Revised Common Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; and John 3:14-21
Continuing our series of sermons in answer to parishioner questions, today we will explore fasting. A member of the congregation asked, “What is fasting and why do we do it?”
The simple answer is that fasting is going without some or all food or drink or both for a defined period of time. An absolute fast is abstinence from all food and liquid for a period of at least one day, sometimes for several days. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substance. The fast may also be intermittent in nature; for example, Muslims fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan which is intended to teach Muslims patience, spirituality, humility, and submissiveness to God. Fasting as a spiritual practice is common to all major religions. Mahatma Gandhi once noted:
Every … religion of any importance appreciates the spiritual value of fasting … For one thing, identification with the starving poor is a meaningless term without the experience behind it. But … even an eighty-day fast may fail to rid a person of pride, selfishness, ambition, and the like. Fasting is merely a prop. But as a prop to a tottering structure is of essential value, so is the prop of fasting of inestimable value for a struggling soul.
In the Bible, the people of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures fasted for a variety of reasons:
- They were facing a crisis. For example, the prophet Joel called for a fast to avert the judgment of God. (Joel 1:14, 2:12-15), and the people of Nineveh, in response to Jonah’s prophecy, fasted to forestall God’s judgment (Jonah 3:7).
- They were seeking God’s protection and deliverance. For example, King Jehoshaphat in the Second Book of Chronicles proclaimed a fast seeking victory for Judah over the attaching Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron. 20:3).
- They had been called to repentance and renewal. The Psalmist, for example, in Psalm 109 cries:
O Lord my God,
oh, deal with me according to your Name; *
for your tender mercy’s sake, deliver me.
My knees are weak through fasting, *
and my flesh is wasted and gaunt. (vv. 20,23)
- They were asking God for guidance. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai before he received the tablets on the mountain with God. (Deut. 9) St. Paul did not eat or drink anything for three days after he converted on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:9)
- They were humbling themselves in worship. The Book of Acts reports that it was with “fasting and praying” that the members of the church in Antioch “laid their hands on [Barnabas and Saul] and sent them off.” (Acts 13:3)
So fasting has a long and venerable history in all religions including our own. Indeed, Jesus assumed that his followers would fast. You may remember the lesson from Matthew’s Gospel which is always read on Ash Wednesday in which Jesus admonishes the disciples:
Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure 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. (Matthew 6:16-18)
In this passage Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray … if you give … if you fast” but rather “when you pray … when you give … when you fast.” He simply expected his followers to do so. Did you know that fasting is mentioned more than 30 times in the New Testament? For a Christian, then, fasting is not an option. It should not be an oddity. Fasting, according to Jesus, is just a given.
During this season of Lent when we “give something up,” we are engaging in the spiritual discipline of the fast. We do so in remembrance of and in solidarity with Jesus during his forty days in the desert. We do so in remembrance of and in solidarity with our spiritual ancestors, the Hebrews, who spent forty years in the desert, often without food or sustenance. In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers, for example, “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’” God’s wrath, of course, was kindled against them because of their complaining, but they were humbled by their privation. When we “give up something” (whether it be food or drink or some other thing that we enjoy), we are fasting and our fasting is a reminder of our own humility and own hunger for God. By refusing to feed our physical appetites, what St. Paul in today’s epistle lesson calls “the passions of our flesh” or “the desires of flesh and senses,” we become aware of our spiritual hunger.
The Baptist preacher and author John Piper, in his book A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, encourages fasting with these words:
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast, “This much, O God, I want you.” (Pg 23)
Fasting is a way to bring into view those things we may need most to set aside but of which we are often unaware. In today’s lesson from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that in the coming of the Son, “light has come into the world” and then says:
All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:20-21)
In his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Quaker theologian Richard Foster commends fasting as a way of bringing things to light:
More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ. (Pg. 48)
But when we fast, we must not delude ourselves into believing that the fasting itself is earning us any “brownie points” – it is not through our good deeds, including our fasting, that we earn salvation. Indeed, we cannot earn salvation. St. Paul reminds us of that forcefully in today’s epistle: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
Thinking that the act of fasting itself could earn God’s reward was condemned by God speaking through the Prophet Isaiah:
[You say,] “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isa. 58:3-8)
So fasting is a spiritual discipline, but only when done with the proper prayerful attitude, the proper religious understanding – when done “in secret” as Jesus said in the Ash Wednesday reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Fasting is not so much about food, as it is about focus. It is not so much about saying “No” to the body, as it is about saying “Yes” to the Spirit. It is not about doing without; it is about looking within. It is an outward manifestation to an inward cry of the soul, a surfacing of those things that need to be brought to light, not to be condemned, but to be saved.
Let us pray:
Support us, O Lord, with your gracious favor through our Lenten fast; that as we observe it by bodily self-denial, so we may fulfill it with inner sincerity of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men, Collect for Friday after Ash Wednesday, pg. 34)