…is nobody talks about Fast Club.
Or at least so it seems. You don’t hear many people, especially in Baptist Churches talking about fasting. You hear about fasting rather more from our Catholic friends. That’s the whole purpose of Lent is it not? You give up something you like as a sacrifice or to concentrate more on your walk with God. Or you do it as a means to propitiate God, to placate Him, to get Him to notice you or to show Him how worthy you are. Or perhaps it is to punish ourselves, to somehow atone for our own sins. Or maybe it has magical properties as a ritual, like reciting the Payer of Jabez over and over (to cite a more or less recent example of mummery that keeps showing up among Christians).
How about you, have you thought about fasting? Have you fasted? I have to admit that I have never even considered the possibility. I suppose the closest I have ever come to fasting is my traditional abandonment of rutabagas for Lent. I have given them up for as long as I can remember, starting as a teenager, and I have never, ever, cheated. It is not often that I flirt with perfection so I must cherish what little I can find in my life.
My untarnished reputation with rutabagas notwithstanding, why would one fast? Is it required? Is it recommended? If it is how would one go about it? And, above all, what is its purpose?
Lets start with what Jesus taught about fasting. First of all Jesus fasted. We only have one instance recorded, but it was a doozy. It happened right after His baptism, just before He started his public ministry(Mt 4: and Lk 4) and was the occasion of His temptation by Satan.
I think the record shows that Jesus was not know to be an ascetic. In fact his reputation appears to be quite to the contrary. On one occasion He said,
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard…
So why did he start His ministry with a really big fast? Matthew says he was lead away by the Spirit to be tempted, Luke says he was led into the wilderness. But while he was there, He found it worthwhile to fast. Was his fast to provoke temptation, to prove that he could stand the temptation the fasting might provoke? Why might that be so? How might fasting help deal with temptation? How might it provoke temptation?
One writer suggests that it put Jesus in a position where only God could save Him from temptation. He had to rely on God’s Word to overcome the temptations He faced. While He did rely on God’s Word, not his own strength to overcome temptation, it this not always the case? Can we ever overcome temptation in our own strength? Is it then wise to test God by putting yourself in that sort of position? Is this the sort of thing only Jesus could do? What do you think?
But in addition to actually fasting, Jesus taught about fasting. In Matthew 6:16-18, right in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “when you fast”, not if you fast, but when you fast. Was he merely addressing a common religious practice of the time? Was He prescribing fasting?
But He says some other things too. He says that when you fast you shouldn’t let anyone know you are fasting, only the Father should know of your fasting. This is of a piece with His other admonishments not to make offerings in public or to pray for other people to hear. Rewards for fasting come from the Father who sees you secretly but rewards openly. (Nobody talks about Fast Club).
This also fits with Isaiah 58. Wait, where did that come from. I’m not really sure, but it seems to work because Isaiah is talking about true fasting. Isaiah tells the people that they are in rebellion because they seem to want to know God and what is right. They fast and ask God why he has not noticed and God says:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
He goes on:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
The Fast, for a day or a week or a month is not what God desires, it is to worship Him in Spirit and Truth. To submit ourselves to His law every day. Compare what Isiah says about the Hebrews of his day (and to us as well) to what Jesus says about the Teachers of the Law whom he calls hypocrites.
You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
The implications are plain, outward religiosity whether practiced by those of Isaiah’s time, Jesus’ or ours are a total waste of time. Fasting, or any other practice we will discuss in this lesson series, will have no benefit for us if we are not serving God in Spirit and Truth.
So is fasting beneficial at all? The writer of our lesson plainly thinks so, I’m not so sure. Its tempting to say (no pun intended) that we should strive to emulate Christ and Christ plainly fasted. But fasting is not what God wants. Hosea 6:6 says, “I don’t want your sacrifices—I want your love; I don’t want your offerings—I want you to know me.”
In Matthew 6 Jesus does not condemn being charitable, prayer or fasting. But he insists they be done with an eye to receiving our reward for the good deeds we do from God, not from man. To do them from the overflow of a heart committed to God, because we know Him.