March 1, 2011 Mission Action Meeting – @Gainesville First United Methodist Church
I want to thank you for having me this evening and am humbled that you would trust me with such a wonderful topic.
Fasting is quite possibly one of the most fascinating but under-appreciated means of Grace that we have in the Church. A means of grace is an ordinary thing by which God gives extraordinary grace. The United Methodist Book of Discipline talks about the means of grace for the Christian life like this, “Life in the Spirit” involves diligent use of the means of grace such as praying, fasting, attending upon the sacraments, and inward searching in solitude. It also encompases the communal life of the church in worship, mission, evangelism, service, and social witness. Therefore, fasting is one means by which we receive and experience God’s grace. A good working definition of fasting would be ‘abstaining from food for spiritual purposes’ (Foster). Fasting is not a hunger strike in order to get one’s own way. Fasting is always centered on God. Fasting is, in fact, a way of worship. Fasting at its core and in its purest form is not about ‘getting’ or ‘attaining’ anything, but only about worshipping God. We can get into trouble if we are looking for a benefit from fasting. It is not dietary or focused on blessing. Fasting is a way of centering our heart on God, becoming aware of the cravings that exist within us and clearing them away in order to be more focused and more devoted to God.
The purpose of the fast varies in the Bible. In the OT, the only fast that was commanded was for the Jewish Day of Atonement, as recorded in Leviticus 16 & 23. This fast was to be done and then repeated in order for the people to express their sincere remorse for sin. – In the book of Esther, there is a fast declared among the people so that they could stand in solidarity & fellowship with those who were being afflicted. – Daniel fasted for 3 weeks when in mourning.
Fasting is not unique to Christians or Jews. Most religious cultures have fasting as a part of their religious life. In Jesus’ time, fasting was practiced by the religious leaders but not much by the general people. It seems as if Jesus expected his disciples to fast and fast regularly with his words When you fast, in Matthew 6.16. But, there’s a trick here. It isn’t a commandment, but it isn’t to be cast aside either. I had a theology professor at Erskine College who used to say When thinking theologically, becareful that you do not fall off either side of the horse. So in this case, to fall off the left would be to diminish the practice all together and say that it is ONLY reserved for the strict and rigorous. To fall off the right would be to inflate the practice and make it a strict requirement for everyone.
Fasting has one purpose: growing closer to God. What God desries to do with the sacrifice that we make is God’s business. We do not do it to gain anything for ourselves but only to please God in the choosing of Him over things that have us bound or constricted in our spiritual lives.
There are a few different ways to fast. Originally one fasted from either certain kids of foods or all foods but never from water. The ‘absolute’ fast is the only exception, lasting 40 days, but these were done by exceptional saints, Moses & Elijah. Jesus himself fasted from food only in the desert when being tempted by the devil. A typical fast usually lasts from either evening-to-evening or morning to evening.
Lent is coming soon. The season of Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, the celerbation of Christ’s resurrection. Lent is a time of great spiritual focus. We remove real roadblocks from our spiritual path in order to become more focused and devoted to God. The key to both Lent and general fasting is the same: devotion.
There are lots of perceptions about fasting in our modern world. Most of fasts that you will hear about, whether from other churches, books, or bible studies are fine. The key for us tonight is to remember the litmus test: is the fast focused and centered on God and God-alone? A fast is always about God and never about us. We are centering and focusing ourselves on God, as an act of worship and as a means of grace. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.16-18 are very clear, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they di
sfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. In other words, fasting boils down to obedience. Being obedient unto God by casting aside those things that have control over us; by clearing our hearts and minds of what distractions the devil has set-up within our lives.
There’s one last thing I want to say. The key to any spiritual discipline, especially fasting, is prayer. As we fast or remove from our hearts those things that hinder us from God, we replace those things with prayer. There are many, many ways to pray during this time of fasting, especially during Lent. If fasting is to be either a regular part of your life or something only for Lent, I have a few resources that I would recommend.
Job When You Pray – a daily/seasonal guide (Kindle; Nook)
Foster Spiritual Disciplines – great resouce/information book (iPod/iPad; Kindle; Nook)
Barton Sacred Rhythms – a wonderful introduction to daily Christian spiritual formation (Kindle)
I hope this has been helpful for you. I know this may have seemed like a lot for many of you but remember that God is forming you, day-by-day, and formation takes time and patience. Rest in the fact that God desires to spend so much time with you. The best relationships are those that are drawn out, with much love and commitment. God desires this for you, therefore let us give ourselves over to His process. Amen.
Written with Essay on iPad