March 9, 2011 - Ash Wednesday

"Relinquishment and Detachment:
The Spiritual Practice of Fasting"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life: Jesus’s Vision for a New World
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:16-18

We Christians are called to journey with Christ into the innermost truth about ourselves, meeting on the way all our brokenness and imperfections, but finding at our center the Holy and Living God.  The inward pilgrimage of conversion is the most important voyage any of us ever takes.  The traditional Lenten disciplines of self-denial, almsgiving, and prayer are, therefore, not ends in themselves, but are always at the service of this inward journey.  Interior attitude, inward disposition, inner transformation are always more important than outward observances.1

If anybody knows anything about Lent they know it has something to do with giving up something.  They may not know why, but they know that much.

Tonight and throughout the history of the church we turn to the Lenten theme of fasting as a spiritual practice.  Fasting is prominent during Lent because of Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness, which also brought to mind Israel’s forty years in the wilderness.

Fasting is an act of relinquishment, detachment, and self-denial.  The forty days of Lent can be a time we deal honestly and humbly with our imperfections, compulsions and addictions, dying with Christ to our sin, so that come Easter morning we may rise with Christ to new life.

I.    Biblical People and Christians Throughout Church History Who Fasted

Fasting has been a discipline practiced in all the major religions of the world.  Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Hippocrates also practiced fasting.

Those in the Bible who fasted include: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul and, of course, Jesus. 

Many of the great Christians throughout church history fasted and witnessed to its value - Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney.

Fasting has often taken different forms and engaged for different reasons.

By the time of the prophet Zechariah four “regular” fasts were held during the year (Zech 8:19).  The boast of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable evidently described a common practice of the day, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12)

The Didache, a second century Christian document, prescribed two fast days a week: Wednesday and Friday.  Regular fasting was made obligatory at the Second Council of Orleans in the sixth century.  John Wesley sought to revive the teaching of the Didache and urged Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.  He felt so strongly about this matter, in fact, that he refused to ordain anyone to the Methodist ministry who did not fast on those two days.

The fact that all these persons, in and out of scripture, held fasting in high regard does not make it a requirement, but it should make us pause long enough to be willing to give fasting some serious thought.

There are no biblical laws that command fasting.  Our freedom in the gospel, however, does not mean license; it means opportunity.  Since there are no laws to bind us, we are free to fast on any day and in a variety of ways.  Freedom for the apostle Paul meant that he was engaged in “fasting often” (2 Cor 11:27).  We should always bear in mind the biblical counsel, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13).

It is sobering to realize that the first statement Jesus made about fasting dealt with the question of motive (Matt 6:16-18).  Jesus said “When you fast, do not do it in order to be theater for others.” 

Some people wore sackcloth or mourning clothes.  They often put dust and ashes on their faces, a symbol of penance and mourning.  This practice was intended to help a person grow closer to God.  Some used it instead to be theater for others.

A frequent practice of the Pharisees was to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because those were market days and so there would be bigger audiences to see and admire their piety.

II.  The Purpose of Fasting

Fasting must forever center on God. Throughout Scripture fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.

Scot McKnight has written the book on fasting in the Ancient Practices Series.  And has done a marvelous job.  He acknowledges the myths and dangers of fasting, offering wise guidance for those who decide to practice fasting.  He has changed my mind in many ways about fasting, primarily as he talks about the purpose of fasting.

I had always thought of fasting as a means to an end.  But McKnight points out that in scripture, fasting is a response to a sacred moment, not an instrument designed to get desired results.2

He quotes Lynn Baab who says:  Certain sacred moments like grief, repentance, and contemplation call for normalcy to cease, and sometimes it means we stop our consumption of food.3

McKnight talks about a variety of sacred moments that call for normalcy to cease, sacred moments when fasting is a natural and inevitable response, such as: the presence of sin and the need for conversion and transformation; death; impending disaster or disaster itself; the lack of holiness and love and compassion; the impoverishment of others; the sacred presence of God, or lack thereof; and the absence of justice and peace.4

McKnight speaks of fasting as body grief.  In the face of grief, indulgence in any kind of pleasure seems to desacralize the pain.  It almost comes naturally.  We have no appetite.  Some choose the alternative of drowning sorrow in drink.5  But the pain always returns.

Because of the Hebrew understanding of the person as unified body and soul, repentance often expressed itself in the physical act of fasting.  The whole person engages in the act of repentance - not just the heart or soul or mind or body.6

Paul engaged in a three day fast at his conversion.

Many fasts in scripture were group fasts.  Fasts were called in time of group or national emergency.  The prophet Joel said: “Gather the congregation and sanctify a fast.”

The early church followed the practice of fasting at critical points in its life to discern how God was leading them and to empower their ministry (Acts 13, 14).  Fasting has been proven helpful when faced with a decision and gaining clarity. Serious problems in churches or other groups have been dealt with and relationships healed through unified group prayer and fasting.

III.   The Practice of Fasting

When we think about the actual practice of fasting, there are a few things helpful to know.

Fasting in the Bible is not about dieting.  And fasting should not be done by diabetics, children, women who are pregnant or nursing, those with serious diseases, and those who are sick.

