Sermon Text: Matthew 6:16-18
In part 1 of this sermon series, we talked in general about what John Wesley and much of the universal Church call the “means of grace,” practices or disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, Holy Communion, worship, and fasting. As I said last week, in the early days of the Methodist movement, John and Charles Wesley and some of their Oxford classmates began meeting in small groups to practice these disciplines and hold each other accountable. Some of their classmates who didn’t approve of what they perceived as religious fanaticism called them “Methodists” because they took very seriously these methods of living out the Christian life. But “method” isn’t a good word: it’s not about simply employing a technique or following a plan or developing some kind of spiritual skill whereby we can grow closer to God. No, we call them means of grace because it’s about grace, not what we do but what God the Holy Spirit does through these disciplines to transform us into the people God wants us to be.
Today we’re going to focus on fasting, not because it’s the most important spiritual discipline—it’s not—but because it is surely the most misunderstood and the least practiced of all of them. I mean, when I talk next week about reading the Bible as a means of grace, I don’t have to convince most of you, who’ve been going to church for a while, that reading the Bible is a good and useful thing to do if you want to grow in your relationship with God. You already get it. Many of you are in Bible studies and Sunday school; many of you read the Bible already; many of you have taken advanced Bible studies such as Disciple. You come to church and you hear the Bible read and preached. The songs and hymns we sing are based on the Bible.
But sadly we are mostly ignorant about the biblical and historic Christian discipline of fasting. Fasting, in general, means abstaining from food and drinking only water for a certain period of time. For example, John Wesley’s weekly fast corresponded in time to Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion—which means he abstained from food from the end of dinner on Thursday night until 3:00 on Friday afternoon—conveniently, teatime in his day. (Which was good because I’ve read that like me he was addicted caffeine, so he had tea just in time!) For him, that meant skipping two meals—and spending that extra time in prayer, focused on God.
How does that sound? It probably makes many of us a little uncomfortable. In order to even talk about fasting we have to clear up some objections to it right away. First, some people may object that fasting is very unhealthy. Our culture tells us, after all, that we need to eat at least three square meals every day with ample snacking in between or else… or else we’ll die! Or we’ll suffer malnourishment! Or we’ll screw up our metabolism! But of course that’s propaganda. I admit that living as we do in a landscape dotted by fast food and other restaurants, with a cheap and abundant food supply tempting us at every moment to the sin of gluttony, fasting is deeply counter-cultural. But it’s not unhealthy at all for most people. A couple of exceptions: If you have struggled in your life with an eating disorder, you should not abstain from food but practice temporarily abstaining from something else: TV, Facebook, a cell phone, or music, for example. Or if you have certain medical conditions, consult your doctor, if necessary. For what it’s worth, John Wesley fasted at least once a week his entire adult life, and he lived to 87—in the days before modern medicine!
A second possible objection to fasting, which sounds perhaps more pious, is that fasting seems too outwardly focused. Doesn’t it seem like works righteousness—and doesn’t God care much more about what’s in our hearts rather than our bellies? In Wesley’s sermon on today’s text, he cites this as one objection from Christians in his day who said, “Let a Christian fast from sin, and not from food: This is what God requires at his hands.” That’s true in a way, Wesley said, but we fast in order to help us abstain from sin!
Any spiritual discipline—anything we do in an effort to grow closer to God can be abused or misused or corrupted. Any otherwise good spiritual practice can be turned into an occasion for hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Think of that Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who stood in the Temple courts and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”1
In these two verses, the Pharisee turns praying, fasting, and tithing into occasions for exalting himself, rather than exalting God. Self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and legalism are always something we have to be on guard against when we pray, fast, or tithe—but that’s no reason not to pray, fast, or tithe. Fasting is a means to an end, and that end is Jesus. If through fasting or any other spiritual discipline we’re not becoming more Christ-like, then we’re not doing it right!
Satan surely wants to use fasting to turn us into self-righteous, holier-than-thou hypocrites who think we can earn God’s grace, love, and salvation and parade our religion before others. By all means! But you know what our Enemy would want even more? For us to avoid using this means of grace out of fear that we’ll become self-righteous, holier-than-thou hypocrites! And I’m afraid that’s where most Christians are right now when it comes to fasting.
A final possible objection is that fasting is unbiblical—never mind that it was practiced by a Who’s Who of the Bible: among them, Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, and Daniel. In the New Testament, our Lord himself, we know, fasted for 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. You don’t fast that long without having practiced the discipline of fasting! And Paul and the other apostles often fasted. But, we might reason, Jesus never commanded us to fast. And that’s true. But please notice in v. 16, Jesus says, “Whenever you fast…” and, in v. 17, “But when you fast…” Jesus says when you do it, not if you do it. These words of Jesus assume that his disciples will fast. Just as Jesus words about almsgiving and prayer earlier in the chapter assume that his disciples will do those things as well. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, but being a disciple of Jesus means doing it the right way—and by all means doing it!
