In our summer series on Spiritual Practices, we are going to continue this morning with one that is not often practised in the Christian faith anymore. I remind you that the purpose of any spiritual practice is to reclaim devotion to God. Today's may challenge you more than lectio divina which we did two weeks ago, and gratitude which we covered last week. But sometimes we need to be challenged in our faith and our practices of it. It helps us to see the holy in new ways, to experience the divine in ways we may not have before. Today, we are looking at the spiritual practice of fasting. Unlike the last two weeks, we will not be doing a trial run of this during the service today.
Fasting is the deliberate and generally prolonged abstention from eating (and sometimes drinking). Fasting of course, is an integral part of our Muslim friends' faith. It was also practised by most Catholics until Vatican II. But most Protestant denominations, of which the United Church is one, do not know what fasting is. Yet, fasting has always been a part of religious devotion, both Christian and non-Christian. There are more references to fasting (77) in the bible than there are to baptism. The people of the bible took fasting as a given. Jesus twice says, "When you fast," not "if you fast," or "you should fast." It was assumed that if you were a Christian, you fasted. Jesus fasted. The apostle Paul fasted, The disciples fasted. Martin Luther fasted. John and Charles Wesley, one a great preacher, the other a hymn writer, fasted.
If fasting has been a universal practice of religious people, there must have been a reason for it and there must have been some value to it. It used to be observed as a sign of penitence, an acknowledgement of one's wrong doing. It was done as an accompaniment to prayer. The passage just prior to the the scripture read this morning, is Jesus' teaching on the Lord's Prayer. Fasting is also means of humbling oneself before God – realizing that everything we have, especially those things that are basic to life, like food – are given to us by God. Fasting is also a means of preparing ourselves for divine revelation, that is removing the distractions of things like food to allow the divine to speak into our lives. And fasting is identified with a change of mind and heart, a true sorrow for sin and the desire to do better.
As I said, traditionally, fasting was known as a deliberate abstention from all food, and perhaps drink. Biblically, that type of fast could last a day, (2 Samuel 3: 35 Daniel 6: 18), three days (Esther 4:16), a week (1 Samuel 31: 13) or even 40 days (1 Kings 19: 8 Matthew 4: 12). I don't recommend anything over a few days unless you have a doctor's okay to do it longer. Of course there are some people who, for medical reasons, should not fast from food or fluids. So I can offer some adaptations to a full on fast . Our Muslim friends fast during daylight hours and eat after sundown at special times of the year. Think about what a sacrifice that is for faith.
There is also abstaining from food for a while, but drinking lots of water and perhaps fruit juice. A partial fast, suggested in the bible, was to each only vegetables and drink water. Roman Catholics were known to fast from meat on Fridays and eat fish instead, as a spiritual practice.
There are alternates to giving up food as well that might qualify as fasting in a more modern world. We could abstain from buying anything that is a “want” or that is not a genuine “need”. This will affect your shopping habits. You would avoid making that Starbucks or Tim Hortons purchase, junk food, desserts, caviar if you're that wealthy..., more clothes, or “toys”... There is also the carbon fast – a refusal to drive a car for a period of time, say 24 hours a week. You might adopt a fast from television, or talking, or cell phones other than to take or make calls; computer or video games, Facebook, twitter. Whatever you choose should be a deliberate and wilful sacrifice that is out of your normal comfort zone. Fasts are also for a limited time, but are meant to be participated in on a regular basis, such as once a week or, once a month, a couple of times a year.
Of course the purpose of Christian fasting is not to give something up for a period of time just for the act of doing so, but to use the time or money you would normally spend doing that activity to bring yourself closer to God. Giving up TV might allow you time for a walk on which you might notice and thank God for the beauty of creation. Changing shopping habits might encourage you to give what you've saved to a needy cause. Abstaining from food for a while, will hopefully make you more aware of the blessings of God we take for granted and will encourage you to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for what you have and intercession for those less fortunate.
What we really can't do is adopt a practice of fasting for the wrong motives. Oh, there can be side effects from fasting from a number of things – weight loss for fasting from food, extra cash from denying yourself those things that are wants, not needs, etc. .
In Jesus' day, people sometimes turned fasting into a matter of pride. People would make themselves looks miserable so that others would notice them and think highly of their sacrifice. A modern day version of fasting for pride could be shown in the example of two men, one giving up cigars, the other giving up eating lunches. The one fasting from lunches feels he is doing so much better, is a better Christian, and leaves the impression that he is holier than the other man because he is sacrificing something desired for life while the other is simply giving up something he enjoys.
It is possible, also, to use fasting in terms of works righteousness. If we are hard on ourselves and really sacrifice through fasting, we may get the idea that this ought to count with God on our behalf. It should show how good we are and how hard we are trying to please God. All of the denials and sacrifices are supposed to stack up merit so that, at judgement day, God will give us an okay.
Neither of these is the reason to fast as a person of faith. Jesus taught the need of purity and simplicity of motive as the reason to fast from anything.
In the days of Robert E. Lee, a mother who had him serve as godfather asked him at the baptism what she should teach her boy. He said, "Teach him to deny himself." This is not easy, as anyone who tried it can tell you. It is sometimes the most difficult thing in the world to do. It calls for an exercise of the will. It demands self mastery. When a little girl fell and hurt her knee, someone asked her how she kept from crying. She answered, "Oh, I just said to myself, 'Stop that,' and made myself mind me." This struggle with yourself goes on all through the period of fasting. You see, you fast on something or some activity that means all the world to you. That is why you give it up, because it is a sacrifice to deny yourself that item. It is a struggle to say "No" to yourself when no one is around.
Another thing that fasting does is that it makes you choose the top priority in your life. If you fast, you must decide who really is your God. What are the priorities in your life? What is of first value? What is your scale of values? It is common knowledge that many gods exist in our corporate and individual lives. What we give top priority to is what constitutes our god. For many, self is the god who is seen in our selfishness and self-centeredness. To deny self is to deny that god. Many have the god of materialism. Devotees of this god can be seen these days as they grab for items that are scarce. When Johnny Carson jokingly said over the "Tonight" show that toilet paper was scarce, the women of America went out and bought up all the toilet paper, and then there was a real shortage! In the days of the gas shortage, people filled up their tanks and kept them filled. One man went to a service station to fill up his tank and he needed only eleven cents worth. Then he gave the attendant a credit card to pay for it! This coveting, this craze for the material things of life, shows who our god really is.
Fasting helps us to deny ourselves material things. In the light of these gods, which are nothing other than top priorities in our lives, fasting helps us to renounce our desires and give full loyalty and devotion to the true God. We sacrifice false gods to glorify the true God seen in Christ. If God is our God, then we have a new scale of values. Fasting helps us to put first things first, to put God first and ourselves last in the scale of values.
As a spiritual practice I would encourage you to try fasting – from food or perhaps some other activity or thing that currently draws your attention away from God. And I want to leave you with this thought from Cornelius Plantinga Jr. “Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a person's appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God.”