Grace and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
What I have in my hand right here is a flashlight. It has a working switch. It has batteries. It has a light bulb. It even has the one thing that makes a flashlight valuable. It has light.
However, if I don’t turn it on, it won’t help me find my way in the darkness. If I point it the wrong way, again, it won’t help me. If I shine it directly into my eyes, it’s going to make things harder to see, not easier. In order for this flashlight to be a useful tool, it needs to be USED PROPERLY.
TOOLS FOR WORSHIP
We have many tools meant to help us worship. We might think of the organ, the hymnal, the bulletin, the Bible, our voices, our emotions, our minds, our hearts. But, in order for these things to be useful in worshipping our God, they need to be USED PROPERLY.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had many of the same kinds of worship tools that we have now, and some different ones as well. But they didn’t use these tools properly. For example, when the Pharisees they pray out-loud prayers, they were actually talking to the people around them, not to God. That was an abuse of prayer.
Their acts of worship did nothing to help them see inside themselves, nor did their acts of worship help them to see God better. Their “worship” was done so that they would be seen by other men (Pastor holds flashlight above himself, shining on himself).
We’ve been studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for a while now. We’re now in the middle of the second part of that sermon, at a place where Jesus is addressing the false worship of the Pharisees. Jesus is also explaining what true worship is like.
He’s already talked about the worship tools of charitable giving and prayer. Today Jesus talks about the worship tool we call “fasting”. Turn to Matthew 6, verse 16. There Jesus says…
“16“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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men 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” (Matthew 6:16-18 NIV).
THE FASTING OF THE PHARISEES
The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday, of every week. God didn’t command them to do this in the Bible, they simply chose to do it. They picked Monday and Thursday because Moses went up Mt. Sinai to receive the Law on a Thursday, and on Monday he came back down.
Monday and Thursday also happened to be the market days when people came into town from the country. Local courts were in session on these days also. Whether they intended it or not, on these days the Pharisees had a bigger crowd to see them fast.
And people would notice that the Pharisees were fasting. The Pharisees made sure of that. First of all, they made it known that Monday and Thursday were their fasting days. Then they made their time of fasting obvious by changing their appearance.
Jesus teaches that this is a MISUSE OF A WORSHIP TOOL. They were shining the “flashlight of fasting” on themselves so that others would notice them. But fasting is a worship tool that is mean to be used in secret.
THE NEGLECTED TOOL OF FASTING
Of the three worship tools that Jesus talks about in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, I think fasting is the least known to us and the least used. We know about charitable giving. We know about prayer. But how much do we know about fasting? Do we ever use this tool?
Do me a favor, raise your hand if you’ve EVER fasted with a religious purpose in mind.
Raise your hand if you consider fasting a very important part of your worship life.
If you look in our Catechism you won’t find fasting in the table of contents or in the index. You’ll find it mentioned in connection with the Lord’s Supper, but not explained in much detail.
So it isn’t surprising that we don’t consider fasting an important part of our worship. If you look in the Old Testament, God only required the Israelites to fast once a year. That doesn’t sound very important.
Even though God only commanded the Israelites to fast once a year, we find examples of people fasting all over in the Bible. Sometimes it’s an individual fasting as part of their worship in the Temple (Hannah). Sometimes it’s a congregation fasting before they send out a team of evangelists (Paul and Barnabas). Sometimes it’s a whole city fasting to God (Jonah’s Nineveh).
THREE KINDS OF FASTING
There are three basic kinds of fasting. There’s the NORMAL fast, when no food is eaten. There’s the ABSOLUTE fast, when food and water avoided. And there’s the PARTIAL fast, where only certain foods are avoided.
Simple enough. But the question remains: What is fasting good for? What exactly does it accomplish?
FASTING IDENTIFIES A DAY AS SPECIAL
You know how I said that God commanded the Israelites to fast once a year? That day when all the people were supposed to fast was the Day of Atonement.
The Day of Atonement was the only day of the whole year that God permitted a priest, and it had to be THE HIGH PRIEST, to enter the innermost room of the Temple. The Most Holy Place.
