10/27/13 Sermon (October 27, 2013) “Fasting: The Discipline of Reliance”

posted Mar 11, 2014, 10:18 AM by David Hawkins

10/27/13 Sermon (October 27, 2013)

“Fasting: The Discipline of Reliance”

Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 (Liturgist)

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: "Fasting: The Discipline of Reliance"

For the last 2 months, we have examined some of the classic spiritual disciplines of the Christian Faith. Last week, we explored the discipline of Study, and today we will look at the last of this series, the discipline of Fasting.

And while our scripture today does not specifically mention fasting, the central message of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy is the same goal to which the discipline of fasting is aimed. Paul urges Timothy to rely on the strength of God, rather than any material or earthly power, in the same way that fasting focuses our attention on the sustenance of God’s presence and nothing else.

Paul is writing from a position of weakness and humility, powerless and in prison, yet his words echo with authority today, two thousand years after they were written. His trust in the ultimate justice of God, rather than the temporary injustice of his present circumstances reminds us all that even in our darkest hour, when we feel most alone, God is with us, and his eternal love for us will never falter. For Paul, this alone was enough to sustain his courage and his hope, regardless of his circumstances, even imprisonment, torture, and death.

Now the reality, few of us will be faced with the sort of extreme demands on our spiritual strength that Paul experienced. We won't be imprisoned for our faith, we won't be beaten, flogged, or executed. We won't be left alone with nothing and no-one to comfort us in our final hours. We won't know what is is like to be left with only our faith in the steadfast love of God to keep us company.

And, I think, we wonder sometimes, at least, I wonder, if it came to that, how would we react? What would we say, if we were Paul? What would we feel, if we were in his prison cell? Would we be as encouraging? Would we be as hopeful?

When all is stripped away, and Paul is left with nothing, that’s when he most vividly senses the presence of God. Many different religions have encouraged fasting as a way to strip away external means of support in order to test and strengthen faith. To deliberately put one’s self in a place of self-denial, of self-imposed discomfort. To force ones’ own body to submit to the mind, to the soul, rather than being a slave to our physical desires.

And I suppose that there might be some benefit to this understanding of fasting. After all, all spiritual disciplines force the body or the mind to submit to the demands of our faith. And we need to be able to do this.  We live in a time when we are bombarded by distractions that appeal to our base desires. Advertisements for food, drink, sex, pleasure, power, surround us. Our society does not value the disciplines of the Christian faith. And maybe for this reason alone, the classical spiritual exercises that we’ve been exploring the last few month are useful tool to push back against the tide of material excess that defines our culture.

But there is more to fasting than just a sheer exercise in self-control. There is more than just seeing if you can pass the test of deprivation. Because in the discipline of fasting, we are freed from the demands of the body, and find ourselves tuned into a different way of listening to God and seeing the world around us through different eyes.

Fasting helps us see things that we normally are too distracted to see. It slows us down, helps us focus on bigger things than just food. It’s surprising how much time and energy we spend on food. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a true thing. But when you are fasting, you are very aware that you are not spending time on food, and this makes you think about the reasons why not.

And it’s these reasons that are at the heart of fasting. Fasting directs our hearts toward God. It helps us focus on our reliance on God. It helps us listen to God’s word, to pay attention to God’s image in each other. It gives us insight into the way we think about things, the priorities we place on things.

Fasting is a time of letting go of the demands of our bodies so that we can look for the more nuanced demands of the world around us. Voluntarily going hungry reminds us of those who don’t decide for themselves to go hungry, but are forced into it by emergencies, political upheaval, or heartless economic systems.

Fasting allows us to confront the fear of going hungry with only the presence of God to sustain us. And because fear is the root of a lot of the weird things we do, fasting has the effect of bringing to the surface emotional toxins that we may have never thought existed inside of us. Fasting is as difficult emotionally as it is physically.

Now, the reality is, the idea of fasting has fallen onto hard times in our modern age. It might be because we associate fasting with the whole whipping ourselves on the back thing that was so popular back in the dark ages, or it might be seen a relic of ancient spiritual practices that have no relevance in our time.

