“When We Fast”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (6:16) – February 14, 2018
The church season of Lent is a season of penitence, a forty-day period of time where we contemplate our inner selves, our sins, our shortcomings, and our position before God. But, it’s not all about us. Not by a long shot.
This Ash Wednesday service tonight is—similarly—a contemplative time where we are called to repentance. This day is the beginning of Lent. In our service we make a special effort to show God that we are sorry for our sins. We approach God through special prayers and readings of repentance, and through the visible sign of the cross of ashes.
When I was growing up on the northwest side of Chicago, our family was the only family on our block with children who attended Chicago public schools. All of the other families were Catholic, and all of the other children attended St. Ferdinand’s Catholic school. I remember them getting ash crosses on their heads. I did not. I was not Catholic.
Our Gospel reading tonight comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks about how we approach God. There are good ways to approach God, and not-so-good ways. Jesus talks about charity, prayer, and fasting. Good ways to do all of these things, and not-so-good ways.
Let’s focus on the third way Jesus talked about. Fasting. Not a particularly fashionable thing to do today. (Unless you need to do it for health reasons, in which case I absolutely agree with the medical professionals. I fully support them.)
People would fast to show sorrow for sin and repentance, as well as their humility before God. Years ago, centuries ago, fasting was almost a badge of honor among religious people. What was up with this? Why so much attention paid to fasting?
Those super-spiritual super heroes of Judaism, the Pharisees, practically turned fasting into performance art. They were particularly skilled at it. They even advocated fasting twice a week—on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They recommended looking tired and hungry and even dumping ashes on yourself, on the days you were fasting. That way, everyone would know you were fasting. Also, the fasting process had tight guidelines and rules on “how-to-fast.” (That way, you could earn extra brownie points with the Lord, too!)
What is the matter with this kind of fasting? Is this the best kind of approach to God? Can we really please God if we go about it in such a rigidly controlled manner?
What did Jesus say? Reading from Matthew 6, “And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full.”
I suspect Jesus would not be particularly happy with the way the Pharisees fasted. Sure, the way they treated the outward body portrayed the inner way they were trying to follow God, but in such a hypocritical fashion.
Since we are beginning Lent today, many Christians all over the world commit themselves to fasting in some way, or deny themselves some food, drink or activity during these forty days. It’s meant to remember Jesus and His withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days to prepare Himself for His public ministry. Other people read a Lenten devotional. Or, some follow various Lenten calendars or Lenten task lists to try to follow God more closely.
I remember when I was a child, the other children—Catholic schoolchildren—would give up something for Lent. Chocolate or cakes and cookies would often be selected, as would soda. A few jokesters would suggest they were giving up homework for Lent, but that would quickly be frowned upon by both the religious sisters and by their parents.
The other children would sometimes boast about what difficulties they were having, “giving up” something for Lent. Today, there is even a term for it: “humble-brag.”
Is this what Jesus wants us to do, in order to follow Him more closely? No! Other people were (and are) not to know that we are fasting! This is a way that Jesus suggests to follow God more nearly.
We have many options to follow Jesus during Lent. We can follow a daily Lenten prayer and bible reading. We can meditate and pray every day.
What are we as a congregation going to do, on Sundays in Lent? I have a small Jesus-figure, and I’ll be featuring it in the children’s sermons in the weeks ahead. I will use this figure as a visual aid, helping the children understand Jesus and His journey to the cross. Plus, we will follow Jesus all around the sanctuary.
We can all strive to love God more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly, as we journey with Jesus through Lent. Amen.