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Sunday, 24 April 2016

Fasting



Matthew 6:16-18

Jesus said: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”


We are embarking on a subject that brings all sorts of terrors to the preacher. If you are anything like me then you have rarely heard a sermon on fasting. There seems to be two schools of thought in the modern church concerning fasting. The one school tends to give the impression that fasting is not really relevant and so they largely ignore the subject hoping that it might disappear. The other school believes that fasting ought to be a regular part of the church diet??? and that we ought to be fasting as often as possible. This school usually has the powerful preacher who with great passion leaves the average Christian squirming in his seat because we could never match up to his wonderful example.

If you want to know which school I belong to then I confess to being in the first one, but is that where I should remain? That has been the challenge to me and hopefully by the end of our time together we might find ourselves thinking biblically about the point of fasting.

The three points of our passage are:

Jesus' expectation:

Jesus at the beginning of His ministry in this passage which we call the sermon on the mount approaches the subject of fasting. The first thing that we notice is that Jesus was not in the school that I belong to because He began by assuming that His followers did fast. He said “when you fast!” Surely that means that Jesus expected His followers to fast.

Jesus' rules:

Jesus not only expected His followers to fast, He gave rules as to how they should fast. He continued in the sermon to say that they should not fast in order to draw attention to themselves and to gain spiritual “Brownie points” for their piety!

God's blessing:

Jesus also taught that there is a blessing from God the Father for those who truly fast.

Background:

These are the three points that I find in the passage set before me and I suppose that in this there is little more to add to them. In saying that there is something that is missing from our understanding of what is going on here. We have a problem in that we are not first century followers of Jesus as were His hearers on that day. That is stating the obvious really but it is nonetheless vitally important in order that we begin to understand what Jesus is really teaching. To most people in Britain outside of religious circles fasting is something that we do before we go for hospital tests, operations or for detoxing our abused bodies, but to the Jew of Jesus' day fasting was a concept that they were well acquainted with.

Fasting is spoken of many times in the Old Testament. In fact it was expected of the people of God for the celebration of the Day of Atonement . The purpose of which was that God would see their earnest desire that He make His presence once again in the temple of Jerusalem for the year to come. Of course Jesus fulfils the Day of Atonement which was why the Angel called Him Immanuel when he announced His coming birth to Joseph. Jesus is God with His people ALWAYS and He dwells permanently in the church. We do not need to fast in order to bring His presence amongst us, He has guaranteed His permanent presence by His Spirit. We cannot therefore use the Day of Atonement as our guidance for fasting. Fasting is not a way of guaranteeing God's presence to be with us.

Nevertheless the Old Testament does speak much about fasting but for various reasons. We do not have time to go through them all but I would urge you to pick up a concordance and check them out, it really is a fascinating topic to study and as we shall see it is worthwhile for our understanding.

In typical preaching mode I have chosen three examples for our consideration.

David fasted in desperate days:

I suppose that the most famous passage concerning fasting is found in 2 Samuel 12:15-17. It concerns King David after his wife Bathsheba had given birth to the son conceived through their adulterous affair.

And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.”

Firstly we notice that fasting for David was much more than abstaining from food, he put everything aside at this time of fasting even his royal duties!

It is clear from the passage that David was distraught at seeing the child so unwell and dying and so all of the time that the child suffered then David pleaded with God that somehow God's judgement upon David might be averted from the child. David was inconsolable, nobody could help him. Food was the last thing on his mind. In reality it was David being completely reliant upon God. This was the most natural thing for a father to do. This is what happened next:

On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshipped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Do you see what was happening, David fasted and wept for the child in the hope that God would allow the child to live but that did not happen. Incidentally we may find this a difficult concept in 2016 but look at David's faith in this. He believed that to die was to be in God's presence. He recognised that once the child had died then that was final here on earth and that even the king could do nothing about it. David believed that the child would not return to him but he had every confidence that one day he would go to be with the child. Do you have that kind of faith? David had a belief in God that assured him that the child would go to heaven and that is far better than life on earth.

Fasting on this occasion was the most natural thing for a believing father to do. David was desperate and so weeping and fasting before God in the hope that God might just bring about a different outcome was exactly what was needed. David's dilemma came due to his sin and so we can be assured that the weeping was remorse and repentance. This was not a show of piety or even of self pity as we often see at times of great sadness, it was David doing the most natural thing in difficult days.
Fasting comes natural at the point of need!

There will be times in our lives and also in the life of the church when we will need to come before the Lord in tears of repentance pleading with Him to remove the consequences of our guilt and to bless us. It is interesting that David and Bathsheba were eventually blessed with the birth of another son Solomon who went on to be the successor to David's throne even though he was not next in line. Jesus many years later said that when we fast rightly then our Father who sees that done in secret will reward us. That was clearly the experience of David.

