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RE-CREATION: fasting

Sun, Sep 13, 2020
Teacher: Liz Webster
Duration:25 mins 53 secs

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Good morning! It is wonderful to be here to share with you this morning. I’m Liz, one of the ministers here at St Hil’s. We’re in our second last week of a series called Patterns of the Presence, looking at the ways that we can engage with the spiritual disciplines while we’re in isolation, seeking to help give you tools to grow in your relationship with God in this season. And today we’re looking at a discipline that I’ve struggled with and yet found it to be strengthening and encouraging and grown me deeper into my relationship with God. Today, we’re looking at the practice of fasting.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who reads the weekly news then you might have noticed that today’s topic is actually fasting and art or creativity, but in the interests of time and focus, I want us to just to look at fasting this morning. And during the week, I’ll be putting some resources up on our Facebook group about how we might engage in creativity in prayer and in our relationship with God.

Now my first real experience of the power of fasting came At the start of 2018. some of you know that Jared and I were living in London and I was working for a church there and a couple people in the church who were hungry to see God move through the community decided to start a group that would fast across the week and pray for the church. When it started, it was half the staff and a few of the lay leaders in the congregation. Someone different was assigned to fast and pray on each day of the week, and there were a couple days where there were two people. When I was asked whether I wanted to join in on this, other than a few mostly failed attempts before, I’d not really done fasting well at this point. I’d always gotten to about lunch and gotten to hangry, or a headache or at times forgotten that I was supposed to be, and I’d almost always focussed on the ‘what I was missing out on’. And I’d seen God use people in powerful ways through times of fasting. So, I committed to being a part of this and learning what it looks like to fast and focus on God. And the first couple times, I was so focussed on the ‘not eating’ part that I barely paid any attention to God, and I started to realise that maybe that wasn’t the point. So over the next few months and really it’s only in the last year, that I’ve really learned to focus not on what I am missing out on, but actually to turn my attention to God on these days. And during the next few months over that time of fasting, the church started to see more people coming to know Jesus, and people being healed in miraculous ways, and God moving in people’s lives.

And eventually, the number of people who were fasting doubled and kept growing, and more people across the church were spending more time focussed on God and deepening their relationship with him. And it was an amazing opportunity to see what happens, how God moves, when his people really do turn their attention to him. And in that time, I learned that that is what fasting is about. It’s not about trying to manipulate God into a decision by letting go of food, it’s not about trying to get our way, but it’s about letting go of something, in order to give over more time in our lives to the one who created us, to let ourselves be fully and wholeheartedly reliant on him to provide us with the sustenance that we need to get through the day.

As Dallas Willard puts it, ‘Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food.’ As Amanda put it earlier, it’s about ‘space for God’. It is intentionally freeing up some time in our day that we might dedicate more time to him. It is about allowing ourselves space to let his joy and sustaining power work within us in new ways. I truly believe that fasting is a lost art when it comes to our faith, and something that each of us can benefit from in our relationship with God. It is good for our souls, and in my experience fasting is not about what we give up, it’s about what we take up, and what we seek to take up when we fast, is more time with God.

Before we go any further though, I want to stop and say, if you are pregnant, have other certain health conditions like diabetes, or have any sort of history of an eating disorder, fasting from food is an absolute no for you. Your health is way more important.

But lucky for us, we live in 2020 and there are all sorts of other things that distract us from our relationship with God that you could explore fasting from: technology, online shopping, certain decadent foods, alcohol - fasting at its core is a deliberate abstinence from physical gratification, so while throughout this talk fasting from food will be the main example shown, there are other ways to engage in fasting that don’t require abstaining from food.

Last week, Tim looked at Matthew 6 as we talked about the secrecy of giving and receiving and prayer, and now this week, I want to look at the next part of this chapter, which is a continuation of this theme of our spiritual practices.

Jesus says from verse 16, 16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

So Jesus says ‘when you fast’, not if you fast, when. Fasting like giving and praying were givens to Jesus in the spiritual practices of those who were listening. And that is because fasting was a regular practice in the Jewish world, so there’s no surprise that he expected that his disciples would do the same. But just like with many other things when it comes to our faith, we’re not given a law to live by, but rather a spirit of the law. It’s not about should or shouldn’t we, do we have to or not, it’s about this recognition that we are children of God, and we want to live our lives for him, and how can we best do that.

The bible gives us examples of a number of different reasons why we might fast, and I want to run us through these quickly, and bear with me because we’re going to take a quick trip through a range of passages in the bible now. And I’ll read some, and just mention some, but this is just to show us the broad range of reasons why different people in the bible turned to God in fasting, and why we might choose to do so today.

Joel 2:12-14 speaks of turning to God in fasting that he might listen more closely to our prayers, and actually at times, God will call us to him in fasting.

12 “Even now,” declares the Lord,

    “return to me with all your heart,

    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

13 Rend your heart

    and not your garments.

Return to the Lord your God,

    for he is gracious and compassionate,

slow to anger and abounding in love,

    and he relents from sending calamity.

14 Who knows? He may turn and relent

    and leave behind a blessing—

grain offerings and drink offerings

    for the Lord your God.

We might fast in grief or lament, like most of the book of Job or in 2 Samuel 1 where David calls those with him to fast in mourning:

11 Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. 12 They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.

