Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Not So Fast!

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-4; 16-18

LAST YEAR IN LATE MARCH, I stood in this pulpit and asked how many of you had made specials vows for Lent.

If you were there, you may recall that no hands were raised. At least, I didn’t see any.

I guess it’s not a Presbyterian thing to give things up for Lent. That’s for the Roman Catholics, or maybe for the High Church Episcopalians. We Presbyterians don’t feel bound to observe special times and seasons. We’re not obligated to deny ourselves for any set period just because the Church says it’s a good idea.

And you know what? We aren’t bound from the outside to give things up for Lent. No church authority can tell us we must stop eating meat or chocolate or indulging in any good gift of God we happen to enjoy, for religious purposes. No human being has the right to tell us we must fast or pray or do acts of Christian love and service at any particular place or time.

Nevertheless, the Lord our God speaking in His Holy Scriptures assumes that from time to time we will set aside times deliberately to fast and pray. Moreover, He assumes that the exercise of physical and spiritual discipline will be good for us.

We have just read what the Holy Spirit says, speaking through the Prophet Isaiah, about the true nature of a fast that is pleasing to God. And in our reading from St. Matthew, our Lord Jesus tells us how we are to carry out our spiritual and physical discipline, when, not if we do it.
In both our readings, we have to pay attention to what our Lord tells us about how not to fast.

Now, at the beginning of Isaiah 58, we have to wonder what God is objecting to. I mean, His people are acting really zealous and devoted to Him! They aren’t just claiming to go hungry for religion’s sake, they’re actually doing it! As Jesus would put it, look at their uncombed hair and unwashed faces! See how somber they look! Look, some of them have even disfigured and cut themselves, to prove how sincerely they’re seeking God, how eager they are to know His ways! They’ve really humbled themselves, haven’t they? What more does the Lord want?

"Why have we fasted," they complain to God, "and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you, O Lord, have not noticed?"

But that’s the problem. God’s people want Him to notice them. They’re treating Him like Baal or Astoreth or some other pagan god. They expect to bribe the Lord with their religious devotion, to make Him cough up whatever it is they want.

The pagan idea was that if you starved or disfigured yourself or screamed or wailed or whatever, you’d get your idol’s attention and he or she would be obliged to do what you wanted. If you were really desperate, you’d sacrifice your own children to your false god. For the pagans, fasting was all about making the gods perform. It was about bribing or coercing them to do what you wanted. And now the Israelites say, "Boohoo, no fair, Lord God of Israel! We’re doing our part, why aren’t You doing Yours?"

It must not be so with us. When-- not if-- you and I deprive ourselves of good things for the sake of religion or godliness, we must never, ever imagine that we’re putting God in our debt by it, or forcing Him to give us our way.

Another way not to fast is what Jesus points out-- doing your fasting or other acts of religion so other people will see you and exclaim over how pious and holy you are. Such public fasting is all about us. It has nothing to do with God-- why should He respond to it?

In our modern culture, we do such a good job avoiding this error, that the very words "pious" and "righteous" and "religious" are insults!

But have we in the West really stopped showing off our good deeds to be seen by others? How many of us do volunteer work not out of love, but because it’ll look good on our resumes or university applications? How many multi-millionaires do you know who donate a building and don’t expect their name to be on it?

It must not be so with us. When-- not if-- you and I fast or deny ourselves to give more to charity or when we make a deliberate effort to spend more time in prayer, we must do all we can to keep it between ourselves and God. And when we cannot, God must receive all the glory.

And then, God’s people were using their fast and their fast day as an excuse to be rude, cranky, and downright mean. They were quarrelling and fighting and claiming, "Well, it’s not my fault, I’m hungry and I’m in a bad mood." Their fasting wasn’t drawing them closer to God or making them more loving towards their neighbor; no, it was driving them further away.

It must not be so with us. When-- not if-- we fast and deny ourselves, we must use it as an occasion for love and charity towards God and our neighbor.

Now, we think we’ve got this problem solved. We think we can avoid doing all these bad things by never fasting at all. But that’s not our Lord’s idea of how to solve the problem. He wants us to understand what fasting really is, and for us to grasp all the good things it can actually get us.

