Summary: We have been inundated with the message of self-indulgence, so why should we deny ourselves?
The Sermon on the Mount is a guide for how to live as followers of Jesus. Specifically, Jesus is teaching us that we have to lose some things in our religion so we can get back to a relationship with God. Religion focuses on religious practices, rules, observances, and traditions, all in an effort to find favor with God. But God calls us to so much more: he calls us to a relationship with Jesus. One of the hallmarks of a relationship with Jesus is a life of self-denial. For he said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matt. 16:24 In a culture which sells self-indulgence as a virtue, that is not exactly an alluring invitation. In fact, it’s counter to everything we've been exposed to in our society. We've been told to pursue every desire, to scratch every itch and to accumulate more and more stuff.
Think about some of the commercials that have sold the value of self-indulgence and see if you can fill in the blanks. DeBeers Diamonds tell women it's okay if you're getting older, don't worry about it. All you need is a diamond because diamonds are.... (forever). Nike say, “You know it's really all about you and achieving your goal, reaching your potential so all you need to do is “Just...” (do it). Coke said, “You need something to quench your thirst, because you need to be satisfied, so they told us that Coke is the real...” (thing). Then Miller came along and said, “For those watching their weight, Miller Lite tastes great, but it's less....” (filling). General Electric said, “You're going to need a place for your Miller Lite, your Coca Cola and all your food and we've got just what you need because “we bring good things...” (to life). And whatever you want, we were told to get it. Whatever we need to feel complete, buy it. We have been inundated with the message of self-indulgence, so why should we deny ourselves and fast?
First, Jesus tells us less is more. If we're really serious about having more life, he invites us to deny ourselves. All of that stuff you’re accumulating is just getting in the way of your relationship with Jesus. So Jesus said it’s through self-denial that you will gain what money can't buy: a closer relationship with Jesus and more obedience to God. Jesus starts off with these words this morning, “When you fast.” Notice Jesus doesn't say “If you fast” but “when,” because fasting in the Jewish faith was expected. . In the Old Testament, there were fasts that went on for various time periods -- one day, 3, 7, 14, 21 and 40 days. The length of the self-denial period varied tremendously, but what didn't vary is that fasting and self denial is a means of drawing closer to God. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that's been practiced by many throughout the ages. We remember Hannah in the Old Testament went through a fast in order that she could give birth, and Samuel was born. Daniel fasted when he discovered he would be thrown into the lion's den. David fasted when he was hunted by Saul. John Wesley, our founder, fasted twice a week. The same expectation for Jews to fast is true for followers of Jesus too, though we have sadly gotten away from that. If we desire to draw closer to God and have a deeper and more powerful relationship with Jesus, there will be a time when we will have to create space for God to come into our life.
Second, fasting is about creating time and space for God. When you fast, you take the time that would have been given to food preparation, eating and cleanup and commit it to God in prayer, silence or in His Word. That’s a significant way we can draw closer to God through fasting. There are two other ways we draw closer to God through fasting. Third, by denying ourselves, we identify with Jesus on the cross as he denied himself for the greater purposes of God. This is what the Apostle Paul found to be so significant in his walk with cross and that is identifying with and participating in Christ’s self-denial and suffering. Fourth, fasting and physical hunger reminds us of our hunger for God, which we so often try to fill by other things: people, possessions and money. Just as we try to fill our bellies with food in our hunger, so we are reminded to fill ourselves with the Word of God and His presence in our spiritual hunger.
Fifth, we fast to be led by the spirit, not the flesh. God is a Spirit and we’re made in God's image. We are spirit but we live in a body. Fasting does remind the body, “You're not in control!” It’s the spirit that is the one giving direction, not the body. It is the power of denying the body gratification through fasting that causes our Spirit to be more receptive to hear God that we might become more obedient to Him. Both the body and the spirit want to lead, and there’s a constant struggle between the two but only the spirit can lead to real life.