What about fasting?

I am on a quest.  And have been for years.  Some of you have been on a similar quest.  For some it is a major quest, and for others it’s a minor quest, but a quest never the less.

And that quest is weight loss.  And it seems like it’s been never ending, I remember in high school wanting to drop a few pounds and I wasn’t very big in high school.

But literally there has not been a year since I graduated from high school in 1978 that I haven’t been trying to lose weight. And some people think: well just cut down.  It seems like everybody knows something that will help me on my weight loss journey.

A friend of mine is enormous, I like hanging around with him because it helps me feel that I have less of a weight issue.  I know, that’s wrong in so many ways. 

And he’s got a new doctor, she’s relatively young, or as my Dad used to say, fresh out of the box.  And the other day at an appointment, trying to be helpful, she told my friend, “Some people find reducing calories can help you lose weight.” 

Really?  My friend said that he wanted to tell her, “Doc, I’ve been fat longer than you’ve been alive.”

But there is some good advice out there for people on the quest, Orson Wells wrote, “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.”

Suze Orman said, “People have got to learn: if they don’t have cookies in the cookie jar, they can’t eat cookies.”  That actually applies to a lot of issues.

And Dave Attell offer this advice, “What’s the two things they tell you are healthiest to eat? Chicken and fish. You know what you should do? Combine them, eat a penguin.”

Or maybe we just need to heed the words of Alexander Pope when he wrote 300 years ago, “What some call health, if purchased by perpetual anxiety about diet, isn’t much better than tedious disease.”

Our summer preaching series is called: Asking for a Friend.  And we invited the Cornerstone family to ask the staff questions that you would like answered, and we’ve taken a crack at five of them so far.  And to be truthful we aren’t going to get to all of them this summer.  But this week’s question is “What is the significance of fasting and is it relevant for believers today?”

And that is a good question, and it made me go hmmmmm?  Because I’ve never preached on fasting, and if the truth be known haven’t really thought that much about fasting and while I’ve practiced fasting occasionally as a spiritual discipline it really hasn’t been an integral part of my Christian life.   

Today when you hear people talking about fasting, they are more often than not speaking of fasting as a means of losing weight not as a spiritual exercise.

And there are all kinds of theories on that, there are those who will tell you that for optimum weight loss you should fast a couple of days a week, others who would say that you need to fast for 16 hours each day.

Both views kind of make sense, kind of goes back to what the young doctor told my friend, “Some people find reducing calories can help you lose weight.” 

But, that type of fasting isn’t what we are talking about this morning.

What we are talking this morning, is defined in the Collins English dictionary this way

Fast:  Verb

1. to abstain from eating all or certain foods or meals, especially as a religious observance.

Notice that it said a religious observance and not a Christian observance.  Communion is a distinctly Christian event, baptism is primarily a Christian celebration.  Not so with fasting.  Two years ago, when I visited Egypt the Muslim community was celebrating Ramadan.  During Ramadan devout Muslims fast from Sunrise to Sundown.  And it is believed that the spiritual rewards of fasting are multiplied during Ramadan.  And, traditionally they break the fast each evening by first eating dates. 

Funny Story.  If you were part of Cornerstone, then you might recall my beard was a little fluffier back then, it was my Santa phase.  Here is a picture of me in Egypt.  And as we were driving through the streets of Cairo heading the church where I was preaching, we got bogged down in traffic. 

A street vendor came over to the car and spoke with our driver and then handing him something.  As we drove away Nagi handing me three dates and told me the vendor thought I was a holy man and wanted me to break my fast that day with his dates.  I’ve never had anyone at Cornerstone give me dates because I look like a Holy Man, but Lisa Slauenwhite makes me date squares sometimes.

Along with Christianity and Islam, fasting is practiced by Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Hinduism and others.  But obviously I’m going to focus on fasting for those who follow Jesus.

So let’s start with  The Reasons to Fast

Sometimes we think there is only one reason for fasting, but as you look through the Bible you see a variety of reasons that people chose to fast.

Let’s start with the one that people often think of, we read in   Ezra 8:23  So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer.

So to start, we fast 1) To Reinforce our Prayers  If people think of fasting at all it’s usual in this context, as an additive to prayer.  So, if prayer will get you this far, then by adding fasting it will get you this far.  It’s kind of like adding strawberry jam to your peanut butter sandwich or cheese to your apple pie. Cause as my Daddy used to say, “Apple pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze.”  And you know that has to be true because it rhymes.

