasting is an important practice in our relationship with God because it helps shift our hunger for temporary things to a hunger for God and his Kingdom.
Fasting helps us reconnect with God by abstaining from the things that compete for his attention and allegiance. Fasting helps me learn “to live without what I assumed I could not live without” (Hauerwas). In other words, when I fast, I am saying, God I’ve got my priorities mixed up so I’m putting aside those things in my life that are taking me away from you. God created all things good; however, we so quickly make these good things into gods. This is the root of what the Bible calls idolatry. This is why fasting is important – because it reminds us of our sin and prompts us to confession.
We live in a culture where concepts like sin and evil are considered archaic and where the idea of confessing our shortcomings to a “higher being” is beneath us, after all, morals are relative – I’m the one who determines what is right and wrong for me, right? And no one really likes to admit when they’re at fault and so often we’re in denial about the implications our actions can have. We’ve mastered the art of avoiding of personal responsibility – I didn’t really mean it; I couldn’t help myself; I wasn’t in my right mind; no one was really hurt. Fasting puts the brakes on our self-justification and helps us reflect on the reality of sin, the havoc it wreaks in our world, and our shared responsibility for it. In this way, fasting helps us realize our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. When we fast we are turning our hearts toward God in repentance and asking that God would restore our relationship with him and help us do the same with others.
Fasting also reminds us of our dependence on God as the giver of all good things. God has given us everything we need to live life abundantly. Yes, fasting is difficult, but it will always lead to joy because it forces to rely entirely on God’s providence. In learning to fully trust God, our hearts will inevitably overflow with joy and thanksgiving for all he has done. Our world is driven by the fear of scarcity and the assumption that there is never enough for everyone, so I’d better get as much as I can for myself. Fasting reminds us that God will provide for us, indeed he has provided all of creation for us, and that because he has done so, it is our responsibility to ensure that the gift of creation is properly cared for so that all can blessed by God’s abundant generosity. Fasting, therefore, is truly a countercultural activity that fundamentally undermines the assumption of our culture that “more is better” and that our goal in life is to continually acquire more. Fasting questions the belief that our worth and identity as humans is determined by the things we buy and reminds us that we are created in the image of God; that it is in him that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
In the Beatitudes, Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled”. Fasting itself does not make us righteous; fasting is a way of showing our desire to receive God’s righteousness because it focuses our hunger on God and his Kingdom. In our text for today, Jesus is addressing the misconception that fasting is an outward sign of inner righteousness. Many people assumed that fasting was a way of showing others their piety and holiness – “Look at me and my fasting – I must be a very righteous person and therefore God will look upon me with favour”. Jesus says absolutely not – you are completely missing the point of fasting. Fasting, he says, is meant to deepen your relationship with God; it is not about trying to win God’s attention or the approval of others. It is a private act of devotion.
However, Jesus is not suggesting that fasting is something that has no outward implications. Another way of translating the Greek word for “righteousness” is “justice”. This means that Jesus is also saying “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice”. Fasting is one way of seeking God’s kingdom and we know that God’s kingdom is about shalom – redeeming the universe from sin and death and restoring it to its original goodness. When we link these words of the Beatitudes and our text for today with Isaiah 58, it becomes clear that fasting is directed toward the injustices of the world. When we fast we are saying –“Oh Lord, sin and evil are real and they are destroying your creation. This is not good. This is not right.” When we fast, we are lamenting our fallen world and we are longing for God’s justice and peace to break into the present. We echo the words of David in Psalm 69 when he says “I wept while I fasted”.
But fasting is not passive, sitting around with a sad face. Fasting is meant to prompt us toward action – to seeking a renewed life with God in order to faithfully fulfill our mission as his people. When we fast, we are preparing ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit by setting aside those things that so easily prevent him from working in our lives. When we direct ourselves toward God, we find God directing us toward others, reminding us of our responsibility to be Christ’s hands and feet in our broken world. This is what Jesus is getting at in our text – fasting is not about looking good in front of God and others – it is meant to prepare us to do good for others in God’s name because we realize our shared need for grace and restoration. Stuart Murray says it well: “Fasting helps us to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves, to attain the Kingdom of God”. Fasting prepares us by focusing on God and his Kingdom and is therefore an outward sign that we are willing to serve.
Now that we understand why it is important to fast – the question is how do we fast?
As we’ve already seen, Jesus makes it very clear that fasting should never be done for show – “hey everyone, I’m fasting, I must be a really spiritual person!” This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t tell anyone that you are fasting – it is always good to have someone who can hold you accountable and make sure that you aren’t overdoing things or becoming legalistic. When we start broadcasting that we are fasting, we are missing the point of what it is about. This means that we need to be clear about the reason for why we are fasting – we don’t do it to gain attention or because it’s trendy or because we want to lose weight – we fast in order to connect with God, to confess our sin, and to be moved to acts of compassion.
Fasting should always be accompanied by prayer because prayer is the fundamental element of our relationship with God. John Calvin said that whenever Christians pray for an important matter it is essential to fast because it will “render [us] more eager and unencumbered for prayer…with a full stomach our mind is not so lifted up to God”. In other words, Calvin is saying that fasting helps us to be more focused when we pray and when we are focused we are better able to hear God’s voice. In our 24/7 constantly on the go and continually plugged in culture, it is so easy to get distracted. And when we are distracted, often the first thing to fall to the wayside is prayer. Fasting is a way to help us refocus our busy and distracted lives.
We need to re-focus ourselves because the stories that our culture tells are so often at odds with the story God tells. Fasting helps us to attune our imaginations to God’s story of redemption, a story where justice and peace, blessing and restoration are normative. However, this requires a prophetic indignation against the suffering and injustice in our world and a deep hope that God will fulfill his promise to renew all things. This promise is rooted in Christ’s resurrection and it is a promise we are called to help bring to fruition through the power of the Holy Spirit. Fasting helps us to remember this promise and re-orient our lives to align with God’s Kingdom purposes. Ultimately, fasting is about our freedom in Christ. We don’t fast out of duty or obligation, but because we are starving to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Fasting should always remind us of the grace Christ extends to us and the way his grace transforms our lives and our world.
This means we are faced with a number of challenging questions that God continually asks of each and every one of us:
– Are you hungering for righteousness and justice? Are you hungering for a world that knows Christ’s love?
– Where do you need to curb appetite so that you may hunger more deeply for the Kingdom of God?
– What are hungry for?