Fasting, what’s that about then? by Revd. Alex Pease Isaiah 58:1-14

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. From the Church of England Ash Wednesday service

As we start Lent, we typically ask ourselves ‘what am I going to give up?’

Lent is often used as a means to cut out sugar, chocolate, cigarettes or alcohol; but why do we do this?  Should it be more than just an opportunity to diet?

The questions I want to ask are:

1.    Does fasting make any difference?

2.    Should we fast; and 

3.    How should we fast?

Firstly, does fasting make any difference?

I always enjoy the story of Jonah…Called by God to Nineveh, but heads off across the Mediterranean to Tarshish.  After a storm, when Jonah is tossed out of the ship and swallowed by a whale, God gets him back on course to go to the city of Nineveh, to warn the citizens that their city is about to be destroyed by God, because of its wickedness. Astonishingly, the people of Nineveh… listen!

Then the king puts on sackcloth and ashes; in other words, the king humbles himself. He tells everyone else to do so as well.  He calls a fast for everyone.  No-one is to eat or drink, not even the animals.  All are to wear sackcloth and they are to give up their evil ways.

The king says verse 3:9 ’who knows God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger, so that we will not perish’.

Then the book of Jonah says ‘When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened’.

Also, in the Book of Joel Chapter 2, the prophet foretells a time for the Israelites of great suffering, but continues verse 12 “Yet even now” says the Lord “return to me with all your heart with fasting, with weeping and with mourning….who knows whether he will not turn and relent’.

In times of great emergency, even our nation has fasted and prayed; particularly during the Napoleonic wars when we were gripped by the terror of an invasion…and other times of national emergency, the Monarch issuing the instruction for all British subjects to fast and pray.

Now it might be appropriate to use this Lent to fast and pray for our politicians as they grapple with Brexit and for our nation, as we work through the consequences of their decisions.

Please see below the prayer that the the Archbishop of York has written so that we might pray for our MPs as they face making the final decision on Brexit.

So to answer the question ‘does fasting make any difference?’ Yes – In the Old Testament it was assumed that it did; and our nation has thought it an appropriate thing to do at moments of great emergency….and of course Napoleon did not invade….

Secondly, should we fast?

In the New Testament Jesus seemed to assume that his disciples would fast; but why?

Jesus fasted in the wilderness before he started his ministry, allowing himself to be tempted for forty days and prevailing against the demands of the flesh, all represented by those temptations.

For us, if we want to draw closer to God to speak to him, and for him to speak to us, we cannot do that while there is an obstacle in the way.  That obstacle is our own un-repented sin.

To show God that we are really, really serious about our own sinfulness; really repentant about our own sinfulness; really serious about the things that we confess to him each day; the things that we say sorry to him about, Lent provides an opportunity to show this..

Words are after all cheap…even words of repentance. A true Lenten repentence should be about actions.  Actions make a real difference.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, who was shot in a concentration camp by the Nazis for his role in plotting the assassination of Hitler, wrote a book on this very subject called ‘The cost of discipleship’.  His concern was that forgiveness, although given freely by God, something that we cannot earn, a matter of grace, which is given to all of us repentant sinners, even though we don’t deserve it and which is completely free to us, but it does not come without a price,  it just that that price is paid by Jesus on the cross.

Bonhoeffer’s concern was about what he called ‘cheap grace’.  Bonhoeffer writes that ‘cheap grace’ is ‘the preaching of forgiveness, without real repentance….grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate’.

One way in which we can show seriousness about our sinfulness and our repentance, is by the discipline of fasting. 

Thirdly, how should we fast?

Well one way we can fast is by not eating food.  Perhaps once a food all day – just water; or not eating for a meal; or removing one element from our diet.

But, in all of these efforts, our motivation is crucial if it is to be of any value in developing our relationship with God.  It must be given up solely for the purpose of drawing closer to God.  We must be fasting out of our love for God; fasting to God, showing our humility, showing how much we care about our own sinfulness, fasting in our determination to get close to him, because fasting can have its dodgy side, which Jesus illustrates in our reading today from Matthew.

Within a Christian community, we can easily find ourselves fasting not to show to God the seriousness with which we take our own sinfulness (and our determination to repent), but to impress others with our piety…or self discipline.  

So our fasting must be done in secret (Matthew 6:16). We must not reveal to others what we are doing, otherwise we are behaving like the Pharisees.

There must not be any personal advantage to the fasting, no ostentation.  This is not about dieting, so that everyone can say how wonderful we look!

Very importantly, if we are considering fasting by withholding from eating food, it is definitely NOT something to be done by those of us who have ever had some kind of eating disorder: anorexia or bulimia, enabling us to fabricate in our heads some ungodly sense of control over our selves or our environment.  We must not justify the motivations that we have for going down either of those paths with some spurious claim (even to ourselves only) of spirituality.

No, actually a better form of fasting than withholding from eating has nothing to do with food at all.  The best sort of sacrifice we can make, the best sort of fast, is the sort of sacrifice described in Isaiah 58.

In that chapter, the people of Israel are calling out to God and saying, when God does not appear to be listening to their prayers, “why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?”

God replies, ‘look, you serve your own interest on your fast days and oppress your workers, look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight…such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high”

Then, Verse 6, God says ‘is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke, is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide from your own kin’.

Now we might hear these points and think ‘well that has nothing to do with me’…’I cannot do anything about injustice.  I don’t keep anyone prisoner.  Social Services look after the hungry, the homeless and the naked’…

But actually, even today, our decisions have an effect on other people’s lives: how we treat people over whom we have power – ‘our workers’; how we deal with disagreement – ‘quarreling and fighting’; but also thinking through those who are indirectly affected by our actions, those who provide our food and clothes etc, often whom are paid an unfair wage for what they produce.  Are we buying Fair Trade Products where we can?

Are we helping financially, or by giving our time to, organisations like the Winchester Churches Night Shelter and the Basics Bank to help the homeless, the naked and the hungry?

If we cannot do anything directly, are we supporting charities which aim at doing this which aim to release the oppressed and those who are enslaved by people (modern day slavery is much worse than it was in the 18th century) or enslaved by addictions….

Finally, are we seeing our relations, even those we find difficult?

Because if we do these things, “Then” God assures us “ shall call and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and he will say “here I am”, “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail”


Isaiah 58

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” 

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose,a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Is 58:1–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers

Matthew 6:16-18

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 6:16–18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Archbishop of York’s Brexit prayer
“>God of eternal love and power,

“>Save our Parliamentary Democracy;

“>Protect the High Court of Parliament and all its members

“>From partiality and prejudice;

“>That they may walk humbly the path of kindness, justice and mercy.

“>Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.

“>The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,

“>Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,

“>send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.

“>Lord, graciously hear us. Amen.

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