February 17, 2013

Letting Go

Quite a few years ago now, a well-known preacher made a movie called, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.”  The film became popular enough that he turned it into a book and has since preached the message all over the world.  The big idea of the message is that although we face the conditions of crucifixion Friday now—hopelessness, lovelessness, despair, pain, turmoil, persecution, the effects of sin generally—we can have great hope in the fact that Sunday is coming.  The hope of the resurrected Christ is the answer to every possible need we might have.

This morning we are embarking on a new series that will take us all the way to Easter.  I’ll talk more about that in just a minute, but as I was thinking and praying and preparing for this morning, a thought struck me: so Easter comes.  So we have this great hope in a future resurrection.  So we have hope that Christ is with us now all the time.  So Sunday’s comin’ as this preacher said.  That’s fine, but what do we do on Monday?  It’s good and comforting to know that we have Jesus with us all the time, but how do we actually live in such a way that His presence is sustainable to a degree that it accomplishes anything of value in and through us?  Because I don’t know about you, but I have a consistency problem.  I’ll get on kind of a spiritual high and walk with Jesus really closely for a while, but then the doldrums of life will swell and almost like clockwork I’ll settle back into a pattern that’s, frankly, more comfortable for me.  I’ll blend moments of great devotion and inspiration with moments that leave me wondering which alien race possessed my brain in order to mess everything up.  For example, last fall I went on a retreat up in the mountains for a few days.  It was a wonderful time.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to connect so deeply to God in a near distraction-free environment.  I was absolutely on a spiritual high.  And then I got home.  A wave of life hit me and I was grouchier than Oscar for two or three days before finally snapping out of it and settling back into my comfort zone.  Have you ever experienced something even remotely similar?  Now, I’m not suggesting that we look for some method that will help us sustain a spiritual high for an extended period of time.  Life is going to roll on and we have to walk through some valleys along the way.  But, is there anything we can do, are there any tools available for us to help raise our baseline?  Are there any practices we can incorporate in our lives so that we can really live out the power of Sunday on a regular basis?  Easter’s a great thing to celebrate and we’re going to do that with exuberance here in about seven weeks.  But how do we live a kind of life that can enjoy Easter’s power on a sustained basis?  How do we live an Easter kind of life?

It is this very idea that I want to spend the next few weeks looking at with you.  I think the answer to this question is that, yes, there are some things we can do in order to give ourselves a leg up on the journey.  Now, of course, in one sense there’s nothing we can do to improve our ability to maintain the effects of Easter on a long term basis, our spiritual maturity, if you will.  The Holy Spirit is the one who has to do all the work.  But, there are some things we can do to enable us to better work with the Spirit so that we’re not presenting an impediment to His progress.  If you plant a vegetable garden, you know that you have to prepare the ground every year.  It’s not going to do it on its own.  But what if someone invented soil that turned itself a couple of times a year?  The gardener would still have to do some work to produce the best fruit possible, but wouldn’t his job be easier?  And just imagine if the soil fertilized, pH-balanced, watered, and weeded itself too so that all the gardener had to do was plant seeds, tend the plants, and harvest the fruit?  Imagine how much more fruit could be produced.  Well, our lives are the Spirit’s garden.  He’s always going to be the one to plant the seeds and harvest the fruit.  But what if we did the work (with Him, of course) necessary to keep our hearts soft and our lives free from the brambles of sin?  How much easier would His job be?  How much more fruit could we be producing?  What if we started taking aggressive steps to eliminate distractions so that we could really live an Easter kind of life?

My friends, there is a way forward here.  But that path is not so easy as we might prefer.  The reason for this is that the life of Christ—which is what the Spirit is shaping us for—is not natural for us.  The inertial pull of our natural, sinful selves always aims to keep us off the path of life.  It takes hard work to keep on track.  But, with some effort and training, hills which once seemed insurmountable become only minor bumps in the road.  Over Christmas Lisa and I upgraded our phones and finally joined the smart phone age.  Armed with my iPhone 5 I now have access to apps which for me mostly means mindless games to which I delightedly give far more time than I ought.  One of the apps that has proven most successful at providing such a distraction is called Hill Climb Racing.  Perhaps some of you know of this wonderful little game.  The goal is basically to choose a vehicle (and I was excited recently by an upgrade that added three new vehicles to my choices), a road surface, and drive as far as possible before either crashing or running out of gas.  The challenge comes in the form of hills of varying sizes.  When you first start the game, it’s only possible to go so far.  There are a number of hills which are simply impossible to scale with the tools you have.  Over time, though, as you earn points to purchase upgrades for your vehicle, the hills become merely a secondary issue.  The challenge then becomes not crashing.  Well, when it comes to our spiritual lives and journey to climb the hills thrown in front of us by our natural inclination away from God, the upgrades that enable us to climb further and faster are sometimes called the spiritual disciplines.

