As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Fasting is not for your benefit, was given at The Salvation Army Devonport on Sunday 9 March, 2014. The Bible reading was Isaiah 58:1-12.
Fasting is not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others
Wednesday marked the start of Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter where the church traditionally enters a time of fasting. This coincides with the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before being tempted by the Devil, and then starting his ministry.
Here’s a question for you: are you fasting from anything during this Lenten period?
Have you ever done a fast during lent?
Lenten fasts are usually one thing. People might give up Chocolate, or coffee, or maybe coke. Fasts in ancient times would prohibit all animal products, some permitting fish and fowl (such as chicken), but prohibit fruit and eggs, while others would eat only bread. The common theme is this: We take something away, with the idea being that when we would normally have that, we focus on God.
We are selfish people, and even in our fasting we do it for selfish reasons
Now I hate to burst the bubble of those who are fasting, but the reality is that while we may say we are fasting for the Lord, we are often fasting for selfish reasons. We give up chocolate, coffee, coke – because deep down we know that we really don’t need them, so this is a time where we can feel good about giving them up.
And the reality is that teaching on fasting – which was a common thing in the ancient church – has gone by the wayside, because people have the same complaint that the prophet identified in today’s reading.
Their intentions sound good: “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to god.” But they question the use of their fasting; “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” We fast, but fail to find anything of value. We do it out of obligation, not from a desire to be closer to God. So people will give it a try, then either give up half way through, or come to the end of the fast and find that they didn’t get anything out of it, so they fast from fasting until they are convicted to try again – often out of obligation once again, and the vicious cycle continues.
The prophet calls them on their fasting. “You serve your own interest on your fast day.” The fast isn’t for your own benefit. They fasted, but their hearts weren’t in the right space. They oppressed their workers, they quarrelled and fought. The prophet’s words are harsh but true: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” Which is to say, fasting alone will not make God hear your requests, if your other actions don’t meet up with the rest of what God requires.
The prophet continues, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” This is lining up with the teaching that Jesus gives on fasting in Matthew 6:
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and dishevelled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private.”
The people that the prophet was speaking to, their fasting was so that other people would see them fasting. It wasn’t for the benefit of others, it was for the benefit of themselves – others would see them doing it, and see how “righteous” they were.
Instead of fasting from something, fast by taking up something
The prophet goes on to describe the fast that the Lord prefers: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
So what’s the difference between the fast that they were doing, and the fast that the Lord prefers? The fast the Lord requires is of benefit to other people, not to us, and it requires us to do something, not to give up something. Now, it may be that in doing something we need to give up something – as we are doing for our self-denial appeal – but the point of fact is that we are doing something for the benefit of others.
It’s all about others. We’ve had that as part of our history for so long, but do we really remember it?
Christmas Eve, 1910, General William Booth was sick, and unable to attend the Army’s annual convention. The suggestion was made that he send a telegram to the convention to be read out as an encouragement. But knowing that funds were limited – and preferring to use money on things that really mattered – he decided to send as short a message as possible – because in those days, telegrams cost by the word.
The thousands of delegates met, and the moderator announced that Booth wouldn’t be there due to failing health an eyesight. The mood dropped significantly. Then the moderator announced that General Booth had sent a message to be read for the opening of the first session. He opened and read the following message:
Signed, General Booth.”
Booth knew it. Jesus knew it. The prophet knew it. We live not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God, and to do that we need to get right with God by helping others.
The thing I love about the fast the prophet describes is that it’s something that we all can do. Let’s be realistic – we can all have grand dreams about breaking injustice – and standing together as one we, as a worldwide church, can do that – but individually, that’s a little bit harder. Maybe you can stand up for someone being oppressed at your workplace, but even that can be difficult on your own. But the second part of his description is something we all can do. To feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
This is what Jesus is talking about towards the end of Matthew’s gospel. It’s a bit of a long reading, so I’ll just paraphrase it, but if you want to look it up it’s Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus is talking about the final judgement, where the Son of Man separates the people, with his sheep at his right hand, and the goats on the left. The Sheep are the ones who fed The King when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, invited him into the home when he was a stranger, gave him clothing, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him in prison. When they ask when it was that they did it, he says “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”
So we have an opportunity to take up something as a fast that pleases the Lord. Maybe God is calling you to something practical – maybe volunteering some time in the Thrift Shop, helping to clothe those who have no clothes. Or maybe it’s something that we can do that helps others, such as sponsoring a child through the Salvation Army Child Sponsorship program, or making a microloan through a program such as Kiva, where something as little as $25 can go to help people all over the world start businesses and get themselves out of poverty. Or maybe you want to find out more about a particular injustice that is happening in our world – Asylum seekers, poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, and the many others that are out there. Take this time of lent as a time to take up something that promotes others over yourself.
The Lord hears us, guides us, and lets our light shine
The prophet says that when we do these things, it’s then that we find the glory of the Lord, and we start finding his responses to our calls. “Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer”. If we remove the yoke of injustice, offer food to the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then our light rises in the darkness. Our vision as a church is to be a lighthouse to the community. Now a lighthouse is a wonderful thing, but unless someone turns the light on, then a lighthouse is just as useless as any other building. We need to turn on the light, to shine it into this dark world, to take the light of Jesus into the community, and we do that by doing what the Lord requires.
This Lent, take up the fast that the Lord has chosen
So this Lent, I encourage you not to give up something that in the end gives benefit to yourself, but instead take up the call of William Booth – Others! Make Others! Be your Lenten prayer. We’re going to watch a video, a song by Israel Houghton called Others, which has as the chorus, “I want to love like you love, love like you love, want to love others the way that You love me.” And while we watch this, consider what you can take up this Lenten period. As always the mercy seat and holiness table is open for all, as a place of prayer, of commitment, for you to come and to seek God’s guidance. Someone will come and pray with you, or feel free to ask someone to come with you to pray with you. As we listen, seek out what God is calling you to do, to love others.