Prayer and Fasting
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 4:1–4:13
Third Sunday after Epiphany
"Prayer and Fasting"
There's just something about an all-you-can-eat buffet. Growing up, one of the big treats that my brother and I got to enjoy was a trip to Old Country Buffet. My parents must have loved these trips because they could let us roam free, eating everything in sight: slabs of turkey with piles of mashed potatoes and gravy, all topped off with multiple trips to the dessert bar in its glorious soft-serve majesty. I still enjoy the occasional buffet, especially Chinese buffets - and especially dim sum, there the buffet comes to you on a cart! At the buffet, you'll find a vast array of options set before you for your consumption. That's part of its allure: you can eat until you get your fill.
We need to eat. If you don't eat, you get hungry. If you don't eat for long enough, you die. Much time and effort in our society has been directed at educating us about the values of proper nutrition. What should we eat? What shouldn't we eat? But all too often, we let our appetites run unchecked. Eating, a good thing, can turn to gluttony, which is a sin. However, so is thankless eating: just feeding on whatever's in front of us without giving a second thought to appreciating the One who provides our food, the God who feeds us through His creation
And so, we come to today's text. Jesus, just baptized in the Jordan and filled with the Holy Spirit, is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted. This is the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, and this time spent in the wilderness finds him fasting and in prayer, being tempted by the devil. The Gospel lesson is not about fasting, though. Throughout Luke's report of Jesus' temptation, Satan is trying to get Jesus to question something. Take a look at the temptations - the first that Luke records comes at the close of the forty days. Have you ever gone forty days without eating? I haven't. It's hard enough for me to miss breakfast, let alone one day! Remember that Jesus is fully human, just as he is fully God - and at this time, he is hungry. So the devil takes the opportunity to present a proposition: "Just change these stones to bread, if you are the Son of God." In the second temptation, he offers Jesus all the power and majesty of the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus bows down and worships him. And finally, once again saying "If you are the Son of God...," Satan invites Jesus to publicly and clearly demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah by jumping off the temple, landing unharmed. The devil is trying to get Jesus to question the Father's plan, to question Jesus' Sonship. He offers Jesus the easier path, a shortcut to glory, and end-run around the cross, to which Jesus will be sent. But Jesus counters every one of Satan's temptations with the Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, cutting through the lies with which Satan attempts to ensnare him, even when the devil tries to twist Scripture to his own ends. Jesus remains faithful to his Father, Who said at Jesus' baptism, "This is my Son."
So why did Jesus fast when he went out into the wilderness to pray? What happens when we fast, taking time away from our regular diets? We get hungry. If you pay attention to recent McDonald's commercials, crazy things can happen if you even miss "snack time!" So after a day without food, or forty days without food - what is that like? Hunger shakes us out of our routine, out of our rut. If you miss breakfast, if you miss, lunch, if you miss dinner, your body lets you know. Your focus shifts and your priorities start to change. You can start to consider that which you may have taken for granted.
Our focus tends towards keeping ourselves comfortable, and this can extend beyond our hunger for food. We devote our energies towards acquiring that which we can consume. Look around the national capital area in which we live, and you can find any number of "big box" retailers: Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, each of which seeks to offer you as the consumer a vast array of options for making your life that much better, more comfortable. We surround ourselves with diversions, we lose focus on the life that God calls us to live as Christians. Our life becomes more of an experience of diversions, pursuing those things that we can consume, than it is about recognizing the One that gives the gifts or recognizing the right use of those gifts.
Christians fast, though it's not something that we talk much about in the church today, or practice all that often. But if you look back in Scripture, the people of Israel would spend a day in fasting and prayer in preparation for a battle. In the New Testament era, the believers would gather together in fasting and in prayer when seeking discernment of God's will in their lives, or when facing persecution, or when lifting up a particular concern to the Lord. Again, fasting gives us the benefit of shaking us out of the rut of our routine. But is also gives us the opportunity to refocus. It calls us to remember our dependence on our Heavenly Father. When fasting, we can reprioritize. We can spend time with God.
When fasting, we may be tempted, just as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. The temptation might come in the seemingly innocuous form of a small package of crackers; however, it is still Satan's attempt to pull us out of time focusing on God. The temptations seek to pull us back into distraction. Be aware that fasting should never be an attempt to get God's attention. It is not a means of demonstrating our worth before God so that He might grant our request, manipulated into doing our will. Fasting is a gift, a discipline that God gives to us.
Fasting can be practiced in several different forms. We've been looking at food fasts, abstaining from eating for one day, or a weekend, or at regular intervals. This could come as a "water fast," where you only drink water to stay hydrated. You could choose to observe a "juice fast," where you still take in important nutrients in fruit juices. A partial fast is another option, especially a regular fast would harm your health. Many Christians give up a food during this time of Lent. Some refrain from eating chocolate, or desserts, or caffeine. You could fast in other ways: giving up buying things that you don't really need, limiting your consumption and living simply during the Lenten season. Or you might set aside activities that you regularly enjoy, like watching TV in the evening, or playing video games, or listening to music in your car.
Prayer and fasting go together - it is a central component to the Christian practice of the fast. When fasting, you can take the time that would otherwise be spent eating meals and use it for a devotion, or for quiet prayer and meditation. In the absence of distractions, when we note their absence, we can give thanks to God for His good gifts. And we can pray for discernment in their right use. Fasting, like prayer, changes us. It is not something that we do to change God.
When fasting, we do not go about proclaiming, "Hey, look at me! I'm fasting! I'm a super-Christian!" In our Gospel text from Ash Wednesday, Jesus himself tells us how to practice the fast. (Matthew 6:16-18) We should go about our vocations without fanfare. If asked, however, you may make use of the opportunity presented to share the good news of one who was faithful - not just faithful for forty days in the wilderness, resisting Satan's temptations, but faithful all the way to the cross.
Jesus did not turn from his mission. Because of his faithfulness, the Holy Spirit is at work in you now as a Christian. He guards us as we walk the "buffet" of diversions in our world, calling us back to Father in heaven. During this time of Lent, as we put into practice the gifts that God has given us in spiritual disciplines, we intentionally spend time with our God. I encourage you to consider how you might take time to fast and experience this discipline.
Fast, and pray.
More in Lent 2007 - Praying Disciples
April 5, 2007Prayer and Service
March 28, 2007Prayer and Submission
March 18, 2007Praying Disciples: Growing in Faith Through Prayer and Celebration