Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 6:16–6:18
Midweek Lenten Service
March 27, 2019
“The Disciplines of Lent: Fasting”
I brought my tool box with me this evening. Actually, this isn’t mine, but it’s one that we keep in the church office. You probably have one at home as well. Inside a tool box are the common tools that we need and use most often: hammer, pliers, screw drivers, tape measure, etc. These help us to get whatever job needs to be done around the house, or around the church. But as Christians, we also have a spiritual tool box that contains various spiritual disciplines to be used on our journey of faith: the Word of God (Bible), living in the covenant of our Baptism as we daily claim our identity as God’s beloved children (Baptismal shell), the gift of prayer (praying hands), and… an empty plate? Huh? This empty plate symbolizes yet another tool in our spiritual tool box, and that is fasting. Tonight in our midweek Lenten worship we focus on the spiritual discipline of fasting, based on Jesus’ words in the Scripture lesson. May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Let’s face it: for most of us, the only fasting we do is when we have to do this as prep for some medical test or bloodwork. This tool in our tool box, this spiritual discipline, has grown rusty from disuse. Lutherans have taken a rather dim view of fasting, fearful that we will somehow get dragged back to works righteousness if we do this. Our reference point is what Luther writes in his explanation of the Lord’s Supper in his Small Catechism, when he answers the question, “Who receives this sacrament worthily?” Luther has this to say: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.” Luther was writing out of the context of rampant works righteousness that permeated western Christianity in the sixteenth century. Although this is always a concern, have we lost something along the way and gone in the opposite direction? Instead of regarding fasting as a spiritual discipline that might help us in our journey of faith, have we disregarded it entirely to our own detriment?
So what exactly is fasting? At a very basic level, it is going without food or drink. But why? Why fast? Very often in Scripture, prayer and fasting are linked together (Ezra 8:21; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Matthew 4:2; Luke 2:37; Luke 5:33; Acts 14:23, et. al.). Fasting is an outward sign of inner and heartfelt repentance. In order to seek the Lord’s face and come before him in prayer, to fast is to put ourselves in a position to listen more intently to the Lord, removing distractions, interferences, and disruptions that get in the way. Fasting seeks to empty ourselves in order that the Lord may fill us. Going without food and/or drink for a time is one way to do this, but it is not something to be entered into lightly. Like any spiritual discipline, it requires understanding as well as practice. As we become more acquainted and familiar with it, it begins to open new doors in our faith life. But we must always understand that fasting is a “may,” not a “must.” We cannot command what God has left optional. Fasting need not be limited to going without food or drink. We may also choose to fast, or give up, things in our lives that are not life-giving. For many, this is an annual go-to practice during Lent. You’ll find on your tables a little paper, “40 Things to Give Up for Lent” (taken from https://philressler.com/40-things-to-give-up-for-lent-the-list/). Far more challenging than going without food or drink for a time is going without blaming, negativity, busyness, pride, or selfish ambition. To fast from these things is no child’s play! We’re talking about overhauling our lives from the inside-out! To do this requires more strength and endurance than we can give. It requires God’s help, which He freely offers in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Whatever we might give up for God pales in comparison with what God has given up for us: the life of his only Son on the tree of the cross. This is where our fasting, our giving things up, begins: not with what we can do for God, but with what God in Christ has already done for us. Our fasting, our giving up, comes as a joyful response to God’s gift of grace.
Fasting, then, is a voluntary refraining from things of this life so that they do not get the upper hand in our lives and gain control over us. But fasting cannot just an avoidance of evil influences that draw us away from God. Fasting should also be a doing of the good – the good to which God calls each one of us through our Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what the Lord says to his people through the prophet Isaiah:
"Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12 And 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 dwell in” (Isaiah 58:1-12).
On this Lenten journey, may the Lord who has given us a new birth in holy Baptism and made us his own, who invites us to come to him with our prayers and praises, also desires that we grow in faith toward him and in love toward one another. The spiritual discipline of fasting may be one tool in our spiritual tool box that helps us do that very thing. May the Lord who has begun this good work among us bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). Amen.