Summary: Jesus taught about fasting as if it were something his listeners regularly did. It is assumed that we will practice fasting too. What are the mechanics of it and why should we do it?
You all broke something this morning. You may not know it but you did – you broke something. Some of us have night snack, while others don’t eat anything between supper and a certain meal the next morning. That time between eating in the evening and eating in the morning is actually considered a fast. Mind you, you are sleeping throughout most of it. When you wake up and eat your toast or bagel or cereal, you end the fast. This is why in the Old English tradition we call it “breakfast”; you are breaking your nighttime fast.
When Jesus taught the crowds on a hill, he addressed three fundamental aspects of religion. In Matthew 6 we read about giving, praying and fasting. These three practices are common to all the major religions of the world, including Christianity. People all over the world do them regularly. Except in North America for the most part. Not us. Some do, but the majority of us do not practice fasting.
Some may regard it as too religious, or too Catholic, thinking of Lent before Easter. We may consider it legalistic or an old relic of phony religion. I don’t know really. Why have we disregarded this practice? And if we renew the practice of fasting, what does it do for us?
Jesus taught about it. Apparently references in Scripture to fasting outnumber those of baptism. The Bible is full of accounts of when people fasted. So let’s take some time this morning to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn about fasting.
1. “When you fast…”
a) The Assumption – In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches the people to be careful not to perform their good works for the poor to be admired by others. Then he talks about how prayer should not be a public display of our eloquence and piety to be seen by others. Fasting comes under this admonition as well.
In each of these three practices of religion, Jesus does not teach as if this is something new. The people listening to Jesus were already doing these things. What needed to change was the attitude of their hearts as they did them.
Jesus said, “When you fast…”, and assumed that they were already fasting. There was no command given that they should fast. Fasting was in no way linked to salvation. Jesus simply assumed that those who seek God will naturally and regularly fast.
Let’s stop for a moment and define what a fast is. When we fast, we choose for a set time to do without something that is hard to do without. Generally a fast involves going without food for a day, or three, seven or even 40 days (though this is extreme). You could go without TV or some other daily practice that is difficult to give up for a time. The idea is to remove anything that comes between you and God, so that it can be placed in its proper perspective. A fast is typically abstaining from food. When our stomachs grumble we look for food to settle the craving. Is it ruling our lives? Is it an idol? Fasting helps to bring something like food under control so it can be surrendered to God and put in its right place.
It is assumed, when Jesus teaches, that we will fast.
b) Our appearance – So Jesus taught, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (6:16).
Obviously some people were using fasting as a “holiness” barometer. In the midst of a fast these folks were walking around, maybe doubled over, with a pained expression. They hoped that someone would ask them what’s wrong. Then they could answer, “I’m fasting.” “Wow,” the person would respond, “you sure are holy. You must love God a lot.”
Jesus responds to this saying, “That’s it. That’s your reward for fasting. Everybody look how holy Eugene is.” Jesus goes on to teach that fasting is something no one else should notice. So for that matter, the indictment that no one in North America fasts is either true or everyone here does it so well in secret that no one would suspect.
A fellow pastor came late to a breakfast meeting and refused food or coffee. Anyone would assume, he hoped, that he had had breakfast, remembered in a panic that there was a meeting, and arrived late. But I looked at him and smelled it on him. I knew he was fasting. Unfortunately my big mouth opened and I said, “Fasting, huh?”
No one should suspect you are fasting. It is between you and God.
c) The Reward – Jesus continued, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (6:17-18).