Plus, there is the real risk of doing physical harm to yourself if you undertake a particularly long fast, or fast for the wrong reasons. And speaking of wrong reasons, medical experts warn against fasting to lose weight, and there is a great deal of evidence that fasting for this reason actually makes it harder, rather than easier, to lose weight over the long term.

And very long fasts can cause the body to begin using muscle and organ tissue to maintain itself after the regular reserves of energy have been used up, and this can result in heart damage as well as damage to the liver and kidneys. For this reason, I need to warn against fasts lasting longer than a few days. Anybody considering a very long fast should consider talking with their doctor to see if there are any medical concerns.

But, for those who are in pretty good physical condition, with no liver or kidney problems, or a compromised immune system, a fast of a couple of days will not be dangerous. It will be difficult. It will be uncomfortable. But not dangerous.

And so, given the the potential danger and the guaranteed discomfort, both emotional and physical, that fasting involves, the question is, should we do it? Is there a Biblical mandate to fast? Does Jesus command us to fast? Are there rules about fasting?

Well, no. Fasting was a part of the Jewish culture and religious life, and there are many, many stories of fasting for different reasons in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament, fasting is mentioned by Jesus only three times.

When Jesus talks about fasting, he first talks about how, if you are fasting, you shouldn’t go about letting people know that your are fasting.

Now, for practical reasons, if you decide to fast, there are going to be people who need to know it. Your family for instance. And there will be questions when you are with a group of people at a restaurant, and you are not eating. You will find yourself more often than you realize around people who are eating and you are not. And they will be curious. Especially if it’s the second or third time that they’ve seen you not eating. And so it might be necessary to tell some folks about your decision to fast. But Jesus reminds us that fasting is a private thing, not something that you broadcast to the world.

The second time that Jesus talks about fasting, he is being asked why his disciples do not fast. And he answers, as he so often does, with a question: why should they fast while there’s a party going on? There might be a time to fast, but it’s not while they are with Jesus. He reminds all of us that the life of a Christian is one of joy and extravagant love, not one of self-deprivation and gloomy obedience to duty.

The third time he mentions fasting, it is in the context of a parable about a self-righteous man who boasts of his fasting as an example of his religious superiority. Jesus doesn't think much of his outward expressions of faith, and was much more concerned with the tax collector, who simply and privately confessed his sin and asked for forgiveness.

And so, as far as Jesus is concerned, fasting is a mixed bag. He doesn’t condemn it, so much as warn people not to show off, and he doesn’t command it, so much as acknowledge.

And later on, in the book of Acts, we see the disciples fasting after Jesus ascends into heaven. For instance, when they are in process of commissioning Barnabas and Paul for ministry, they are commanded by the Holy Spirit to fast and to lay hands on them. And after Paul and the disciples had established and ordained elders for churches in the area of Iconium and Antioch, they again fasted.

So, all in all, fasting is a legitimate and enduring part of our Biblical and traditional heritage.

But I’m not entirely sure that fasting is for everyone, nor do I think that fasting is the only way to examine our own reliance on the things of this world, as opposed to being reliant on God alone.

Another form of fasting might be to separate ourselves from physical or emotional means of support. For instance, we might not check facebook or twitter, or vine, or instagram for a few days. What would it be like to not know what’s going on in the world of social media? Another way to fast might be to turn off the TV for a week, or to give up video games, or to not eat meat for a period of time, or not read the newspaper, or not listen to talk radio, or an number of other things that we think we need to do to be fulfilled.

Fasting in its most basic form is separating ourselves from those things that we think we must have, whether physically or emotionally, and to rely only on the presence of God to sustain us. As the Apostle Paul tells us, it is during these times of being most vulnerable that we receive the most strength from God. During this week, I encourage all of us to consider fasting from something that we think we need. If you would like to talk to me about fasting from food, I can offer some guidelines about that.

But the point is, during your fast, be aware of your desire for what you are not doing, or eating, or having. Be aware of the pressure around you to give up your fast. And when that desire begins to ebb, be aware of the freedom you have been given, and of God’s presence and strength that sustains you. Because God is here with us. God’s Spirit is all around us.

It’s just that sometimes there’s too much junk in our lives to know it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.