A spiritual discipline is essentially any practice which helps us disengage with unhelpful influences in this world or else engage more fully with the helpful influences of the kingdom of God.  Let me share a secret about the spiritual disciplines that perhaps isn’t so secret: they’re not easy.  In fact, disciplines by definition are hard.  They aren’t much fun.  They require…discipline.  They have us commit ourselves to a direction that we don’t normally go and which may require something from us, perhaps something costly, in order to move in that direction.  I mean, consider the number of things a professional athlete must say no to in order to achieve that level of success.  And yet, the direction in which the spiritual disciplines point us is the kingdom.  It is the direction toward becoming more reflective of the character of Christ.  It is the direction toward becoming more fully who God designed us to be.  This is a good direction.  But, they are sometimes hard.  Yet, if we have taken up the journey of following Christ, we, by definition, are disciples.  Disciplines are what disciples do.  If we are following Christ, we are necessarily becoming more like Him.  If we’re not…then we’re not really following Christ, are we?  And so, for the next seven weeks leading up to the celebration of Easter, we are going to take a look at some practices which when put in place in our lives in a regular, systematic fashion, will enable the power of Easter to really mean something for us.  These will help us live Easter kinds of lives.

The discipline I want to start with this morning is one that doesn’t often get a lot of focus in the modern church.  It used to be practiced fairly regularly, but not anymore.  And yet, there is much power in it in terms of helping to keep us from getting too attached to or distracted by the things of this world.  I’m talking about the discipline of fasting.   In order to unpack this discipline for you this morning I want to do three things: I want to get a sense of what we actually know about fasting so that we can understand it; I want to take a look with you at something Jesus said about fasting and how that might need to shape our practice of the discipline; and I want to think together about some ways that fasting might be made a relevant discipline for our modern lives.

Let’s start by surveying what we actually know about fasting.  This is a tougher task than it might seem at first thought.  The reason for this is that nowhere does the Bible lay out clear teaching on the discipline of fasting as it does for some of the other spiritual disciplines.  As a matter of fact, in the place we sometimes turn to get the nuts and bolts of things which have become standard practice for believers—the Law of Moses—there is not a word on fasting.  Neither the word nor its derivatives make a single appearance.  (Now, if you go find a concordance and look up the word “fast” you will find the word in the books of law, but the operative Hebrew word is different.)  The first mention of the word comes in the book of Judges, but the story in which it is found is so twisted that we’re going to start with the second passage which is in 1 Samuel 7.   Here, the final judge of Israel before the time of kings began, Samuel, has called the people together to call them out for not following God’s ways like they should have been.  In response the people poured out water before the Lord (a sacrificial offering of something precious), fasted for the rest of the day, and confessed their sinfulness to God.   Fasting in this case was part of an act of repentance.  It was a way for the people to do penance in order to demonstrate the seriousness of their contrition.  Next, in 2 Samuel 12 when David learned that the punishment for his adultery with Bathsheba and murdering of Uriah will be the death of his and Bathsheba’s infant son, his response was to fast and pray for God to change His mind.  Here, fasting served as part of a process of making a request of God.  In another instance of fasting, found in Esther 4, the Jews who have remained in the region of Persia after exiles had been allowed to return to Jerusalem fast as part of their mourning over the news of Haman’s despicable law calling for their execution on a certain day.  A few verses later, they fast once again, but this time as an act of solidarity with Esther before she attempts to go to the king in order to make things right.  We see fasting as an act of repentance again in the book of Jonah when the Ninevites respond to his pronouncement of judgment by confessing their sins and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness.  In the prophets, we start to see fasting described as an act of worship, albeit sarcastically.  In Isaiah 58 and later in Zechariah 7, God asks the people why they have bothered to fast when they haven’t paired their act of devotion with a lifestyle of devotion.  The inference gleaned from both of these passages suggests that at some point in the development of the Israelite religion fasting shifted from an occasional and spontaneous act to a regular feature of religious life.  The regular presence of fasting in the life cycle of ancient Judaism is confirmed in some of the dialogues about fasting Jesus had with other Jews in the Gospels.  In Mark 2 Jesus is asked why His disciples don’t fast regularly as do the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees.  Later, in Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee who is confident in his own righteousness.  As a part of his expression of this confidence he notes that he fasts twice a week.  Finally, in Acts 13, in one of the last instances of fasting we see in the Bible, the believers fast together before receiving word from the Spirit to commission Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey.

