Last week life pretty much slid to a halt here with the gift of God’s special snow Sabbath. But in tens of thousands of churches around the world, other Christians gathered in worship focused on the story of Jesus’ baptism. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, many United Methodists, and other Protestants who follow the lectionary’s three year cycle of Bible readings were once again told Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism, how John the Baptist at first didn’t want to go through with it because he thought he was worthy and Jesus told him to do it anyway because it was the right thing to do, how after it was done Jesus saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on him and everyone heard a voice saying, “This is my own dear Son and I’m pleased with him.”
What happens next? That same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, “where the wild things are” and the Devil’s waiting to test him, waiting to see what Jesus’ really made of, and if he’s really able live up to God’s expectations. In that 40-day exam period Jesus fasts and prays. I think that’s so weird: Jesus needs the most strength and to be at his absolute best, and he decides to go without the one thing we count on to fuel ourselves and keep us strong. He steps away from one source of power to be sustained by a greater food and a greater power.
If that’s good for Jesus maybe it’s good for us, too. If we want to follow the Jesus Way, it’s wise to follow Jesus’ ways. He knows specific practices that help him stay true to God and live out God’s will and purposes. So those practices are going to be helpful to us as well, unless we think we’re smarter than the Teacher. Unless we think we’re stronger and truer to God than Jesus and don’t need his help, then we should stop, listen and learn.
After Jesus comes from the Wilderness testing time he begins to call disciples to follow him and learn from him what real life looks like; in Matthew, Jesus’ first big lesson plan is the Sermon on the Mount, which brings us to today’s scripture. Jesus himself fasts and prays and helps people in need. He’s always in the business of helping others; he prays regularly and at great length; he begins ministry by fasting and praying and at the end, at his final meal with his friends he says he won’t drink again until God acts in new and powerful ways. He’ll face arrest, torture, and execution dry as a desert, trusting God to satisfy his deepest thirst.
So it’s not surprising that Jesus teaches us pupils how to fast and pray and help others in need; he assumes we want to be closest to him and will pay attention and do as he says. So Jesus says, when you do something for someone else, when you come before God, when go without food or practice some appetite-denying discipline; as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast. Did you hear that? When, not if. Jesus knows from his own experience that if you want to build a life on a lasting foundation, helping, praying and fasting are essential interlocking building blocks. In this new year, you’re digging deeper into this teaching of Jesus so you can practice walking more closely with him and following his steps on the Way of life he sets before us.
I want to give a shout out Lynne Baab, the author of the book Fasting you’re reading and discussing. She’s provided a very readable resource with good biblical and historical background, and lots of helpful suggestions and guidance. What I especially appreciated was how she helped me to see the how important fasting is inn the global church, especially in Africa, Asia, and South America. Not surprisingly, those areas are also among the most spiritually alive. And even here in the US, congregations and small groups and individuals growing powerfully up into Christ are also deeply committed to fasting and prayer and helping others in need.
As I prepared for today I looked back on some of my own experiences of fasting, both good and bad, the helpful and what crashed and burned. Bob was the guy who first challenged me and introduced me fasting as something more than a Bible topic to read and discuss. I was working with the youth at Centenary Church in downtown Richmond and Bob was a 20-something, working for CROP, a Church World Service-sponsored ministry committed to feeding hungry people. He’d recently graduated from college and spent his summer working at a refugee camp somewhere in Africa; now he was back home organizing CROP fasts to raise money to feed folks. He was totally passionate, and after 40 years his story that day still haunts me. In that Church World Service sponsored refugee camp, Bob and others distributed food, but sometimes there just wasn’t enough; so over a period of weeks Bob helplessly watched two parents starve one child to death so their other children would get enough to eat. Each day they received enough for four but not for five, so the death of one brought life to the rest. That’s when I decided the church youth and I could go a day without food so a child could have a life.
As has often been happened for me, those young folks challenged me to be discontent with a C average faith and to keep moving further in and further up into Christ. For years our group fasted and raised funds to feed the hungry and support other local work in keeping with the ways of Jesus such as housing the homeless or serving those in jail or showing gratitude to first responders. Later in life other young adults inspired me to fast for 30 hours with World Vision to feed the hungry; each time I saw Bob, those wretched parents and their starving child.
There are many ways to fast faithfully: a water or juice fast for one to three days; with an Orthodox fast or Daniel fast with a diet limited to fruit, vegetables, or perhaps dairy products, fasts can last up to three weeks. The longest water only fast I ever did was for 60 hours in 2003, when we were on the cusp of war. I fasted with others, which is often helpful, and it aimed to be an act of humble and faithful repentance and sorrow and a hopeful prayer that we might turn from violence. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
Then there’ve been the busts, the times I failed miserably. I gave up on the fast too easily or got nothing from it because I was doing it for the wrong reasons or just to lose weight. In thinking about those experiences, I had an important insight: There’s a reason Jesus teaches about helping others, praying, and fasting together. These disciplines help support each other and are especially beneficial when woven together to craft a stronger faith and discipleship. Fasting clears a space so in prayer I can listen better to God to receive guidance about best ways to help others. The fasting removes the clutter and clears the background static so I can get a truer reading on what really matters and focus more fully on where God wants me to be of help and service to my sisters and brothers in need.
Think about this: when you go for an annual physical and the necessary tests associated with it, you fast so your doctor will get the truest and best picture of what’s going in your body. The fast allows for an uncluttered, clear picture of who you truly are, where you’re healthy, where you’re at risk, where you need help to be the best you can be. Fasting does the same thing for us spiritually. Trust me, if you fast you’ll quickly learn where your besetting sins are and where you need help to grow up into Christ.
A year or so ago after I retired, I talked with my family physician about going off a medication I was taking to deal with anxiety. He thought it was worth a shot and I could go back on it if needed. When I asked how I would know, he said, “Oh, your wife will tell you.” And she did 🙂
Fasting’s like that – it’s a way God tells us with love where we need help and repair for a whole and holy life. In the prayer that goes with fasting the Great Physician shows us the health of our soul and where we need change in order to spiritually healthy and whole; the Healer helps us move forward in a life focused on what really matters and where our help is most needed so this world looks more like what God intended all along.
Last week I talked with a William and Mary Wesley alum getting ready to lead a study on the Sermon on the Mount. As we talked she wondered why the Sermon is put together the way it is. Is there a plan or purpose to the way Jesus organizes his thoughts and topics? It’s a great question at least in part because I wasn’t sure there’s a right answer. Her question stayed with me all this week as I prepared to preach on this part of the Sermon. And that’s how the Spirit spoke to me with the hint of an idea.
You see, after Jesus speaks about helping others and praying and fasting, what follows in the rest of chapter 6 is a series of sayings focusing on trusting God and realizing what truly matters, what’s deeply and eternally important. Jesus talks about storing up heavenly treasure and not earthly riches; he describes our eyes as the body’s lamps concluding, “If the light inside you is dark, you surely are in the dark.” He tells us bluntly that we always have to make choices about whether we’re going to invest in money or God, because we can’t do both; and teaches us to stop worrying because it does no good, and ends with the challenge to make our #1 priority to be about God’s business and to serve God’s purposes, and everything else will take care of itself. My hunch is that Jesus wants us to pray and fast and help others to get clear about all of this, to see things we might otherwise miss, and to know truly and deeply what really matters and to walk that Way, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.