Continuing on the theme of the Lenten Disciplines, here is the second sermon. When was the last time you heard a sermon on fasting?
In the Old Testament Reading appointed for Ash Wednesday, it says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly.” In the Gospel reading for that day, Jesus says, “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.” He does not say “If you fast.” But “When” Fasting is not commanded in the books of Moses. But by the time of David, the Psalmist speaks of it.
The zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach.
It is mentioned later during the time of the prophets – the most famous being the Ash Wed. reading from Joel.
Jesus assumes it is going to happen. He does it himself –after his baptism when he goes into the desert to be tempted by Satan.
For many years, the church considered fasting a good thing. In time, it was required, as if by it we could earn God’s favor. Of course, the reformation spoke out against this abuse, but still considered fasting a good thing in the church. Abuse does not destroy proper use of a thing.
Along with prayer and almsgiving it forms the basis of the Lenten discipline. But why?
From an entirely practical standpoint, it allows for more time for prayer, and more money for almsgiving – especially in cultures that were pre-industrial, where the bulk of time and a large share of income was devoted to providing food. In this way, the three disciplines support and encourage each other. Fasting allows more time for prayer, and more money to give to the poor.
But beyond that, there is value to fasting. Not that we should think our prayers are heard by God because of our actions. The death of our Lord is our only worthiness when it comes to receiving the things of God. Nor does fasting somehow get God’s attention more. As if, by fasting God finally notices us, when he did not before.
And yet, there is still good in it. Saint Paul says “”All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful.” He then adds “”All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
That is, while we are certainly freed by Jesus’ death in regard to the demands of the law, we are also still in this world. We do not live simply to fulfill the wants and desires of the body. Paul also says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” In speaking of fasting before receiving the sacrament, Luther says, “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed fine outward training” He continues with “but that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in the words of Christ.” We often focus on the second half of that statement while ignoring the first. Worthy and well prepared is not an outward training, so the conclusion is that we don’t need to outwardly prepare. But that is not what Luther is saying. He is saying that our preparations do not make us worthy. We are worthy only because of Christ, it is true. But that does not mean that some sort of preparation is not beneficial.
Luther puts it this way, “It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances, God’s word can not remain. But one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work.”
Consider a basketball team. Now, if a person does not have the skill, no matter how hard they practice, they will never make the grade. But, even if you have the skill, even if you can shoot, and dribble, and pass and catch, if you can not run, you will lose. And so, if you’ve ever been on a basketball team, you know that a good bit of time is spent running. If you don’t you will lose to inferior players, because they will be able to continue to perform at their sub-par level, long after you have stopped moving at all.
This is what Paul mean when he talks about training. We are called by God, even while we are still sinners in this sinful world. That means that you can not simply think you will endure if you heard about Jesus once, and thought it sounded good, and then never did anything else. Attending church, hearing the word, these are all parts of the discipline of Christian living. On the one hand, you are not commanded to attend church each and every Sunday at exactly 9:00. You live in Christian freedom. But, neither can you neglect the Word of God. At some point, you must come to receive God’s gifts.
Fasting is an extension of this. It gives an opportunity to focus, not on what the body craves, but on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Fasting is an outgrowth of repentance, because it denies the body the thing it most wants(food), in favor of the thing it truly needs(God’s word).
If you’ve ever skipped a meal or two, you know how much the needs of the body suddenly become important. It is like a basketball player that is huffing and puffing and no longer wants to run from one end of the gym to the other, even though he knows it is necessary, and so, off he goes. In fasting an expression of our own mortality. It reminds us that we need God to provide for us every day. It helps to focus, not on the body, but on God’s word.
In Eden, the tree was placed in the garden and God said, do not eat of it. Luther comments on this and says, that for Adam, the tree was the place of worship. By not eating of it, Adam was engaged in Divine Service, reflecting on the command and blessings which God gives, just as we are when we come hear to hear and learn God’s word.
Like daily prayer and reading of God’s word, like coming to church each Sunday and at other times, denying the flesh is a part of the discipline of being Christian. Fasting is a part of this. It is a valuable gift – yes gift. A way of training and focusing on prayer and the gifts which God gives to his people. It is a way of saying, “I do not exist solely to satisfy the desires of the flesh, but rather to praise and glorify God who made and redeemed me.”
Lent is sometimes called “The Fast”. In the days of Luther their were complicated rules for fasting. But eating less, less often, is not simply a weight-loss device. It is not for self improvement. Denying something that you enjoy, but that is not good for you anyway, is not really what Jesus means when he says fasting. Rather, it is about subduing the fleshly desires for the things of God. Not so that you would earn God’s approval. But so that you would help your own body and mind to be focused on God and his word.
Especially in this time when God is showing us how much we need to depend on him – we have received a little bit of rain, but our prayers continue as the rain has not yet been enough to end the drought – in a time such as this, it is especially helpful for us to deny our own cravings and spend extra time each day in the word of God. Not because of any command, not because we think it will merit anything, but because of your recognition of the great gift you have been given in Jesus Christ who not only fasted and was tempted on your behalf, but who gave his very life for you on the cross, for the forgiveness of your sins.