This year, I (and, as you will see) other pastors, are calling for a fast during the Season of Lent. Details are in the sermon, which was preached last night. If you couldn’t make it to church because of snow, please read and consider these words carefully. (Thanks to Pastor Scheer for the study that inspired us, and to Pastor Mars, who finished his sermon as I was beginning mine, and so became source material.)
The Gospel reading for this day is from the sermon on the mount. Jesus is instructing the people. Today he deals with the three Christian disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. He says, “When you give to the needy… when you pray… when you fast.” He does not say if. We are commanded by God to pray. We are commanded by God to care for our neighbor. It makes sense that Jesus would say “when”. Those are clear-cut, easy cases. Christians will do those two things. And we see the church structured around those things – prayer and help for the needy. But are we commanded to fast? It’s assumed by God himself that we will. But we don’t have the clear command. Just the assumption that we will do it.
Jesus assumption here is explained throughout the letters of Saint Paul, where he talks about disciplining the body, bringing it into submission. Are your appetites lord of you, do they rule over you? Today it’s common to speak of addiction as an illness. As if the person had no responsibility for their troubles. You also hear talk of a person’s self-identification as the ruling factor in their behavior. There are many who claim that whatever you feel inside is what you must express outside. Leave no appetite unfilled. No itch unscratched. That is the way of the world.
God has a different word for those who would take up their cross daily and follow him. “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world”. “When you fast…” It’s just assumed by God that you will. Jesus leaves it to Paul to explain why the Christian will fast:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Thus, Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians.
Even today, athletes understand that sacrifice is required to win. Those who would compete without training – without running, and sweating, and hurting – will not win. Saint Paul explains that we are not ruled by our bodies, and their desires. Those may be sinful desires. Lusts, anger, hatred. Or they may be desires born of physical limitation, that are not in themselves sinful. After running for a long time, we desire rest. Within a few hours of eating, we desire food again. When thirsty, we desire drink. And yet, if we are entirely ruled by those things, then we are in bondage to our own desires. Always chasing after the latest whatever – food, clothing pleasure, comfort. Our Lord tells us to mortify the flesh. Put it to death. We teach this in the small catechism – “the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and a new man daily come forth and arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
We even teach children in the Small Catechism, “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training.” One of the other early reformers, Martin Chemnitz, puts it this way, “fasting ought to be training in repentance.” (Examine v.4 p 268)
Not that we earn anything by it. Jesus earned our salvation on the cross. But it is a way of training our bodies in putting to death the old Adam. How? God makes us feel hunger so that we would know it is time for nourishment. When fasting we feel that hunger pain, and then say, “No” to it. As we will hear Sunday, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” So, what would a biblical fast look like? Sunday we’ll hear about Jesus going 40 days and nights without food. That’s not what we’re talking about. A fast does not mean eating no food. It means eating less food, less often. But let’s be clear – it isn’t about dieting or losing weight. It is about putting to death the desires of the flesh. In the early church, they saw fasting as a preparation for persecution. Christians could be imprisoned or killed. They could be tortured for the faith. Fasting was a way of getting used to being uncomfortable – it was a training so that in times of persecution, you would not fall away. Remember the parable of the sower from a couple of weeks ago. If we think following Jesus is easy, we run the risk of being like that seed planted among the rocks, that grew up quickly, but in time of testing fell away.
Fasting help us focus our minds on the things of God. It gives time for extra prayer, it frees up money for extra almsgiving – extra help for the needy. While we always have the command of God to take up our cross daily and follow him, while we are always commanded to pray, and to help the poor, the season of Lent stands as an opportunity to engage in these Christian disciplines in a more focused and significant way. We have extra services each Wednesday to hear the Word. You can spend a few extra minutes each morning or evening reading the Word of God and praying. And it is also a time of fasting.
Pastor Mars is preaching this evening to his own parishes, but also to our sister parishes in Pine Bluffs and Grover on this. He explains the value of fasting this way:
For the Bible teaches that the flesh fights against the Spirit and does not receive the things of God. Our sinful nature desires sinful things. And without the grace of the Holy Spirit, we would become enslaved to those passions. Fasting subjugates our sinful flesh by telling it that it will be deprived for a season of God’s good gifts of food, sleep, or other comforts, so that the things of the Spirit can have the priority, which is to be the case even when not fasting… the life of the Christian is to be one of continual repentance, that is, turning away from the sin and the corrupt pleasures of this fallen world and seeking the wholesome goodness of God’s love and forgiveness revealed in Christ Jesus, our Savior. Fasting must always include a recognition of and sorrow over the sin in ourselves and in the world. And having so recognized sin for what it is – a degradation of our humanity and a solemn violation of God’s good and gracious will – we seek to turn away from sin and seek the wholesome righteousness of God. So let me say it again…fasting is training in the mortifications of the flesh, and the exercise of repentance and prayer.
Those parishes are being challenged to engage in fasting this Lenten season. The prophet Joel says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” Whose task is it to do that? Here we are, gathered as the people of God this evening to hear his word, and to respond in repentance and faith to that word. In keeping with our Lord’s word in Joel, in Matthew, and in 1 Corinthians regarding the value of fasting as a training in repentance, I, as the pastor of Trinity, call on this congregation to consecrate a fast. How? I would propose that we set aside each Thursday this Lent to be a day of fasting and prayer. It’s an easy day to pick, because it’s tomorrow – no point in putting it off and forgetting. Today it’s too late to start, especially after the feast of soup and pie. Each week, our worship on Wednesdays can remind us to fast on Thursday. Of course, you are free in Christ. There is no compulsion. And there are those who medically can not fast safely. Don’t do this to your harm. But, if you have no medical conditions, and you wish to act on the assumption of our Lord, give it a try this Lenten season. The classical fast is to refrain from eating during daylight hours, and then eat the evening meal – and make that meal more simply than usual. The time that is freed – even if it’s just a few minutes – can be spent in prayer. The money it frees up can go to the poor. If you can’t make it all day, then try having breakfast and skipping the noon meal. If you can’t skip it entirely, then make it smaller. If you can’t skip meals, then perhaps engage in extra prayer – wake up 30 minutes earlier and attend to the word of God and prayer with the extra minutes. If not that, deserts, snacks, TV, social media. There are so many comforts in our lives that surely one of them can be put away for the next six weeks each Thursday. And if Thursday doesn’t work, you can choose another day. Remember –this is done in the freedom of the Gospel, in faith and love, not under compulsion or fear of punishment. And it is done not to earn anything before God, but to remind you. Today we speak the word of God that says “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Fasting is a way to train you in godly repentance. To focus you on the Word of God and prayer, and to do so as part of the Christian congregation in Platte County – so that we might all hear the word to our benefit. The word proclaims that we are not saved by our actions, but by Christ’s work on our behalf. Remember that – this isn’t to earn anything. It is a training in repentance. Again, the words of Pastor Mars are helpful to us:
Fasting is not dieting, or budgeting, or adopting a regimen of self-improvement. The Bible calls fasting “afflicting oneself” and that for the sake of God and the neighbor. And one other thing, if you refrain from food or other things that cost money, give away the money you saved to the poor. I would even say, don’t place it in the offering plate. Give it away completely.
One last word of encouragement, be patient with yourself if fasting is new. You will be hungry or tired or whatever, depending on the fast you choose. And also know, you may experience greater forms of temptation. This is to be expected. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come to us. Remember, we undertake this discipline for the sake of God’s kingdom where moth and rust cannot destroy the eternal treasures given to us in Christ Jesus.
From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope. The Lord bless you all during this Lenten season as you live out the righteousness which Christ has given to you.