Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Practicing Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting”
Matthew 4:1-4; 6:16-18
First Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022
Decatur Presbyterian Church
A word about Covid…the numbers are below the thresholds we had been using, but our session has not met to discuss next steps. Just a reminder – those ages 4 and under are not vaccinated, and two of our staff members have daughters under the age of 4, so we as make decisions, we keep that dynamic in mind.
A word about Ukraine. My pastor friend, Robert Gamble, made his way to Romania and I believe may be in Florida now. He is planning to visit us on March 27 to share his experiences and perspectives regarding Ukraine.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered,
‘It is written,“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
‘And 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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
At our preschool chapel service on Tuesday morning, we talked about the different meanings of the word “fast”.
We talked about the difference between running “fast” and breaking “fast” in the morning with breakfast. I told them about the spiritual practice of fasting and the various ways that people choose to fast – whether from food or screen time or other things.
After the service was over and Lori McMahan had led the children in one of her wonderful songs, I was not at all sure how much the kindergartners had gleaned from my talk about fasting. However, as one particular boy was leaving the sanctuary, one who had already been corrected more than once that morning on the playground, he turned to his teacher and declared, “I’m not giving up anything!” and marched out the door.
Well, at least he was listening!
He got the concept, whether or not he wanted to participate in the spiritual discipline. Popular wisdom teaches us that our bodies can go as much as three minutes without air, three days without water, and thirty days without food.
When Jesus was driven into the wilderness after his baptism, Matthew reports that he fasted for forty days…and forty nights! Can you imagine the condition of your body after forty days of fasting from food?
In Johannesburg, South Africa in 1989, thirty three political prisoners went on a hunger strike in order to call attention to their plight. They had been detained for months or even years without a trial. As the doctors reported on the declining condition of the prisoners, the whole world became aware of this form of non-violent resistance and became increasingly concerned for the welfare of the prisoners, as well as the subject of their dispute.
Before the South Africans, Mahatma Ghandi, Irish Republican prisoners, Cuban dissidents, and even American suffragettes in Virginia engaged in various forms of hunger strikes. (Wikipedia)
Hunger strikes are based in the ancient practice of fasting, but their purpose is quite different. The spiritual discipline of fasting has deep roots in many of the world religions,but not typically for the purpose of political statement, but for the purpose of personal spiritual renewal and deepened love for neighbor.
I confess not to have much significant experience with the discipline of fasting. About the furthest I have taken the practice has been to do without desserts during the Lenten season. One of the joys of being a pastor is that there always seems to be some form of rich food around. The church staff enjoys desserts and treats and cookies on a regular basis, so it is somewhat difficult not to be confronted with temptation almost daily. Every time I wanted to reach for that warm piece of homemade pound cake, or that fresh banana pudding or that chocolate chip cookie that was calling my name, my practice would be to pause, offer a brief prayer, and then try to go on about my day without thinking about what I gave up.
Though I am fairly certain that I have broken the fast most years, whether by accident or not, nevertheless, this minimal practice of fasting has engaged my attention, made me more aware of how much I take luxuries like desserts for granted, helped me to become a bit less dependent on the whims of my appetites, and yes, encouraged a bit of prayer during the day which helped remind me of what I really need.
Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, and then, when tempted to turn stones into bread, he simply replied,
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
I suppose in order to undertake the ministries that Jesus would accomplish, he would have to be able to set aside the desires of the flesh and live with complete dependence upon the grace and will of God.
If only we had a smidgen of his faithfulness and commitment to purpose. Over the course of Christian history, different forms of fasting have emerged. Certainly, food is probably the most popular form of fasting. The denial of this basic daily need will quickly garner our attention and focus.
Have you seen the Snickers commercials with Betty White playing football with a bunch of young men? Once she eats a Snickers, she becomes a young man again, with the tag line: “You are not you when you’re hungry; Snickers satisfies.”
There’s some truth to that.
A large Snickers can get you through a late afternoon two hour meeting or the back nine of a golf outing. “You are not you when you are hungry” is related to the point of fasting.
The point is to fast in order to draw nearer to God, to become more like Jesus in our thoughts and actions.
Several weeks ago in a sermon, I offered that ancient prayer: “Less of me, more of you, O God.”
Less of me, more of you.