And while fasting does amplify our prayers, we have to be careful of what we are saying and what we are teaching. 

So, adding fasting to prayer doesn’t make prayer more powerful.  Like prayer is a 75 and prayer and fasting is a 100. 

It’s not bundling. Lately we’ve been dealing with Bell and Eastlink about getting the interwebby at our new apartment and they talked about all the things you can add on to make our package more valuable.  And this is good, and this is better, and this is best.

But this isn’t bundling prayer and fasting for a better result.

What it is, is that when you replace your meal with prayer your prayer often becomes more focused and more purposeful.  Fasting isn’t to make God more receptive to our prayers, it is to make us more focused in our prayers.

But focusing our prayers isn’t the only reason to fast.     Judges 20:26-27  Then all the Israelites went up to Bethel and wept in the presence of the LORD and fasted until evening. They also brought burnt offerings and peace offerings to the LORD.  The Israelites went up seeking direction from the LORD.

Fasting was also used 2)  To Seek God’s Will    There are different times recorded in the scriptures where fasting was included as a part of seeking direction from God. 

Understand, again, fasting isn’t a way to change God’s mind, but to make us more open and receptive to his guidance. 

Let’s keep going,  2 Samuel 1:11-12  David and his men tore their clothes in sorrow when they heard the news.  They mourned and wept and fasted all day for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the LORD’s army and the nation of Israel, because they had died by the sword that day.

Sometimes our fasting is 3) To Express our Grief Sometimes not eating, or fasting, is a natural response to our grief.  How often have you heard family members being urged to eat in the days following the death of a loved one?

In the scripture that was just read, fasting was a deliberate way of demonstrating how David and his men felt at the loss of King Saul.  They mourned, they wept and they fasted.  Sometimes I feel that our culture has lost our ability to mourn. 

We put on a brave face, and people tell us that we will get over it and that time is a great healer. 

The reality is that grief doesn’t disappear, it simply changes.  Recently on one of our favourite TV shows I heard a character say, “Grief is like a hole, it never disappears but it does get smaller, so you don’t fall in as often.”

But it’s not always a physical lose that we mourn.  In 1 Kings, we discover that King Ahab was a wicked King and Elijah pronounced God’s judgement on Ahab and his family, and we read the King’s response in 1 Kings 21:27  But when Ahab heard this message, he tore his clothing, dressed in burlap, and fasted. He even slept in burlap and went about in deep mourning.   

Sometimes we mourn because we have discovered the consequences of our actions.  And if the fasting causes you to humble yourself before God leading into a deeper relationship with Him, and repentance then it’s productive.  In the case of Ahab we read in the next verse 1 Kings 21:28-29  Then another message from the LORD came to Elijah:  “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime.”

Speaking of grief, this fall we will be introducing a new group at Cornerstone called GriefShare which is a 13 week grief support group, more details to follow.

Nehemiah 1:3-5 They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said, “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands.

Fasting can demonstrate 4) A Concern for God’s Work  If you know the story of Nehemiah, he was part of the group that had been taken prisoner when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians. 

He had become a trusted servant to the Babylonian King and everything was going great until his brother came and told him what had happened to Jerusalem, which was considered to be the centre of Nehemiah’s faith.

And Nehemiah’s response to this news was to fast and pray for an answer. 

I wonder what would happen if when we had a concern about God’s work, if instead of complaining and lobbying for things to be our way, if we spent time in fasting and prayer?  Just wondering. 

Maybe we’re afraid that the result of our fasting and prayer will be the same as it was for Nehemiah.

You know when God told him, “Well if you’re that concerned then do something to fix the problem.”  That’s a rough translation, but it is the gist of what happened.

Let’s keep looking at fasting.  It’s not just an Old Testament concept.

Very early in the Jesus story we read this,  Luke 2:36-37  Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years.  Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer.

It’s here we see fasting as 5) To Express Our Love for God When fasting is used for this purpose it becomes an element of worship.

And in that it brings us more in tune with the eternal.  This example comes from the Christmas story, when the baby Jesus was being presented at the temple for dedication, and this is what happened,  Luke 2:38 She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.

She was so in tune with God, that as soon as she came into the presence of His Son she knew it.

John Piper wrote about fasting, “We are putting our stomach where our heart is to give added intensity and expressiveness to our ache for Jesus.”

