This morning we are going to think about fasting. But to set the scene, I’d like to reel back a little.
We’re in the middle of a sermon series called “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” by John Ortberg. The object of the book is to help us grow as Christians, so he covers topics like prayer, reading the Bible, confession, and yes, fasting. John Ortberg’s strapline is “Growing as Christians”. With all respect to him, I would re-present it as “Getting to know Jesus better”. Being a Christian isn’t like turning a switch on that we switch on once and it’s done, like a light, but it is getting to know Jesus, Christ, better, and it goes on all through our lives – if we take, or make, the time to do so.
Let’s look at it this way. Imagine someone new moves in next door to you. Now I know all about the British reserve, but I know too that most of you would overcome it, and go over one day to say hello, or you might see them in the garden, and lean on the fence for a bit, just chatting. So far, so good! So you progress to a shared cup of tea or glass of wine in the garden on occasional summer evenings. As you spend more time together, you find points of view that you share, and some which you don’t. But that doesn’t stop your occasional sharing the cup of tea or glass of wine. As time goes on, you discover there are ways to help each other out, they might receive a parcel from Amazon for you because you’ve not identified your safe place to leave it. You might spend an occasional hour with their Granny who’s come to stay but needs company just for an hour while your neighbour goes to a doctor’s appointment. Or you might have their child for an hour after school one day because there’s a late afternoon meeting that is going to run over the usual pick-up time. As this all goes on, you learn more about each other’s views and habits. Occasionally there may be a discussion that gets a bit unsettled because you want to cut your tree back, but you didn’t realise what an important contribution it made to their garden. But it gets resolved, given some extra discussion time. And gradually you become part of each other’s lives, sharing good times and bad, helping each other out. When the day comes that Granny meets the Lord, you weep with them, when the child graduates from uni, you celebrate with them. You’ve become friends!
With Jesus, it’s like meeting someone at football, or down at the pub, that you decide you’d like to get to know more. After a bit, you realise you really have made a friend, and it’s a friendship you want to keep and pursue. At this point, it’s like you invite him to move in next door. He’s always there, you chat, you share, you listen, you disagree but you get over it. In other words, you spend time together! Really, it follows the pattern with your human neighbour. But even better than a good human neighbour, Jesus is there to help you become the best person you can possibly be, because he knows all about you! And you get that you respect his vies so much that you really listen to the advice he has for you, and want to follow it, or try to, at least.
So to get back to John Ortberg’s book, he is giving us ways of getting to know Jesus better, and advice on how to make Jesus’ ways our ways. The thing is, it takes time on our part, something which can seem in short supply these days. So we have to think of ways to clear time for ourselves, to reflect on aspects of our spiritual lives. Spirituality is another basic aspect of our lives that we need to make space to develop, along with eating well, exercising, having good relationships with others. They all need space and time to develop.
Well, that may seem a long way from fasting, but actually, fasting is a means of intentionally clearing some space in our lives in order to spend more time getting to know Jesus better. Fasting can be a way of forming a more disciplined time for getting to know Jesus. Or, as John Ortberg puts it, growing as Christians. Fasting, not eating for a time, is part of most world religions. For us as Christians, it is done to help us focus more closely on Jesus, either to hear his voice, or to bring someone, or a particular situation to him, for his blessing. Sometimes fasting is done to bring attention to any injustice, as the suffragettes did, as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband Richard Ratcliffe have just done to protest against Nazanin’s imprisonment in Iran.
In the Christian calendar, Lent and sometimes Advent are times when the discipline of fasting can be good – it helps focus on the amazing story of Jesus’ interaction with the world, and then we can join in with a greater understanding and appreciation the great celebrations we have at Christmas and Easter.
Now, in fasting to get to know Jesus better, we give up food for a time each day or week which released meal and meal prep times to spend time with him, whether it’s in prayer of Bible reading, confession or considering how we might share his ways better with the people around us, or simply being awestruck at the joy of having him as a friend!
But fasting can be a challenge. There has been much written about the benefits of fasting, or altering eating patterns in a healthy way. Dr. Michael Moseley is a doctor who has done a lot of work in this field, you may have seen him on TV.
And for some people, fasting is not advised for medical reasons. We need always to be sensible about this. But the good news is, we can fast from all kinds of things!
There are lots of other ways we can fast in our lives which willhelp us get to know Jesus better. A few weeks ago I preached on having an unhurried life, and there were clues there for other things would we do well to fast from, so time could be better harnessed for more time with God. One of the points that challenged me, and two or three others judging by comments folks made to me after the service, was indulging in distractions like spending too much time on the computer, playing mindless computer games or scrolling through random interesting but definitely not focussed or helpful things! Or it could be watching too much tv, or drinking too much. An aside, but I think important and basic point to make from this is if it’s happening late in the evening, it’s probably stopping us from going to bed, and it is entirely likely that the extra hour’s sleep will do us far more good than an extra hour of any of those things! But I’m not saying we don’t need time to wind down. Let your conscience truly be your guide on where the line is for you, but don’t fool yourself. However, if you have the time for that, think about whether some of that time would be better spent praying, or reading your Bible, in other words, enlarging your relationship with God. Or, if you’d gone to bed earlier, you could get up a little earlier in the morning to spend time with God before the day begins – which is truly a great idea, not always the easiest to achieve for the night owls among us, but therein lies the challenge!
But fasting from food or any other activity is an intentional thing rather than something we do when the mood takes us. It’s a discipline which needs working on, it needs application. As we go on, we will begin to see the value of it. It will improve our ability to see the world through the prism of the teachings of Jesus and his way of life. It may, of course, raise challenging questions, but Ben, or Ray or I are usually around at the end of services, we’ll happily chat through issues with you. And house groups are a place to ask questions and discuss the challenges of our Christian lives.
As time goes on, we may well find ourselves thinking about the issues that come up in our fast time at times other than our specific fast times. And even more, we may find that we really benefit from, enjoy, those times. But the point isn’t whether we’re feeling good or bad as a result of our fast time, it’s about getting to know Jesus! But he is good to us and he blesses us if we come close to him.
As time goes on, we may find ourselves preoccupied with things of the world, sometimes really demanding situations crowd in and distract us. Be prepared for those times, but recognise them, check your priorities. Those times can be complicated, talk to Christian friends about them to make sure your judgements about your priorities are sound. At the end of the day, it is about our individual relationship with Jesus. How committed are we to it? Do we want to enlarge our relationship with him? Making an intentional change to the way we spend our time can be challenging, but oh so worthwhile.
Take a few more moments to think about what you will commit to, I hope it’s something, no matter how small. You don’t have to tell anyone, but me assured, God knows your intentions! Don’t forget when you’re fasting, it’s not about you, it’s about your relationship with Jesus. No bragging about what you’re doing, but no complaining either – we’re told that in the Bible passage! Christian friends can be helpful, but be careful not to boast.
In the Bible passage, this phrase is repeated three times: “Your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” The point of fasting is to get to know Jesus better, and we will get to know Jesus better. And maybe there will be other rewards, who knows? God does, and that’s a great thing, a bonus, for each one of us! Amen.