In his classic contemporary book on the Christian disciplines, Celebration of Discipline, evangelical Quaker author Richard Foster asks, “Why has the giving of money… been unquestionably recognized as an element in Christian devotion and fasting so disputed? Certainly we have as much, if not more, evidence from the Bible for fasting as we have for giving. Perhaps in our affluent society fasting involves a far larger sacrifice than the giving of money.”2
Oddly enough, perhaps the strongest verses in scripture endorsing Christian fasting come from Matthew 9:14-17, except these verses have been turned on their head by some Christians as a way of saying that we shouldn’t fast—exactly opposite what Jesus meant. Some disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus asking why he and his disciples weren’t fasting the way they were. Jesus says, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?”
In other words, when Jesus is with them physically, they are in the presence of God in a special kind of way. It’s like heaven has come down to earth. Just as we will have no need to fast in heaven because we will experience God’s presence in all its fullness, so Jesus’ disciples don’t need to fast when he is physically with them. When Jesus is with them, it’s like a big party—an anticipation of the heavenly banquet on the other side of death and resurrection. But, Jesus continues, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Again, in the absence of Jesus’ physical presence, after his resurrection and ascension, fasting will resume. And we see in scripture that it does. In Acts 13, for example, the disciples and apostles, including Paul and Barnabas, are said to be “worshiping the Lord and fasting.” In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas are shown fasting again. And for the first 16 or 17 centuries of Church history, Christians regularly practiced fasting and were expected to.
So we know that we should be doing it, but why? What does it accomplish?… First a word of warning: We don’t fast in order to get results—we’re certainly not fasting in order to lose weight; we can’t step on some spiritual scale and see how we’re doing! We also don’t fast in order for God to make a deposit in our heavenly bank account. Our sole focus in fasting is always on Jesus, not on what it does for us. But Jesus tells us in today’s scripture that it does do something for us; a spiritual reward is found there: “[Y]our Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
And I think many of us can already imagine the benefits of fasting. Because many of us already practice a kind of fasting during Lent, even though we don’t usually call it by that name. “Giving something up” for Lent is a kind of fast. It’s what Wesley would call “abstinence,” abstaining from something we otherwise desire. Are any of you currently practicing this form of fasting? What are you learning? How is it helping you?
One great benefit of fasting or giving something up, when we couple it with prayer, is that it helps us to hear Jesus speaking to us. One retired Methodist pastor in Orlando said, “There have been times I’d be wrestling with some issue in a church. When I fasted and prayed about it, I felt like I heard an answer from God. God speaks sometimes when you’re open, when you’re listening. Fasting sets the stage for hearing God.”3
A friend on Facebook said, “Fasting puts you in an ‘empty’ place so that you’re ready to receive more from the Lord.”
Another great benefit of fasting or giving something up is that it teaches us to trust—not in material things or in food and drink—but in the One who is the source of every good thing, the One who gives us life at every moment, the One who sustains us with true nourishment. This is what Jesus meant at the end of his long fast in the wilderness, when he could tell Satan, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God is our true Bread of Life. God is the one who knows and provides what we truly need. Another Methodist pastor said, “I’m not skipping a meal because in place of that meal I’m actually dining with God.”4
In John chapter 4—the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well—Jesus and his disciples are physically hungry. The disciples leave Jesus at the well while they go back to town to get some food and bring it back to Jesus. When they return, however, Jesus has had this remarkable conversation with the woman who comes to faith in Jesus and experiences eternal life. The disciples want him to eat something. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”5
That’s the kind of food I need more of. How about you? Fasting teaches us to desire that kind of food. See, God wants us to have the very best in life. God wants us to be truly deep-down happy. Joyful. Contented. But this happiness, this joy, this contentment is not found anywhere else but with God through Christ. It’s what we were created for. God made us to desire only God and the things of God, and this world has a way of distracting our attention from God, getting us off course, tempting us to settle for what is less than God. We confuse our good desire for our Creator with a desire for created things—and this is nothing less than idolatry.
In his sermon on fasting, Wesley said, “We abstain from food”—or from anything that we may deeply desire—“with this view: that, by the grace of God conveyed into our souls through this outward means… we may be enabled to abstain from every passion and temper which is not pleasing in his sight. We refrain from the one, [so] that… we may be able to refrain from the other.” Fasting, giving something up, and the other means of grace teach us to want what God wants for us.
Fasting has a way of weening us off our spiritually harmful desires. So… When we feel that hunger pang… or when we feel that desire for the thing that we are temporarily giving up, we say, “I do not live by bread alone. My life is in God. I do not need this temporal and earthly thing that I so badly want right now. What I really need is God.” This is of course a lesson we need to learn whether we fast or not.
Whether through fasting or some other means, please, Holy Spirit, teach us this lesson.
1. Luke 18:11-12
2. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 54.
3. Kathryn Chavez, “A Time to Fast and Pray,” Interpreter, January-February 2010, 26.
5. John 4:32-33