There is only one story of Jesus fasting in the Gospel’s but it’s pretty impressive, let’s pick up the story in  Matthew 4:1-2  Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.  For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry.

If you know the story, this is where Satan tempts Jesus, and Jesus is able to overcome the temptations.  It’s interesting, knowing that he is about to be tempted that Jesus fasts.  It’s here that we see how fasting is a weapon 6) To Overcome Temptation

I wonder what would happen, if when we are tempted to do what we know we shouldn’t do, that in the process of making that decision if we spent some time in fasting and prayer?  Do you think it would impact our choices?

Because temptations normally don’t arrive out of nowhere?  It was Margaret Oliphant who wrote, ‘Temptations come, as a general rule, when they are sought”

Long before someone cheats on their spouse, they’ve thought about cheating on their spouse, long before they’ve stolen from their boss, they’ve thought about stealing from their boss and so it goes.

I’ve told you before that one of my professors at college used to tell us that: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.

And Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13  If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall.  The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

And maybe he will show you the way out when you take the time to fast and pray about what is happening.  Again, there is nothing magical about fasting but there is a focus that it brings to our prayer life.

Another hint about avoiding temptation comes from one of the quotes I used earlier, remember what Suze Orman said, “People have got to learn: if they don’t have cookies in the cookie jar, they can’t eat cookies.”

Matthew 6:16  “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.”

The Command to Fast  Fasting is mentioned over thirty times in the New Testament, and fasting seemed to be a normal and accepted part of the Christian experience in the early church.  But and you’ll remember, after the but comes the truth, nowhere are Christians commanded to fast.

In the Bible we have commands like 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  Always be joyful.  Never stop praying.  Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

Or in Luke 18:1  One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up.

When Jesus said “when you fast. . .” he seems to be implying that we will fast, but nowhere does he command us to fast.

And nowhere in Paul’s thirteen letters will you find a commandment to fast.

And yet for two thousand years fasting has been a part of the Christian Church.  And Jesus didn’t say “If you fast” he said “When you fast”.

And we have to ask ourselves, how much more victorious would our Christian lives be if we fasted?  How much more effective would our church be in reaching the spiritually homeless if we fasted?

What miracles have we missed though the lack of fasting?  I guess we’ll never know. 

So, what do we do? The last thing we need to look at is The Way to Fast 

For some that is the question, how do I fast?  The easiest answer here is, don’t eat.  Remember the definition from Collins English dictionary?

Fast:  Verb

1. to abstain from eating all or certain foods or meals, especially as a religious observance.

But if you are fasting for spiritual purposes it needs to go beyond that.  It’s not just a matter of skipping a meal, or several meals.  You need to replace the eating with something else.

And maybe it’s not fasting food, I’ve had several friends who have fasted from their social media.   But the concept is still the same, it’s not just not being on Facebook and Instagram and the like, it’s taking that time to do something else.

Sometimes it’s prayer, sometimes it’s scripture reading, sometimes it’s just stepping into the presence of God, of praying that he will speak to you and then allowing yourself to be open to what he’s telling you.

My obsession is reading fiction, most of you know that.  My goal is to read 500 pages of fiction a week, unless I’m on a vacation then it’s a book a day.  I love reading fiction, crime, espionage, legal thrillers they are all fodder for my voracious appetite

And sometimes I realize that I need to take a break, and so for a set period of time I replace my fiction with non-fiction.  I don’t stop reading but I change what I read.   You know the people who struggle with addiction, whether it’s booze or smokes or pot, who say “I can quit anytime I want”?  You will never hear me say that about reading. 

There’s even an interesting verse in 1 Corinthians 7:5   where Paul suggests, for married couples, a mutually agreed upon fasting of your intimacy with each other in seeking a deeper intimacy with God.

And from the scripture that was read this morning, we discover that you need to keep it a secret.  You don’t boast about it or make it obvious.  It’s between you and God.

I wonder what would happen if we made a conscious decision to fast and pray for our loved ones who are far from God?  I wonder what would happen if we made a conscious decision to fast and pray for Cornerstone and its mission.  I wonder what would happen if we made a conscious decision to fast and pray to draw closer to God? 

So, are you willing to give it a try?  What do you have to lose, I mean other than a meal?  And I understand that because of health some people are unable to fast even a meal. So what else could you give up in order to spend time in prayer, reading scripture and drawing closer to God?

And it probably needs to be something you’re going to miss.  I doubt that my long time fasting of brussell sprouts counts for much.

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