Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting
A Message on Matthew 6:16-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
March 7, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

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Today we continue our Lenten sermon series on spiritual disciplines by looking at the topic of fasting.

It was fun during Bible study at Mini Methodists this past week when I asked the kids what the first meal of the day was called. They correctly replied that it was called “breakfast.” I then asked them to spell it, and they spelled it correctly: “breakfast.” I then asked them why it wasn’t pronounced the way it is spelled.

You could tell they hadn’t thought about that and quickly started pronouncing “BREAK-fast.” I then asked them why it was called that, and they replied with some good guesses. I finally explained that basically we are mispronouncing it when we say “brek-fast” and the it should be pronounced the way it is spelled. I also explained that it meant that a person was “breaking” their “fast” from overnight. We don’t eat while we sleep, and so when we eat something after we wake up we are breaking our fast. (A couple of them said they did indeed eat while they were asleep, which worries me just a little bit.)

We don’t talk about fasting much anymore in our world. We think of the term as an adjective, like saying a car is fast, or an adverb, as in he was driving too fast, but rarely as a noun or a verb. And that’s a shame.

The reason that this season of Lent is 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays) is in recognition of Jesus fasting for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. (The confirmation kids freaked out over that, wondering how he could survive that long without food and especially water. I told them that what is impossible for man is possible for God.)

Lent is a time where to reflect on our spiritual lives, to repent of our sins, and to draw closer to God during the time leading up to Easter. It’s a great time to focus on the spiritual disciplines, and one of the spiritual disciplines we can practice during this time is that of fasting.

You’ve probably heard about fasting without the specific term “fast.” When people talk about “giving things up for Lent” they are talking about fasting. If you give up drinking soft drinks for Lent, for example, then you are fasting.

The idea is to give up something that is important to you, something that you value. If you hate broccoli and say you’re going to give up broccoli, that’s not true fasting. (I love broccoli, by the way.)

Several years ago I gave up fried foods for Lent. I knew it would be difficult, but I thought it would be a good thing to do so I did. The trouble was that I forgot that tortilla chips are fried. Yep. And I do love me some tortilla chips.

At the time the Kiwanis Club was meeting at a Mexican food restaurant here in town. The first meeting day in Lent I walked in and sat down and saw the chips and salsa and thought, “Uh oh.” I had forgotten that tortilla chips are fried.

Janice, who works at Austin Bank, used to sit across the table from me and we would always kid each other about the chips and which of us ate more. (It was usually me.) That day she saw that I wasn’t eating chips and asked me what was wrong. I told her I gave up fried foods for Lent and so I couldn’t eat them. Janice was real supportive, crunching on a big chip and saying, “Oh, these taste so good…” Thanks, Janice. Thanks a lot.

In the scripture we read today we find Jesus criticizing the religious leaders of the day because of the way they were fasting. They were following the letter of the law by fasting, but their motivation behind fasting and what they felt in their hearts was wrong.

The religious leaders were fasting to impress others. They were disfiguring their face to impress upon others how holy and religious they were. One of the things they would do is sprinkle ashes all over their head and faces, especially on their cheeks under their eyes so that their tears (which I suspect they faked) would leave visible trails that other people would see.

They were fasting to impress people, not out of obedience to God.

Jesus calls them on the carpet for doing this, exposing their hypocrisy, for their putting themselves and their egos before serving God.

Jesus doesn’t say to not fast. No. What he says is to not do it to impress others. Do it with the proper heart and motivation as a spiritual discipline to move your closer to God.

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:17-18

So my challenge for you this week is to fast during this season of Lent. Be sure and check with your doctor, however, if you are going to fast from food or water. There are other things to fast from besides that. You can fast from social media, from certain tv programs (or tv altogether), from unhealthy foods or drinks, from non-productive habits.

It’s a good idea to add something in addition to giving up something. Add daily Bible reading, intentional prayer time, spending more time with loved ones, writing letters or emails of support, or even watching Bible study videos on RightNow Media (which are free for our church members).

Use this season of Lent to clean out those things that separate us from God, and practice those spiritual disciplines that draw us closer to God.

After all, the spiritual disciplines are much better than tortilla chips. (And tortilla chips are really good!)

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

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