Nehemiah fasted in repentance on behalf of Israel:

Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
Now I was cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah even though a Jewish captive in Persia was the official cupbearer of King Artaxerxes. He heard the news that his people back in Jerusalem were in great trouble. They were shamed because the city was in ruins and the walls were broken down. He knew that this was due to their former sin. They had not kept God's commandments and in accordance with the law given to Israel through Moses the nation had been overpowered and taken into captivity by foreign forces. Nehemiah knew that he had to repent on their behalf and ask God's forgiveness and also His enabling in order that he might approach his boss the king. He wanted leave of absence to organise the repairs that Jerusalem needed. How on earth can a mere foreign cupbearer gain favour from the most powerful man on the earth? He needed to be released to build a city up in foreign territory. Nehemiah knew enough about the character of God to realise that God's anger and wrath are turned by true repentance and so he sat down before God. He wept, he mourned, he fasted and he prayed. As he prayed Nehemiah reminded God of His character. Nehemiah had confessed his own and also the sins of his people and he subsequently appealed to God for mercy in accordance with His character and in accordance with His word as recorded by Moses.
Often when we hear of Nehemiah we are usually reminded of what the preacher loves to call his “arrow prayer” recorded in chapter 2 verse 4. When he king had asked Nehemiah what his request was he quickly prayed to God for success but the real work had gone before. He had spent many hours in anguish before God. He had wept and mourned over the difficulties of his people, he had fasted and prayed and now was the time when all of that came into focus.
There are times when like Nehemiah we need to be serious before the Lord on behalf of God's sinful people. Just consider the church today. Look at how it is, the foundations have crumbled, it is a mess. We seem to be grubbing around with little blessing when in reality we are the jewel in the crown of our Saviour, we will one day be presented to God as the bride of Christ but yet we seem to be in rags.
When is the church going to sit before God and weep over our sinfulness? When are we going to mourn over our dead state? When are we going to put aside the luxuries of life for a season whilst we come humbly before God in true repentance? When do we in prayer speak honestly about our sinfulness and appeal to God in heaven to restore the honour of His name through us His church?
It seems to me from Nehemiah's example that fasting is much more than simply deciding that we will go without our lunch. True fasting is putting aside everything as we sit before God pleading with Him for forgiveness and a restoration of blessing. Our social media and varying entertainments are put aside as an act of fasting. When somebody is truly grieving food, entertainment and the superficial things of life are no longer important. That is how it should be with us if we are to fast.


The words of Psalm 42 come to mind:


As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.

Do we really desire God like this?
Do we really want Him to restore the honour of His name?
If we do then we need to fast and pray for forgiveness for His people for what we have done in His name.

The Jews fasted in the face of persecution:

In the time of Ester, bad man Haman was plotting to exterminate the Jewish nation but Mordecai discovered his plans. King Ahasuerus was being manoeuvred into wiping out the nation and something needed to be done. Ester the wife of the king was a Jewess and Mordecai who was her uncle needed to be persuaded to help her people. In Ester chapter 4:1-3 we find:

When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king's gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king's command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.

Ester had been persuaded to help and so eventually through hers and Mordecai's efforts God saved the nation. Notice it was when the nation mourned, prayed and fasted that God blessed them.

When God's people are under attack they need to take Him seriously and to be serious as we approach Him to intercede on behalf of those being persecuted. It was whilst the church in the UK was praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe that the Berlin wall came down. Radstock Ministries had called Christians to pray all night for their suffering brethren and it was during that time of depriving ourselves of sleep and food in order to plead for His intervention that He acted!
There are so many such examples throughout scripture and history that we might think that the lesson is obvious.
Why then are we so reticent to fast in the modern church?
Do we really take our faith seriously?

Fasting has nothing to do with self glorification as it did with the Pharisees of Jesus' day, they received the accolade that they desired as they presented themselves emaciated on street corners! Jesus said that we are not to be like that! When we fast we are to look perfectly normal, it is a secret between us and the Lord or between the church and the Lord if it is a corporate effort. If we tell it abroad then we are not really fasting but are in reality feasting on the accolade afforded to us!

When asked if we fast our standard answer should be “what has that got to do with you?” Fasting is private, it is serious and it is between us and God alone. We are doing serious business with Him

There will be times when we need to fast and to pray but as we have seen from these three examples god will only bless us in accordance with His word the bible. There is no point in us fasting in order to twist God's hand into giving us something that is contrary to God's revealed will and so like David, Nehemiah and Mordecai we need to be scholars of the scriptures in order for us to be serious with God for the things that He is serious about.

It was whilst the church in Antioch were praying and fasting that God by His Spirit instructed them to set apart Saul and Barnabas for ministry. The church needs to pray and fast as we make serious decisions for our future, we need to be just as serious for our past sins in order that we have a heart for the lost which will then cause us to fast and pray that God might revive our sad nation.





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