In Jonah 3, we see the Ninevites declare a fast, hoping that their repentance will change God’s mind to eradicate them for what they’ve done:

5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

We might fast and pray when seeking God’s protection on a journey or in a difficult circumstance as in Ezra 8:

21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

Or in Esther 4, she asks the Jewish people to fast with her to pray for protection as she seeks to go to the King to change his mind about an edict to get rid of the Jews.

15 Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: 16 “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

And if you know the story of Esther, you know that the King listens to Esther as an answer to this prayer.

We might fast and pray like the prophet Anna in worship in Luke 2, who stayed at the temple to worship, fast and pray, and saw Jesus as a young child in the temple.

And you might notice that there is a combination of fasting and praying in many of these passages, the two regularly go hand in hand throughout scripture.

Or we might dedicate ourselves to God, to fast to focus our minds on him and to be closer to him, in the way that Jesus did at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew 4, to be wholly reliant on him:

4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Or in Acts 13, where the church in Antioch fast before they send out Barnabas and Saul:

2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

they were fasting and praying to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit in the direction that they might go next in their mission. And so we might fast to seek God’s direction for our lives.

This is just a snapshot of the biblical verses on fasting, and there are many different reasons why we might choose to fast.

For the Jewish people, the Levitical laws mandated one day of fasting: the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, but by the time of Jesus, there were around 20 different fasting days that had been introduced across the Jewish calendar for different reasons.

So fasting was something, as Jesus addresses it in Matthew 6, that all of the people listening knew something about. This was not a new idea, it was a normal part of their faith. But with all of the different reasons for fasting, and the many different days now regulated in the Jewish calendar, Jesus was conscious that his followers, just like with giving and prayer, might fast for the right reason. Not to be seen, not to look more spiritual, not for worldly reasons, but rather to instead do what we can to make it as hidden as we can so that in fasting we are focussed on the Father and not on a reward that might come from others.

But as we see above, there may also be times when we fast with others as a call to prayer for a specific reason, where it’s not secret but we focus not on what we’ve given up, but what we are crying out to God for. You might also need to let others know at times for health reasons, or so as not to look rude when food is offered and you turn it down depending on your work or life situation. These situations are not what Jesus is warning against. He is warning against fasting that is done not to pursue God but to pursue the affections of others.

For fasting joined with prayer can be powerful. It can heal, it can transform, it can bring a community of people together in new ways, and it can bring us closer to God in our relationship with him. My times of fasting have given me an opportunity to pursue God in a different way, and some of the things that I’ve asked for clarity for, or petitioned for, I’m still waiting for an answer that I might never get; but in those times I’ve drawn closer to him, I’ve learned to trust his ways, to see the world more in his way, and at times in hindsight seen the path that he’s taken me on, that’s made me thankful that my request at the time wasn’t granted. So when we fast, we want to make sure that we’re not just giving something up, again, that’s not the entire purpose, but also we want to turn our eyes toward God in prayer. Because our fasting is about allowing him to be our sustainer in every moment of our lives.

So, I guess the final part is the how:

If you’ve never fasted before, then start small. Maybe starting by fasting lunch. Drink plenty of water, and if you need to, fruit juice is helpful. Or turn your phone off for an afternoon, and let yourself be free from the distraction of notifications.

Maybe go a little further, skip breakfast or dinner to fast for what is essentially 16 hours or so. Always drink water when you fast, and when you’re starting, having some juice on hand if you need the energy. Again, don’t fast from food if you are pregnant, have a history of eating disorders or conditions like diabetes. There are other ways for you to give something up to focus on God. And I’m happy to chat or share ideas with you on how you might do that if it’s something that you want to pursue and there’s a good reason why fasting from food is a bad idea.

Personally, when I fast from food, I tend to liquid fast with a morning coffee and usually have a glass of orange juice in the middle of the day, as well as lots of water. I try to go from dinner to dinner, but generally don’t quite make it there and have a late afternoon snack.

I’ve learned that it’s important to have a purpose for your fast, and maybe a plan for how you’ll spend the time. Why is it that you want to come in prayer and fasting in front of God? Is it to seek his will for your future, or to worship, or in grief or repentance?

Shape your time around that. Bring your bible and a notebook with you. Create some space for yourself to listen to him.

I’ve noticed that the times where I’ve given purpose to my fasting are the times that I find it easier to sustain. My attention is focussed on God and not on my stomach, or whatever else it is that I’m missing out on. If you’re fasting from technology or something similar, then have your bible or your notebook on hand for those times when you’re so used to picking up your phone or your tablet and instead dive into the word of God. Maybe pick a passage to meditate on ahead of time that relates to the purpose of your fast.

Again, let fasting be shaped around God and your relationship with him, reminding yourself of Jesus’ words when tempted in the desert, words that come from the book of Deuteronomy:

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

I want to finish this morning with a beautiful prayer that I found this week for when we fast, to focus our eyes on God, to hear his call, and to let the Spirit speak into our lives.

Fasting is Feasting Prayer

By the mercy of Christ

I shall not live by bread alone

But by every word

That proceeds from the mouth of God.

 

The Word of God

Is alive and active;

The Lord is right now speaking

His life into my soul.

 

The Spirit of God

That raised Christ from the dead

Lives and prays in my body

And reminds me of Jesus’ words.

 

So as I fast from food I feast with joy

On the manna from heaven,

The bread of angels,

The Bread of Life, who is Jesus.

 

My food is to be one with Jesus:

To do the will of the Father,

To finish his works of love,

To share my food with the hungry.

 

In the name of the Father,

The Son,

And the Spirit.

Amen.

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