Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.
Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.
“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“
The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.
In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention. The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast. I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.
Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”
In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.
In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”
Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.
There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.
As God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:
“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” 
When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.
As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:
“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”
Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?
When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.
The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.
Christ fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.
In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.