Fasting does not harm the body as long as proper hydration occurs and does not endure more than 12-15 hours.7  Except in the most extraordinary circumstances, a fast should not exceed more than 24 hours in duration

Some fast from sundown to sundown.  Others have found lunch to lunch to be the best time.  This means that you would not eat two meals.  All fasts include drinking lots of water.  Fresh fruit juices are also excellent to drink during the fast.  There is also a fast known as the Daniel fast, which is abstaining from specific kinds of food as a form of disciplining the body.

Do not go to extremes.  We should turn to the wisdom of Benedictine spirituality that emphasizes moderation in all things.

We must prepare spiritually before fasting.  Depending on the shifting sands of will power only results in frustration and harm.  Ask for God’s help.

IV.  Other Forms of Fasting

The Bible deals with fasting in regard to food, but you take the central principle or relinquishment and detachment and apply it to other aspects of our lives.

We can fast from people and learn the discipline of solitude.  We can fast from media - TV, radio, newspaper.  We can fast from the computer - the internet, twitter, facebook.  We can fast from the telephone, from consumerism, from alcohol, sex, work.

V.   Isaiah 58: A Biblical Case Study in the Practice of Fasting8

McKnight uses Isaiah 58, which served as our call to confession tonight, as a perfect case study in the biblical practice of fasting.

      A.              Isaiah’s sacred moment: injustice in the community (58.6-7)

The sacred moment faced by Israel at the time that led Isaiah to call for a fast was injustice in the community.  Fasting embodies God’s hatred for injustice against the poor.

      B.              Isaiah’s vision: the kingdom of God and justice

Isaiah and other prophets would contrast the injustice in Israel with a vision of God’s kingdom, the new creation, where justice reigned supreme.  Biblical fasting transcends the private spirituality of the individual; it is an act of faith and hope for others.

      C.              Isaiah’s problem: personal piety nullified by oppression (58.2-4)

The problem Isaiah addresses is that Israel practiced fasting, but their piety was nullified by their oppression of the poor.  Fasting that does not lead to a consideration of the poverty of others misses the whole point.

      D.              Isaiah’s redefinition of fasting: abstaining from injustice and oppression

So Isaiah redefines fasting.  He says the fasting God wants has to do with the undoing of injustice, releasing the oppressed, feeding the hungry providing sanctuary for the homeless.

      E.              Isaiah’s two companions to fasting: justice/solidarity and holiness

For Isaiah, fasting required two companions:

      1. He said fasting is to be converted into justice and solidarity with others.

We fast to identify with the hungry of the world.  And the money we save by not eating is converted into gifts for the poor.  The time we save by not eating is converted into time spent relieving injustices.  Fasting is a witness that Christians stand among the needy.

Fasting in compassionate solidarity with the poor and hungry might be what we most need to change our own passivity in the face of famine

Fasting can be an expression of hope for God’s kingdom by protesting the present conditions of this world.  Not only a boycott against injustice but the embodiment of hope that God will act in this world.

Fasting must lead to compassion for others (Isa 58.6-7).  This is the center of all teaching about fasting.  What we give up when we fast should be given to others.

      2. A second companion to fasting is holiness.

Fasting leads to holiness.  Fasting from sin and bad habits, keeping habits from become compulsions and addictions.

            F.  Isaiah’s promise: blessing (58.9-12)

Isaiah says if we engage in such a fast, if we turn from selfish pursuits and abuses of poor, transformation and justice will roll into our communities.  And most importantly God will be present.  Fasting is a feast on God.  In experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on God.  Fasting is feasting!9

VI.  Fasting for Freedom

More than any other spiritual practice, fasting reveals the things that control us.

St. Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.  Gerald May says if our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are addicted.  And not only our hands, but also our hearts, minds, and attention are clogged with addiction.  Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow.  The spiritual significance of addiction is not just that we lose freedom through attachment to things, but that we try to fulfill our longing for God through objects of attachment.10

We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.

Brian McLaren reflects on his past experiences with fasting.  He says: When fasting I felt and acknowledged my weakness in the face of impulses and cravings from by body.  I realized how much my life was controlled by bodily appetites.  I had a better idea of my weakness than I did before.  It was a little harder to be proud in the face of my failure.  I learned to practice impulse control.  I realized the importance of something other than impulse gratification - spiritual growth in the form of self-control.11

How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them.  Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels.12

Fasting helps us develop new hungers for goodness and holiness, for the things that really matter.  Fasting as whole-body hungering for God.

It begins with confession.

1. Albert Holtz, Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey Through Lent, Morehouse, 2006, vi

2. Scot McKnight, Fasting, Thomas Nelson, 2009, xxi

3. McKnight, 18

4. McKnight, 167

5. McKnight, 52

6. McKnight, 24, 27

7. McKnight, 159

8. McKnight, 100-111, also xvi, 32-33, 123, 127

9. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, revised and expanded, Harper and Row, 1988, 55

10. As quoted in Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life,                          Westminster John Knox, 1995, 76

11. Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again, Thomas Nelson, 2008, 84-87

12. Foster, 56