The apparent question now is this: what does this little summary tell us?  Well, admittedly, in detail, not very much.  However, it does give us a sense of the times and ways that fasting was used in Scripture.  This can give us a sense of the places and times in which it might be appropriate in our own lives.  It appears from this survey that there were four primary uses of fasting in the Bible.  It was used as an act of repentance.  The idea here was to demonstrate the seriousness of a change of heart by abstaining from something necessary to sustain life.  It was a way of saying to God: “You are more important to me than this thing I need to sustain my physical life.  And if I’m that devoted to You then I must be sorry for whatever it is I’ve done.”  We see this use of fasting most clearly in the Ninevites contrition in Jonah 3.  Fasting was also used as an expression of grief.  The idea here is that a person’s grief is so intense, their need for God’s mercy and comfort is so acute, that they put off everything that could possibly distract them from receiving from God what only He can give.  We see this in part in the reaction of David to his son’s illness, but also in the reaction of the Jewish people to Haman’s evil law in Esther 4.  The third role of fasting was to prepare for something important be that an event or making a big request of God.  This was the other part of the drive behind David’s fast in 2 Samuel 12.  Also, I didn’t mention before, but in Ezra 8 Ezra, the priest, leads the people to seek God’s wisdom on whether to rely on foreign military might to protect them on a journey by fasting.  The final role of fasting was as an act of worship both periodical and regular.  By the time of Jesus this is how fasting was most frequently used by the Jewish people.  The idea here was to eliminate distractions to seeking God in order to increase our attraction to Him as well as His to us.  You decrease distractions to increase attractions.

Well, this final use of fasting really became the predominant form used in first century Judaism.  It became fully incorporated into their religious routine.  The thing about fasting as a regular form of religious expression, though, is that you generally can’t look at someone and tell they’re fasting.  I mean, unless someone is either drooling over your lunch or else they are genuinely starving, you can’t tell someone’s hungry by looking at them.  In this sense, for people looking for public benefit from religious expression, fasting by itself doesn’t do them much good.  You have to look the part in order to get the recognition.  And so, the religious folks in Jesus’ day sought to do just this.  They would go around on their fasting days (twice a week for the folks who truly loved God) and they would make themselves look…hungry.  When Noah wants to get out of doing something, he has mastered the ailment complaint.  “My leg hurts.”  “My tummy hurts.”  “My finger hurts.”  “I’m just so tired.”   Can you imagine the face that goes along with that?  Yeah, that’s how these fasting folks would look.  Eyebrows bunched, eyes pitiful, down-turned mouth, a bit of a stoop from their stomach caving in on itself, a subtle groan every now and then when no one was paying attention, anything to physically communicate how devoted they were to God.  The whole idea of fasting is to decrease distractions in order to increase attractions, but these guys were getting distracted by their distraction-decreaser.

This was obviously not what God wanted from or for His people—a fact made rather plain in Isaiah 58 which all of these folks would have had memorized.  As a result, Jesus spoke to this practice and in doing so gave us our one clear teaching on fasting.  He did this in the context of the Sermon on the Mount which is the fullest description anywhere in Scripture of what pursuing the righteousness of God looks like.  In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus said: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face [the ancient equivalent of taking a shower], that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So what do we take from all of this?  Well, for starters, we should be fasting.  Notice how Jesus phrases this: when you fast.  He actually says it twice.  As followers of Jesus, fasting should be something we do.  I think the second thing to take from Jesus’ words here is that fasting should not be something we keep entirely to ourselves.  And for those of you for whom it sounds like I just totally contradicted Jesus, let me explain.  The Pharisees and their ilk who practiced fasting in Jesus’ day did so as part of a public show of religiosity.  By their evident religiousness and their obvious suffering for God’s sake, they were clearly closer to Him than everyone else.  It is against this kind of public fasting that Jesus spoke.  Letting a friend know that you are going to engage in a fast of some kind in order to receive encouragement, prayer support, and accountability is a good and wise thing to do.  Fasting is about eliminating distractions in order to increase our attractions to God.  That’s not something we can handle on our own and we can get as much distracted by our attempts at secrecy—which tends to fuel a pretty intense self-righteousness—as the Pharisees were by their public fasting.  Remember our goal here is to decrease distractions in order to increase attractions.

