Today’s passage: Matthew 6:16-18
In our journey through Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the last few weeks have focused on Jesus’ warning that we not do our acts of righteousness in order to get human praise. If the good things we do are not done for God, then we shouldn’t expect God to stand in the way of what we really want: the praise of people. But if we do our good deeds in secret – so that they are for God’s eyes alone – we receive a great reward from God. And the natural reward for seeking to grow our relationship with God is a stronger relationship with God, and a closer matching of our lives to His.
In order to make His point clear, Jesus used three examples of “acts of righteousness”, giving to those in need, praying, and fasting. Of the three, I suspect that it is the last – fasting – that we most misunderstand and most shy away from. At the music practice this week, one of the ladies shared that she had never before heard a sermon on fasting. I suspect she’s not alone in this.
To fast from something is, quite simply, to go without it. For Christians, however, fasting is more than just going without something. It is the discipline of saying no to something that is good so that we can say yes to what is better.
Traditionally, the good thing that we forego is food. Food is good. It’s the normal means by which God keeps our bodies ticking over (though certainly not the only way that God can do that!) Perhaps you, or someone you know, has had to have an operation or a blood test where you weren’t allowed to eat in the hours leading up to the test. In such circumstances, one obviously gets hungry. But you don’t eat, because you recognise that what you’re doing it for is of greater value; it could, in fact, save your life. In the same way, to fast is to recognise that our relationship with God is of greater value than anything else, even food.
And if we can say no to something actually good, how much better equipped are we to say no to the temptations of sin and the cravings of our sinful nature. The person who is practiced in saying no to say yes to God is in a far more secure place than the person who has very little experience saying no to what seems good in order to say yes to what is better.
To fast – be that from food or anything else that is good and of value to us, tends to show us what it is that is of ultimate importance to us. As our security and comfort are shorn away, we are forced into confronting the persons that we really are; and having recognised that, we can spend the energy we would have in eating (or whatever it is we’re fasting from) discussing that with our Father.
As with giving to the poor and praying, Jesus assumes that His followers will fast. The temptation, as with anything good, is that we will make a fuss about fasting, so that others will recognise just what incredibly holy people we are. (The irony being, of course, that such fasting for people’s praise is of absolutely zero spiritual value!) God’s people, however, are to fast in secret. If nobody but God ever knows that we’ve been fasting, that’s no bad thing.
The main point of our passage this weekend is simple: our reward from fasting comes from the audience for whom we are fasting. The temptation is to fast for human praise; but the rewards of fasting for God are far superior. To fast for God is to train in godliness, and, from our side, strengthens our relationship with God.
This weekend, we’re asking just what fasting entails. We’ll consider in more detail why fasting in secret, so only God knows, actually is of spiritual value to our lives. We’ll ask just why fasting is something that God’s people should be doing, and explore some practical ideas for how we might actually get started in valuing God more in our lives – not just in theory, but in practice.
My hope is that we will all be encouraged to recognise the value in secret fasting – and to actually undertake it as a regular discipline; both fasting from food and fasting from other good things. I hope that as a result, we will find an increased awareness that God really is more to be valued than the very best this world has to offer.