On this day a sacrifice was made for all the sins of the people of Israel. And the blood of that special sacrifice was carried into the Most Holy Place.
There were all sorts of things that made this day special. Unique. Set apart from all other days. Fasting was ONE of the things that helped to set this day apart. Fasting can help identify a time as HOLY or SPECIAL toward God.
FASTING IS ASSOCIATED WITH PRAYER
When we look up examples of fasting in the Bible, we find that prayer is associated with fasting. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that fasting is associated with prayer. Prayer is the bigger thing. Fasting is the smaller accessory. Fasting is added to prayer to make it stand out.
We often bow our heads when we pray. Ever think about why we do that? The Bible says that when Jesus prayed He actually “looked up to heaven”. Why do we look down? I think it’s a way of expressing that we are sinners who come before God in humility. He is so much greater than we are, so we bow in reverence and awe.
In moments of deep distress or need we might express this humble approaching of God even more intensely. We might actually fall down on our knees in order to pray to God. We might curl ourselves over more tightly than usual, or squeeze our hands together harder in our focused concentration.
That’s what fasting is. Fasting is a premeditated and more intensive “falling on your knees” or “bowing your head” before God.
A PHYSICAL EXPRESSION OF REPENTANCE
Turn to Jonah 3, verse 1. Jonah is eight books back from Matthew. Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Here were see another thing that fasting expresses. Verse 1…
“1Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2“Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. 4On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” 5The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
10When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3 NIV).
Their fasting was a physical expression of their sorrow over sin. That’s why it was valuable to God. It communicated that they were repentant.
DO I HAVE TO FAST?
Sometimes we are drawn to fasting naturally. Our mind is so concentrated on something that food is the last thing we want to think about. We say, who can think of food at a time like this!
Usually, I can.
I’d always been curious about fasting. I never understood what was so special about it. So, I tried it a few times, thinking, maybe if I just do it, I’ll understand.
It didn’t work for me. I found that instead of being more focused on spiritual things, I was just more cranky and irritable.
Fasting is a worship tool, but maybe not one that is particularly beneficial for you. Or, maybe it is, but you need to learn it slowly. Easing into it instead of diving in like I did.
FASTING IS A FORM OF SELF-DENIAL
In the Psalm that we read together today, the Psalmist says that he humbled himself with fasting. That reveals one of the great benefits of fasting. It helps us to cultivate stronger SELF-CONTROL.
Fasting is a form of self-denial. What your body wants, you say no to. And that’s a good thing to practice. For there are many times when our hearts want things that will not be good for us.
Turn to James 4, verse 6. James is just a few books back from Revelation. James, Peter, John, Jude, Revelation. Verse 4…
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 NIV).
If fasting helps us to grow more humble. And God helps the humble, that alone is enough reason to fast.
In Isaiah, God describes one last benefit of fasting. Turn to Isaiah 58, verse 7. There God is describing what fasting is for…
“7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
” (Isaiah 58:7-8 NIV).
In Isaiah God points out that fasting is not just abstaining from using what you have. Sometimes fasting is going without so someone else can have what is yours.
That’s the kind of fasting Jesus knew all about.
He went without His fully glory as the Son of God every day that walked this earth as a Man. He went without food quite often because He was busy tending to the needs of the spiritually poor people of Israel. He went without justice, all the way to the cross, carrying our sins, suffering our pain, so that we could have life and forgiveness.
And on the cross He went without the Father’s presence. He felt the darkness of being truly alone. And He did all this so that we wouldn’t have to. So that we could know the loving embrace of the Father when we leave this world of sorrow.
Jesus went without forgiveness, so that we could have His.
Maybe that’s why Jesus never commands us to fast. He’s done our fasting for us already. But, if you decide to fast in your worship of the Father, remember to do it for the Father’s eyes only.
In fact, that’s Jesus’ underlying point in this part of His sermon. Do all your worship with the Father in mind. Worship to the Father. For the Father. In His way. Through His Son.
The Peace of God which surpasses all our understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.