More important, then, than what exactly we can glean from Jesus’ words for our purposes this morning: how can we appropriate the spiritual discipline of fasting in our own lives?  Should we really be doing it?  How should we fast?  From what should we fast?  What’s the purpose for us?  Let me get really practical to wrap things up this morning and then I want to leave you with a very specific challenge.  In answer to these questions, first, yes, we should be practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting.  The Bible gives us several good situations in which fasting is appropriate including making it a regular part of our efforts to connect with God in a meaningful way.  I think this last idea speaks most clearly to fasting’s purpose for us.  Our goal should be to decrease distractions in order to increase attractions.  What fasting can help us do is to remove things from our regular routines which serve as distractions from following God with all the dedication that we need.  Depending on the object of our fast it can remind us that we can in fact live without whatever it is.  And in case that isn’t clear, we can absolutely fast from things other than food.  In doing a hunger fast, we are reminded after missing one meal that we are making a sacrifice.  We can feel it.  Each time we feel those hunger pangs the idea is to turn to God in prayer and seek to draw close to Him.  We replace the thing from which we’ve fasted with God.  If we have fasted for a particular reason, we focus our prayers on whatever the reason is.  I don’t know about you, though, but there are a bunch of other things in my life beyond food that if removed, I would notice their absence pretty quickly.  For instance, in seminary there is one professor whose class was a requirement for everybody.  He asks all the students to do a media fast—no television, movies, email, smart phones, video games, etc.  As digitally connected as I am, I felt the loss by the first afternoon.  There were two choices: pine after the loss or turn to God to fill the gap.  Now, of course, I could have turned to something else, but that would have defeated the purpose.  The goal isn’t to trade one distraction for another, but to eliminate them.  This is hard, but again, we’re dealing with a discipline here.  It’s not supposed to be easy.  What fasting like this can do is to help us lift our heads up, pause, and take in our surroundings more fully.  On that mountain retreat I mentioned earlier, I went on a lengthy hike through the mountains.  I could have kept my head down, pushed through, and been done a lot faster, but what would that have accomplished for me beyond a good work out?  Instead, I stopped constantly to absorb the beautiful scenery.  By the time I got back to my room I was exhausted, but I felt very much refreshed.   This can be the result of fasting in us.  Not necessarily at first—remember, discipline, it takes time to get good at it—but over time, regular fasting can help us quickly enter a place in which we are ready to receive from our Lord whatever He desires to give us.  Furthermore, it can help us remain in such a place even amid the distractions when we aren’t fasting because our focus will gradually shift to be more fully on God and not on our environment all the time.  By the way, this doesn’t mean we are less engaged in our surroundings.  It means we are able to be more fully engaged through the eyes of our God which will enable us to take in a good bit more than we might otherwise and respond appropriately.

Okay, final stretch.  What do you need to do with all of this today?  Here’s my challenge: I challenge you to engage in a fast between now and Good Friday.  We are now into the season of Lent which is traditionally a season of prayer and fasting leading up to Easter.  Think through your life.  What is something that’s precious to you but which on occasion (or regularly) stands in between you and your heavenly Father?  And think beyond food.  Unless I’m mistaken, I don’t suspect hunger fasts have been a part of anyone’s regular routine meaning none of us are physically ready for a 40-day fast.  But what else might be standing in the way?  For example, I am going to fast from my various computing devices beyond what is immediately necessary to work and communicate.  These regularly absorb far more of my attention than they should.  Figure out what this thing or habit is for you and resolve to go without from now until Good Friday (which is March 29, by the way).  Once you’ve figured it out, tell someone who can help hold you accountable.  I’m going to give you a card as you leave today to help with that.  If you do Facebook, consider posting your answer on the church’s page.  Then, as you find yourself in situations where you would normally engage in or with this thing, turn your focus to God.  Perhaps you could engage instead in one of the other disciplines we’re going to talk about between now and then to help fill the gap.  Finally, on Good Friday, we are going to break our fast together in a really meaningful service.  My hope and prayer is that by doing this, we will enter the celebration of Easter more read to receive God’s blessings than we have been in some time so that we can draw near to Him in ways we have not for far too long.  Let us decrease distractions to increase attractions.

Now then, as we wrap up our service today, we are going to come to the Lord’s table together.  I know this is usually a little later in the service than has become normal, but I wanted to allow our observance of the Lord’s Supper to be the kick-off of our time of fasting together.  This is symbolically appropriate.  We are going to fast together between now and Easter in order that we might be ready—even more so than usual—to receive the new life.  In the same way, in the original meal Jesus shared with His disciples He told them that it was going to be the last meal He ate with them until the kingdom and the life it was going to bring came in power.  As we prepare to receive the elements of the meal—the bread to represent Jesus’ broken body and the juice His spilled blood—I want each of you to take a minute and try to settle on the object of your fast.  Then, in the quiet, before you are served, say a prayer of dedication to God.  Thank Him for the blessing of whatever it is.  Confess that you have taken advantage of the blessing and let it stand in the way of your relationship on more occasions than you ought to have.  Then commit it to Him between now and Easter.  Resolve with Him that you will not engage with whatever it is for the next seven weeks and will instead fill that time by seeking Him.  Then, as you open your eyes, receive from the deacons, and eat and drink when your hearts are prepared.  If you belong to Him, this belongs to you.  Let’s pray.