20230226 094449 scaled

Jesus fasted: Should we?

Matthew 6: 1 -6, 16 – 18;    Matthew 4: 1 – 11
He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. [Mt 4:2] We know this story well. Jesus after his baptism goes off into the wilderness for 40 days to reflect on his ministry. At the end of 40 days he faces three temptations on how to win people. Now we have heard many sermons on the temptations of Jesus. I have preached two sermons on the temptations in my seven years with you. But this week reading the texts I felt led to focus on ‘fasting’.
In a culture where the landscape is dotted with restaurants, cafes, and fast food halls the subject of fasting seems out of place. We hold to myths regarding food, like you must have three meals a day. And of course breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Such stuff is trotted out without any thought to our body types and the style of work we do. It seems natural to us to eat regularly. Naturally our bodies are attuned to this. What we term hunger pains, are merely an indulgent stomach telling us its time for another top up, not that we are starving.  I fasted once a week for three years. I went without three meals each time. I did this for health reasons and it made a huge difference to me. The important thing is to be sensible when you are fasting. Don’t rush into fasting. E.g. don’t begin with a three day fast. And always keep your liquids up. If you have a medical condition or are taking medicine consult your doctor first.
The Christian author and thinker, Richard Forster, who is possibly best know for his little classic, ‘Celebration of Discipline, observed that between 1861 and 1954 he could not find one book that was published on the subject of fasting. This is strange because right up until the early 19th Century the Church widely practised fasting. Fasting was part of life in Biblical times. The list of Biblical persons who fasted becomes a ‘Who’s Who’ of Scripture. Moses the Lawgiver, David the King, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the Apostle and Christ Jesus the Incarnate Son. Through out Christian history people fasted. There was Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney and countless others. And fasting is not exclusive to Christianity. Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Moslems fast. Christianity today keeps a few tokens of fasting during the period of Lent.
Fasting is the decision to go without food or some foods for a period of time. Jesus’ 40-day fast only included food as it says he was famished at the end but not thirsty. Now it is common to hear about fasting as a political protest or as a means of dieting, but not for spiritual reasons.
Religious or spiritual reasons are the reasons for fasting in the Bible. I will try and offer you some reasons why fasting helps us spiritually from my own limited experience.
Firstly, fasting prepares us for service. Christianity is about faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and loving our neighbour with self-denying service. Jesus denied himself setting aside his safety to make us safe and show his love. He expects the same of us. He called us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him [Mk 8:34].  The discipline of fasting helps us develop the ability to set aside our desires and wants and focuses on the things of God. Developing self -denial helps us love others with self-denying service.  It is very hard to offer others self-denying love when we spend our time indulging our every want and wish.
Secondly, Fasting sets us free. In learning to control the body’s desire for food helps us deal with the attractions of life and our cravings. These can become addictions. Have you never found yourself craving some food, or you see some lovely food and it seems to be beckoning you. It is very interesting that Satan uses food to entice Eve in the Garden. There is no indication that Eve was dwelling on the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. Satan drew her attention to it. She was distracted from whatever she was doing or thinking and Satan enticed her to assert her will against the will of God using the attraction of the fruit.  Eve made a bad assumption. The fruit looked good therefore it must be good for her. I want to suggest to you that simply giving in to foods and other things that are quite good in themselves will develop in us a disposition towards self-indulgence. This will distract us from the godly things of this world. So fasting develops a self-discipline, which in turn sets us free from things that hold us in their grasp.
Thirdly, Fasting helps us focus on God.  Now I have fasted. When I fasted the hunger pains have not distracted me from my prayers, but been a reminder that I am there to pray and meditate. The hunger pains initially are challenging but they soon become less intrusive. Fasting is not about getting a blessing or a prayer answered – that may happen – but about drawing closer to God and God’s will. It is in sensing God in our lives and inviting God closer that answers come. We make the error in rejoicing more about the blessing than the blessor. To be in the presence of God is to be at the centre of life and true humanity. To be centred in our self and our indulgences is death and inhumanity. The further we are away from God the more inhuman we are. Listen to your news and hear about the how inhuman many people are. The further away from God we are the more centred we become in our egos and the less human we become. True humanity is about loving others.
Fourthly, Fasting and prayer lead to breakthroughs with God. There is a powerful and universal testimony that when we come together and fast and pray for something there has been a breakthrough.  John Wesley testifies to the occasion in 1756 when the French threatened to invade England. The King called for prayer and fasting. John Wesley recorded in his Journal on February 6th:
The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.
He added a footnote. Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.
Individuals have attested that after a period of prayer and fasting God had blessed them in one way or another.
Today I want to encourage you to fast in some small way during Lent. I propose to give up chocolate until Easter Sunday. A trivial thing in a way, but every time I miss it I will be reminded of why I gave it up – to identify with God. When we fast the first time, our attention will most likely be taken up with the physical experience rather than the spiritual blessing. Only after a time do the spiritual benefits emerge and they become a reality for us. 
Jesus (and fasting) said two significant things about fasting.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus appears to link alms giving, prayer and fasting together, as if they go together [Mt 6: 1ff].   Jesus gives guidelines for each. Significantly our devotions to God through giving, prayer and fasting are meant to be done humbly, without show, and to God. Jesus speaks about fasting as if it is natural. He doesn’t speak of ‘if’ you fast or you ‘must’ fast, but ‘when’ you fast [Mt 6: 16f].  It is clear that Jesus expects God’s people to fast.
Another crucial statement about fasting comes when John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus why his disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ reply is illuminating [Mt 9: 15].  When the bridegroom is present it is a time for feasting not fasting, but after the bridegroom has gone there will be a time for fasting. Clearly Jesus is speaking of himself. The first Christians’ practice informs us that they saw that the time between the Ascension of Jesus and his Return was the time for fasting. So the first evidence of Jesus’ disciples fasting is after the Ascension of Jesus, and down through the ages. That Jesus saw fasting as part of the devotional life of his followers is beyond dispute. Jesus just expected fasting to continue in the life of his followers after the Ascension
So in feeling the prompting of the Holy Spirit to focus on Jesus fasting I was moved to embarrassment by the time I had completed the first draft of this sermon. I have come to the conclusion I have not been a good example of this aspect of the Christian life. My conscience is pricked to address this in my walk with God. I’ve decided to come to the worship centre each Tuesday morning to pray and fast for the next six weeks. If you feel led be free to join me.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  05/03/2017
 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au
Forty days and forty nights
you were fasting in the wild,
forty days and forty nights
tempted, and yet undefiled:
let us your endurance share
and from earthly greed abstain,
with you watching unto prayer,
with you strong to suffer pain.
And if Satan on us press
flesh or spirit to assail,
Victor in the wilderness,
grant we may not faint or fail.
Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear,
ever constant by your side,
that with you we may appear
at the eternal Eastertide.
With Permission: George Hunt Syttan 1822-70 & Francis Pott 1832-1909.