I preached the following homily this evening at Church Council.
Homily Text: Matthew 9:15
My sermon last Sunday, if you recall, was about witnessing. I made the case, based on Jesus’ call of Matthew in Matthew 9, for the importance and priority of witnessing. I also discussed how, in spite of this, we so often fail to do it. I said: “I’m tempted to say, ‘We need to try harder. We need to work harder. We need to follow this plan, apply these principles, use these techniques to become better witnesses.’”
The problem with saying that is that it won’t work. We don’t need to witness more; we need to fall in love with Jesus more. If only we could, I said, witnessing would take care of itself.
As my family was only too happy to remind me, my sermon was already 32 minutes long. So I didn’t have time to talk about how to fall in love with Jesus. We already know many of the ways: prayer, Bible study, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Christian service—these are what we Methodists call the “means of grace.”
But alongside these is the most neglected means of grace by far.
I’m talking about fasting. I preached on fasting a couple of months ago when I preached on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. But in last Sunday’s scripture it came up again: the disciples of John the Baptist asked why Jesus and his disciples—unlike themselves and the Pharisees—weren’t doing it. And Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”
This is an astonishing statement: The Old Testament is filled with statements comparing God to a bridegroom and husband to his people Israel: in Isaiah 61 and 62, Ezekiel 23, and Hosea 2. Jesus is saying, in a veiled way, that he is God—Immanuel, “God with us,” God in the flesh.
Can you believe it? God was with them, in person. This was worthy of the biggest celebration, the biggest party, imaginable. This was not a time to fast.
But, Jesus said, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” When the bridegroom is taken away…
There are some Christian interpreters who believe that Jesus is referring to his death. The “time of fasting,” therefore, would refer to that period of time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning—about a day and a half. They say that Jesus can’t be referring to us disciples today because Jesus is with us, just as he promised he would be—through the Holy Spirit.
While I believe that Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, he isn’t present to us in the same, full, complete way that he was present to his disciples in the gospels. After all, think of another time in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is talking about a bridegroom: in Matthew 25, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Remember: ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to return. Five have enough oil in their lamps to last through the night. The other five don’t. This is a parable about the Second Coming, not Christ’s death and resurrection. The absent bridegroom is Jesus, and the bridesmaids—who represent us, the church—are waiting for him.
In other words, we are living right now in the period of time when the bridegroom has been taken away—he was taken away when he ascended to heaven. We are currently living during that time, Jesus says, when his followers will fast. In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6, Jesus taught about thee topics: giving money to the poor, praying, and fasting. He said, “When you give money… When you pray… When you fast…” He doesn’t say if. And no Christian would think for a moment that we shouldn’t be generous with money, or we shouldn’t pray. No Christian would say that those activities are optional. Yet when we consider how seldom, if ever, we fast, doesn’t it at least seem like a double standard?
Jesus wants and expects his disciples to fast—including his disciples at Hampton United Methodist Church.
And you might say, “Well, Jesus doesn’t command us to fast.” And that’s true… but does that matter? Do we do things for Jesus because he commands us to? Of course not! We freely choose to love and serve and glorify our Lord. And one way we do that is through fasting.
In Acts 13, Luke describes a worship service at the church in Antioch, which Paul and Barnabas were attending. He writes, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
None of us would doubt for a moment that worship and prayer—which are both mentioned here—are absolutely crucial in the life of a church. But please notice that this great movement of the Holy Spirit occurs not simply through worship and prayer, but also—as Luke tells us twice, as if to underscore it—through fasting.
What if Almighty God is waiting to unleash his power in new and profound ways in his church at Hampton UMC until… until… his people here not only pray, not only worship, but also fast?
Shouldn’t we want to find out?
I need more power in prayer. I want more effectiveness in prayer…
More than anything, however, I need more of Jesus! I need to drink from that living water that Christ gives. I need to be able to say, along with Jesus, “Man does not live by bread alone and mean it!
Ultimately, we are not meant to live off of anything other than God and his Word.
What “bread” other than God’s Word are you living off of? The bread of technology and “screens” and devices? The bread of sports and leisure (he said, as March Madness begins)? The bread of television? The bread of cable news? the bread of business success, academic success, financial success? The bread of money? The bread of romantic relationships or sex? The bread of friendships? None of these things in and of themselves is bad. But none of them can give us what we truly need. None of them can bring us happiness. None of them can bring us joy.
By denying ourselves food through fasting, we are telling our heavenly Father, “God, I need to be nourished by the only bread that can truly sustain me. Teach me that you’re all I need. I confess that I have depended on bread other than the Bread of Heaven for my happiness and joy. Forgive me. I want to change. Give me the power to change! Amen.”
If this prayer expresses your heart, join me in fasting.