When We Fast

“When We Fast”

Matt 6-16 when you fast, script

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.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Into the Wilderness

Matthew 4:1-11 – March 5, 2017

jesus-temptation-wilderness

“Into the Wilderness”

Have you ever overheard a conversation at a restaurant where someone was absolutely raving about the food served? About how delicious it was, how well seasoned, or well prepared? The magnificent desserts, or the fantastic dishes? “Out of this world!” or, “It’s to die for!” I’ve even heard a few people say, “That was positively sinful!”

Enjoying our creature comforts so much, we are not able to focus on anything else. Not able to focus on each other, and reaching out to the needy, sick and hungry. Not able to focus on God, either, much less worship God’s name regularly.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Yes, back to the very beginning, the book of Genesis. Eileen just read for us several verses from chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are tempted by the Devil.

We find out that the garden from Genesis has everything a person could want—except for one thing. There is one prohibition: a tree in the middle of the garden. Adam and Eve already have been told never to eat from that tree. Never, ever, ever eat from that specific tree. (Or they—we—shall surely die.)

We all know the story. The Tempter comes to Eve in the form of a snake, plants doubt in her mind, and convinces her to eat the fruit of the tree. What’s more, she gives some to Adam and he eats. And because of this sin, this disobedience, Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden of Eden.

What got in the way between Adam and Eve, and God? Adam and Eve said “Yes” to the serpent. In saying “Yes” to the snake, they found themselves saying “No” to God. They renounced the God who created them, who loved them, and who gave them all things. And, they were sent into the wilderness.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus led out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. For forty days Jesus fasts and prays, away by Himself, in the wilderness. Jesus was preparing Himself for His time of ministry ahead, as well. At the end of this time, the tempter comes to a weakened, depleted Jesus, and tempts Him. The devil tempts Jesus with food, with control, and with power. The devil very much wanted to get Jesus to say “Yes” to him, to say “Yes” to at least one of the temptations he brought to Jesus.

At the beginning of each Lenten season, each year, the lectionary readings begin with the Gospel reading of Jesus and the temptation. The devil tries very hard to get Jesus to say “Yes” to him and the phony, flashy, fake things he offers. And by saying “Yes” to the devil, Jesus would end up saying “No” to God. The devil wanted to get Jesus to renounce His heavenly Father.

The period of Lent as a time of fasting, penitence and self-examination was followed early on, in the church’s history. The Church Council of Nicaea in 325 discussed a 40-day period of Lent, but did not get that period codified at that point.

What was a common practice by that time was an extended period for people intending to prepare themselves for baptism on Easter Day. Yes, this did include fasting, penitence and self-examination, along with learning the catechism of the Church.

The rest of the congregation did not take it easy during this 40-day period. They had to fast, be penitent, and examine themselves, too. We still do this today, remembering Jesus and His time of fasting and penitence in the wilderness just before He began His ministry. A time when He renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways.

Renounce. Renounce what? This is a confusing term, for some. But—what gets in the way between us and God? What tempts us to turn from God and the good things God wants for each of us?  What does it mean for us to follow after Jesus, and to renounce the devil?

The first temptation was that of hunger. The devil tempted Jesus with bread. (And, not just physical hunger.) “It is about all of those things that we use in an attempt to fill ourselves up, to satisfy our many hungers. We have a problem with excess.  We eat too much.  We drink too much.  We buy too much.  We spend too much.  We have too much.” [1]

Augustine, that great saint of the Church, said there was a God-shaped hole inside of each of us. We try to fill that empty hole, that void, with all kinds of things. Both physical as well as spiritual.  “And the food and clothes and jewels, all the drugs and alcohol and sex and movies and vacations and entertainment and money and toys in the world, aren’t going to be enough to fill up that empty space inside us.” [2]

The second and third temptations are all about control and power. And, putting God to the test. Do we try to take control of our own lives? Or, how about micro-managing everyone around us? Do you know anyone who willfully, stubbornly goes off on their own, whose theme song is “My Way” by Frank Sinatra? Not following God, not putting themselves into God’s caring, loving hands. Perhaps making bargains with God?

The commentator says this week, “Do we worship our lifestyle? The (fill in your nationality) way? Military power? Economic domination? The rich and the famous? Football or [baseball or hockey or] other sports? The almighty dollar?” [3] What do we need to renounce in order to come back into a close, loving relationship with God?

We can take for our example how Jesus responded to the devil. Three different temptations, and three times Jesus responded with the Word of God.  

Do we remember baptism? Not necessarily our own baptisms, but the more recent baptisms that have happened here. Several months ago, I baptized Claire. Part of the liturgy for that service includes several questions. The pastor says the words “Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of the devil, his works and ways, and to receive the power of new life in Christ?” The parents and the sponsors respond, “We will, with the help of God.”

It doesn’t matter where we are, we have promised, on our behalf or on our children’s, to encourage ourselves or our loved ones to renounce the devil. With the help of God, we will say “No” to the devil. It says so, right here in the service of baptism. That is exactly what Jesus did, at His temptation, and we’re encouraged to say “No,” too!

It can be as simple and straightforward as saying “No” to the tempter, to his works and ways, and saying “Yes” to God. Turning our backs on the tempting things that beckon to us, lure us in, and instead, following after Jesus.

Whether having to do with our bodies, desires, excess, addiction, power, control; in deserts, gardens, the country, cities, mountains—wherever we find ourselves, we need to consider renouncing the devil. Refusing to follow after the devil’s pied piper flute.  Lent is not just giving up chocolate or sweets, or meat on Fridays, but this is a special time to follow Jesus, to examine ourselves, and to learn and practice the works and ways of God.

Whether we are in the wilderness or not, I encourage all of us to follow after Jesus. Say “Yes” to God, and “No” to the devil and the seductive power of evil. And, God will be with us, in the wilderness, on the mountain, in the cities, wherever we are. Thank God! Amen.
[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/first-sunday-in-lent7#preaching

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)