In our reading from Isaiah, we see that "fasting" is really a code word for self-denial and self-discipline. It’s about giving up our will and our wants so the will of God may be done, on earth as it is in heaven. As Jesus would say, it’s taking up our cross and following Him. The self-denial that the Lord wants isn’t only about not doing certain things, it’s also about doing certain things, things that are hard, things that are inconvenient, things that are awkward, for the sake of God and His glory.

Awkward things like speaking out against injustice wherever we find it, and liberating the exploited and oppressed--regardless of what political party we support. Inconvenient things like feeding the hungry and housing the homeless-- even if they are dirty and disgusting and ungrateful. Hard things like always treating the members of your own family with grace and kindness and never, ever taking them for granted.

So why can’t we just do that instead of denying ourselves physically? Let’s just exercise social justice and charity and forget about fasting and prayer!

But God knows we need both. We need to learn to deny ourselves in our bodies and spirits, so we can draw closer to Him. We need to experience denying ourselves in our money, time, efforts, and attitudes, so we can draw closer to our neighbors. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, giving to the needy on one hand and fasting and prayer on the other hand go-- well, hand in hand. One is first towards God and one is first towards our neighbor. Both, if undertaken in true humility and faith can make us more holy and more like Him.

Both kinds of self-denial draw us closer to God and make us more aware of our need for Him. If you’ve ever made a sincere vow to give up something good for the Lord’s sake, or if you’ve ever decided deliberately to do good, you know what I mean. You begin well, but then it gets hard. You really want to eat that food or indulge in that amusement. Maybe the people you’re really doing good for aren’t grateful, or people question your good motives. The tempting little voice in your head starts saying, "Oh, go ahead, give up. God won’t care! He won’t make you keep your promise!" But you did promise God, and the only way you can be faithful is to cry out to the Lord and say, "Father, help me do this! I can’t keep it up without you!" Both kinds of self-denial show us God’s strength and our weakness-- and that’s good.

Both kinds of self-denial open our ears to listen for the Lord’s voice and guidance. It’s easy to say we’re going to be good to our neighbor all the time, and yes, we should be. But when you deliberately choose for a time to do something in particular for Jesus’ sake and in Jesus’ name, you become more aware of working side by side with Him, of being His disciple and accepting His teaching. You become humble when you realize how far you are from conforming to His image, and hopeful when time and again He comforts you with His sanctifying Spirit.

Both kinds of self-denial help us enter into the suffering and struggles of our Lord Jesus Christ as He faced the Cross for the sake of you and me. Going without a meal or meat or chocolate for a time seems absurdly like nothing compared to what He went through. But it’s all about saying No to our flesh and Yes to God and becoming more like our Master who prayed, "Not My will, Father, but Yours be done." Denying our flesh and going out of our way even for our enemies helps us to grasp a little of what Jesus Christ gave up and did for us and fill us with gratitude and praise.

Exercised in faith and total dependence upon Almighty God, both kinds of fasting bring us into the pleasure and delight of our Lord. As He says through Isaiah, if we fast as He requires,

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.

Jesus says that when we fast and pray and do our acts of charity to please God and to benefit our neighbor, our Father in heaven will reward us. Our spiritual ancestors the ancient Jews wanted to be rewarded by God, but they were after the wrong reward-- worldly security and riches and the freedom to do whatever they pleased. But the reward of God is so much better than that! The reward of God is His eternal presence with us. The reward of God is life and meaning like a spring whose waters never fail. The reward of God is light in darkness and comfort in need. The reward of God is God Himself.

You may decide to undertake a special act of self-denial or service this Lent. Or you may decide to do it at some other time. No one in the Presbyterian Church-- not I, not your interim pastor, not the Moderator of the General Assembly-- can order you when or where or how. But when-- not if-- you give to the needy; when-- not if--you spend special times in prayer; when-- not if-- you fast, do it to the glory of God and for the good of your neighbor, confiding in the strength of Jesus your crucified and risen Lord. And your Father in heaven will be your great and glorious reward.
Preached at an Ash Wednesday service of penitence and Holy Communion

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