The supposition is we, as human beings, are most often self-absorbed. We are focused mainly, day by day, upon our own fleshly desires and needs, and often unaware of the people and of the needs around us. We are often not tuned in to the presence of God in our midst.
Fasting helps us remember and pay attention to God as we go about our day.
We learn that we really did not need that piece of cake or that half a bag of potato chips or that alcoholic drink after all.
We can do just fine, probably much better, without such things. Such things are not necessarily evil, but they are mere things. And we often seek to fill the whole in our hearts with things or experiences rather than with God.
What we do with the stuff of this earth manifests either our health or our dis-ease. It is fascinating to me how quickly our bodies adapt to a substance or an experience. If you are not a coffee drinker and you begin to drink coffee every day for a month, then at the end of that month, your body is going to want coffee.
You may even get a caffeine headache if you wake up and don’t find yourself a cup of joe. The same is true of alcohol or tobacco and other substances, or even the adrenaline rush of some risky behavior.
If our bodies become accustomed to regular consumption, our bodies will want more and more. Studies have shown that intermittent fasting has a number of significant health benefits, and many will do so not out of spiritual motivation, necessarily, but out of physical need.
On the flip side, our bodies also become accustomed to good things. If we exercise every day for a month, our bodies will begin to want that exercise. And if we deny ourselves sweets for a while, or we deny ourselves caffeine or alcohol or tobacco or whatever, slowly our bodies will want less of those things.
Importantly, whatever fast we choose, this spiritual discipline is not meant for self-improvement only. As Jesus said, when we fast for selfish reasons, then we have already received our reward. Instead, when we give up something to draw nearer to God, we should also take up something that results in love for neighbor.
The prophet Isaiah (chapter 58) cried out on behalf of God:
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen?, says the Lord, to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
Like the structure and shape of the cross – our vertical relationship with God should support and encourage our horizontal relationship with neighbor. As Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog this week:
“Fasting allows us to live in solidarity with the hungry. We will be a lot more mindful and (a lot more) compassionate if we notice what it is like to have our stomachs growling.”
Instead of only giving up something for Lent, many people take up some activity or practice. And some combine the two. A beautiful example came from one of our preschool teachers. (Kristen Davis)
Kristen says that her family gives up going out to dinner during the season of Lent, they track the money they would have spent, and then give that money to a feeding program in town.
I knew another friend who had a daily Starbucks habit, or what we used to call a “four bucks” habit. During Lent, he would set that money aside each day, and then, after six weeks, give that relatively significant amount of pocket change to someone who was struggling to make ends meet.
So, what might you give up for this 2022 season of Lent?
What practice might you take up that would encourage your relationship with God?
I have been thinking about screen time lately.
Screen time is defined as the combination of all the time you spend on your phone, your computer, your television, your video game, etc.
What if we gave up some of that time for the sake of something better? What if we gave up an hour of television and made phone calls to family members instead?
Have you heard of screen free Sundays?
Some are seeking to implement a Sabbath rest for their eyes and their souls from the ever-demanding and ever-tempting wiles of the screen.
Could you fast for 24 hours from your phone?
If you’re in your 70’s, I am guessing that would not be so difficult. If you’re in your 30’s or 40’s, you might really enjoy a day away from your phone. If you’re less than 25, what I am saying now is close to blasphemy.
For Generation Z, their phones and screens are almost an extension of themselves. To go without one’s phone, for example, could be more difficult than going without speaking. What matters is who or what is hogging our attention.
Is how we are spending our time helping or hindering our general wellness, our social well-being, our spiritual awareness?
Davison Philips, a long term pastor of this congregation, shared with me one of his favorite blessings for mealtimes. Like the sage wisdom that Davison embodied:
“Dear Lord, we thank you for food for the body and food for the soul. May we always hunger for both and want for neither.”
Over the coming weeks of Lent, I pray that our souls may be fed, and that we would all begin to hunger for more food for the soul, and less for the transitory stuff that we so often consume.
I hope that you won’t say, like that upset kindergartner, “I’m not giving up anything!”
Instead, may our practice of fasting, our practice of denying ourselves and turning our attention to God, not only draw us nearer to the God who is and was and ever shall be, but also draw us into deeper concern and love for those around us.
To God alone be the glory as we do so.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 6, 2022