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To Fast or Not to Fast
February 4, 1990

ISAIAH 58:3-9A MATTHEW 5:13-16

Looking at me, you might find it odd for one with my shape to preach about fasting! Fasting, however, is a spiritual discipline, as well as a diet. If you are planning to fast as a method to lose weight, first consult your doctor. If you are planning to fast as a spiritual discipline, you might want to consider Isaiah's words.

Fasting is the abstaining from food and sometimes drink, although fasting in the Christian tradition usually allows the drinking of liquids, recognizing the dependence of our body on liquids. When we were in Egypt, we were there during Ramadan. For an entire month, Muslims abstain from food and liquids during the day. When the sun sets, then they feast. But, in that hot, dry climate, denying oneself food and liquid is a drastic fast. It certainly makes one aware of and committed to his/her religion.

Fasting is an ancient practice, also found in religions other than Judeo-Christian. Fasting is based on the belief that purifying the body also purifies the soul. As one denies the body food, more attention and deeper focus can be given to God. When the fast is particularly severe, the mind is even susceptible to visions. Jesus fasted. He went into the wilderness for 40 days, fasting, praying, struggling with his identity and mission.

Fasting is also a way to express remorse for sin. As an act of penance, Roman Catholics often fast during Lent (or give up something to symbolize a fast). For a long while, in commemoration of Jesus' death on Friday, Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays. Some Christians fast before communion. And, of course, breakfast means "breaking the fast" imposed upon ourselves through the night; although some of you get up in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator!

Fasting in modern times is also a means of political expression. Many have fasted in order to call attention to their cause, elicit public support, and effect change. The most notable example is Mahatma Ghandi who used the fast in his campaign to break the bondage of British rule in India.

Fasting has never played a prominent role in American Protestantism, but the practice is growing. Some spiritual formation exercises include fasting. And, some modern Christians fast as a sign of identification with the poor and hungry. They give up lunch, and contribute the money they would spend to the Food Closet or Urban Ministry.

What about fasting? Should we fast as a spiritual discipline? In the Old Testament Lesson read this morning, Isaiah had some strong words to say about fasting. The author of this passage is actually III Isaiah as scholars believe the writings of at least three people make up the book we call Isaiah. Like III Isaiah, the prophets in general were very critical of spiritual practices that are isolated from doing God's work. Especially critical were the prophets when spiritual practices are done for show, for purely selfish reasons, so we can look and act "holy."

Listen to Isaiah's criticism of fasting in 58:3-5. I'll read from the Good News Version as it is clearer.

The people ask, "Why should we fast if the Lord never notices? Why should we go without food if he pays no attention?" The Lord says to them, "The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. (Evidently the owners were observing a fast which included no work, but they weren't granting their workers the holiday.) Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. (Sounds like the irritable moods some people get into when they diet!) Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?

Their fasting was for their own gratification, exploiting their employees in the process. Their fasting was for show and public acclaim. "That is not fasting," says Isaiah.

Isaiah continues and describes the kind of fasting that pleases the Lord, 58:6-7.

The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.

True fasting, fasting as a spiritual discipline pleasing to God, is to deny yourself, sacrifice yourself, in order to help people, relieve suffering, undo wrong, and free the oppressed.

Now, I'm not preaching against fasting as a form of spiritual discipline. The question to ask yourself is: Why am I fasting? It's the same question to ask of all spiritual disciplines, even prayer. Why do you pray? Why will you receive Holy Communion this morning? If the reason is entirely for your own soul, for your own interests, for your own holiness, for your own favor in the sight of God, or even worse, if the reason is to bargain with God (I'll do this if you do that) or blackmail (God, I did such and such; therefore, you must do...), then forget it. Your religion is a sham, and a wart on the face of Christ.

Instead, when you fast, when you pray, when you meditate, when you receive Communion, do it so God may use you to do his work, and be a blessing to those in need. Fast, pray, feast at the table this morning so that God may cleanse you, empty you of yourself, fill you with the Holy spirit, use your offerings of time, service and money to do his work, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, heal the sick, teach the children, redeem the lost.

Then, says Isaiah, 58:8, "Your light shall break forth like the dawn." Then, your life will be a light to others. Then, said Jesus, "You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world." Fast, deny, sacrifice for the sake of others.

© 1990 Douglas I. Norris