Lent: Fasting

Lent: Fasting
A Message on Matthew 4:1-11
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 1, 2020
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the Christian season of preparation before Easter. It is not a joyous celebratory type of season, but one that is pensive, reflective, and a time for repentance.

In the scripture we read today we find Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Right before the scripture we read today Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. As soon as that happens then Jesus goes into the desert or wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and nights and is tempted by the devil.

One of the spiritual disciplines that many people practice during Lent is fasting, and they do this because Jesus himself fasted.

But what is fasting? Why do it?

A simple definition of fasting is to willfully refrain from eating for a period of time. Pretty basic, right?

But there are different types of fasts. There is fasting from food during the day, fasting from particular types of foods, fasting from solid foods but allowing liquids like fruit juice, fasting from meat (although fish is okay because it is not considered meat, which I still don’t understand), and fasting from everything but water.

We even call the morning meal “breakfast” because we are breaking a fast from not eating at night.

Today there is even a health trend for intermittent fasting that is supposed to help you lose weight, feel better, and be healthier.

While there are debates for and against the health benefits of fasting, I want to focus today on the spiritual aspects of fasting.

First, a caveat: check with your doctor before fasting from food. Seriously. Make sure you are healthy enough to do it.

Okay, so what does abstaining from food have to do with religion? Why do it?

The way I think about fasting is to use something earthly as an opportunity to focus on something heavenly. When we fast from food we take something earthly, hunger, and use it to focus on something heavenly, like prayer.

Dr. Kevin Watson spoke at the Northwest District Leadership Summit yesterday about discipleship. He was talking about means of grace and mentioned fasting and how fasting helps to remind us to pray. I like the way he put it: “It’s easy to forget to pray, but it’s hard to forget you are hungry.”

The point of fasting is to help us to focus on God.

Now there is an important part of fasting I haven’t mentioned yet. In order for a fast to be effective, you need to fast from something that you consider to be good or valuable.

Someone told me they were fasting from kale. I asked them if they liked kale. They said no, that’s why they were fasting from it.

While that may meet the technical definition of a fast it doesn’t meet the spirit of a fast. A fast should be from something you enjoy, you like, that you view positively.

I think it’s okay to fast from other things than food, especially if you have medical conditions that would make it unsafe for you to fast.

This is the kind of fast that people often talk about when they say they are “giving up” something for lent. This category of “fasts” can be very broad. People give up things like social media, chocolate, soft drinks, shopping, sweets or desserts, cussing, alcohol, driving like a maniac… the list can go on and on.

Again, those are good if it helps you focus on God instead of the things you like or crave.

Fasting doesn’t have to be limited to Lent, by the way. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, the entire year. And he also believed in eating only six ounces of meat per day, by the way.

Something that can go hand in hand with fasting during Lent is to add things. Bible reading, specified prayer times, meditation, acts of mercy or compassion, giving alms… all these things are great additions to the personal sacrifices of fasting.

Jesus fasted in the desert before beginning his ministry. He used that time to pray, to meditate, to reflect, and to prepare for the incredible task ahead of him.

What if we did the same thing? What if we fasted either from food or other things to create opportunities for us to focus on prayer, meditation, reflection, and to prepare for our commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ?

Now it won’t be easy. The devil tempted Jesus when he was fasting, and the devil will tempt us as well.

Jesus responded to the devil by quoting Deuteronomy to him, a different scripture for each temptation. We can do the same thing by studying the scriptures so we will be able to quote them back to the devil. The desires from our fasts can refocus us to God, to the treasures that last forever and which can never be stolen from us.

Jesus didn’t willingly go to the cross so that we can live selfish and self-serving lives. He gave himself for us, that we could be reconciled to God, something we aren’t able to do by ourselves. It was his grace that gives us forgiveness of our sins. That is why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made and just how great God’s love for us is.

So my challenge to you on this first Sunday of Lent is to encourage you to fast, either with food or in other ways. Use earthly desires to focus on heavenly things. Let us remember Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, and how he quoted scripture to the devil. Let us focus less on ourselves and more on others and God.

And remember, it doesn’t count to fast from kale if you don’t like kale.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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