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Friday, February 27, 2009

Let the Fast Begin

(This post is my sermon from Ash Wednesday Services at Peoria, Feb. 25, 2009)

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Gospel: St. Matthew 6:1-6, 18-21

The first Sunday of Lent in 1983, I was asked to speak at an evening Lenten service of the campus Church at Findlay College. My subject was Fasting, since Lent is the traditional season for fasting for Christians.

In the congregation was Prof. Richard Kern, who taught History and Religion at the college. Prof. Kern was a minister in the college's sponsoring denomination and had been for quite a while.

After my sermon, as people were mingling, Prof. Kern approached me to chat. We talked for a little while and then he said something I've never forgotten. He said: "In nearly 30 years of ministry, this is the first sermon I've ever heard on fasting."

I was dumbfoundedly humbled and curious about why that would be. How could a man be in ministry for so long - how could he teach Religion for so long - and yet never hear a message about Fasting?

The interesting thing about fasting in the New Testament is that it’s not something that’s commanded – it’s something that’s assumed. Prayer and fasting are a duet that plays continually throughout the Bible, a melody offered to God by His faithful people.

Why is it that we pray so little and fast even less? I think part of it is because we don't really understand the importance of fasting. Often we have a hard time getting our hearts around the whole idea of prayer. To add "Fasting" seems nearly impossible.

Fasting has several dynamics that make it important for Christians:

1) Physical control
St. Paul states in several spots in the New Teatament: “I beat my body into submission” (in so many words). Taking charge of and being responsible for our physical being is a direct benefit of fasting.
* Do we control our bodies or do we allow our bodies to control us?
* Do we view our bodies as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit or do we keep the Holy Spirit as a guest, occasionally visiting and not really at home?
* Fasting is also a means toward physical health that God intends for us by allowing our bodies to find balance from the excesses we often put them through.

2) Personal discipline
* As much as we appreciate the ideal of personal freedom, we don’t do well with it. Left to our own devices, we come to self-ruin and a life of regret. We become ‘gods’ unto ourselves with little use or need for the One God.
* Without personal discipline, we become our own standard of our own lives, with little sense of a common 'right and wrong'. This is the issue in the Old Testament Book of Judges: after the Hebrews spent years on a roller coaster of good and evil leadership, the Book concludes somewhat fataliztically: “every man did that which is right in his own eyes.”
* Personal discipline restrains our own desires in order to allow a sense of community with others. If we're only out for ourselves, what kind of world can we possibly hope to live in? Fasting is a simple, basic way of practicing personal discipline.

3) A matter of social justice
Isaiah 58 explains to us "the kind of fasting the Lord has chosen":
- to loose the chains of injustice
- to untie the cords of the yoke
- to set the oppressed free
- to share your food with the hungry
- to provide the poor with shelter
Why would this be something God is concerned about? I believe it's because fasting helps us to see people in the way God sees them (and us). Fasting brings about a means for understanding ourselves:
- in Christ, our chains of injustice have been loosed
- in Christ, our yoke of bondage to sin has been untied
- in Christ, we are set free from oppression
- in Christ, we share the Bread of Heaven
- in Christ, we find shelter from the storms of life

4) A matter of personal and spiritual integrity
All that “secrecy” the Lord talks about in Matt. 6 has a point: secrecy in giving,
secrecy in prayer, secrecy in fasting. The old adage is certainly true: "Your true character is seen in who you are when no one else is around.”

God sees the heart. He knows who we are on the inside, what makes us tick. God knows that public, conspicuous giving leads to pride. He knows that public, conspicuous praying leads to Phariseeism. He knows that public, conspicuous fasting leads to self-satisfaction.

Why a “Lenten Fast”?
The Church is a community – there are things we do together. We work together on orojects, committees, and helping others. We fellowship together. We worship together. We pray together. Why not ‘fast together’?

Lent recalls the history of the Bible and the Church. The 40 days remind us of
- the 40 days of flooding when God established the Covenant with Noah
- the 40 years of wandering in Sinai when God established the Covenant with Moses
- the 40 years of the reigns of King Saul, King David, King Solomon
- the 40 days of fasting the Lord undertook after His Baptism

The 40 days Lent remind us that the Church has always had group and personal discipline. In the early Church, Lent was a preparation time for Baptism. They used the time as a special teaching time for children. Importantly, Lent was a time for reconciliation for Church members who have lapsed. (We still see a remnant of this reconciliation practice in 'Forgiveness Sunday', the first Sunday of Lent.)

If you're out of practice, how do you begin a Lenten fast?

1) Self examination and reflection – asking God’s help
Tonight’s service: Prayers together that exalt the Lord
Time to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a reflective manner
Personal confession before God, privately
Affirmation of our Faith in the Nicene Creed
Participation in the Body of Christ through Communion

2) Ask yourself: What will honor the Lord?
Remember the Gospel: Fasting and prayer are for God alone to see. No selfish motives: not fasting to lose weight or fit into a dress, and not to draw attention to yourself

3) Ask: What does God want you to do?
If we can try to discern what God wants for us in a small matter like fasting, we will learn the spiritual skills for understanding His Will for us
Early Church Tradition – fast from foods: meat, cheese, dairy, eggs, fish
Western tradition – fast from meat, then meat on Fridays, then meat on Fri. in Lent only
Bible: Fasting usually referred to abstaining from food
What are you unwilling to surrender? This is probably what you should fast from. Ask the Lord how can you turn it over to Him?

4) Be realistic. Accept this as a discipline with joy. Find a way to redeem it. Karen and I have a friend who fasted from chocolate each Lent and gave the money to Church. Some sacrifice a meal out each week and giving the money to a mission. Remember that discipline is corrective, not frustrating – what will help provide correction you need?

Ash Wednesday is a time to start –
- we are beginning together
- we are here for one another
- we will grow in our faith together as we look forward again to a Holy Easter

So, let the fast begin!

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