“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout 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.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 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.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“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.“

Slide05The 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.

Slide06In 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?”

Slide07When 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?”

Slide09In 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.”[1]

Slide14Our 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.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs 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.” [2]

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.’”Slide16

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.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist 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.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly;” Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; February 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly”
Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
February 3, 2013

First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Since Valentine’s Day is coming up next week it may seem fitting that today our New Testament passage today is from the “love chapter” of First Corinthians. This passage is often read at weddings, usually preceded by the rest of the chapter, but today we will be intentionally focusing on the later part of the passage and what it may be saying to us today. This passage is a message about love, but it is more than earthly and relational love. It is about the unimaginably vast love that God has for us. A love that God desires to reveal to us, a love that “now we see in a mirror dimly.”

SLIDE 2 Ancient MirrorThe original intended audience of this text, the community of Christians in Corinth, would’ve understood what was meant by the dimness of a mirror. The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors. However, their mirrors were not like ours, but rather were made of hammered copper or brass. The reflection that they showed could give some idea of shape and form, but not exactly a clear image.

SLIDE 3 - Eye Doctor EquipmentA couple of weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for an eye exam. They used that big machine that goes in front of your eyes, and the doctor clicks through on the different prescription, asking “is this one better?” “or this one?” Each prescription changing my view ever so slightly. One might be a little clearer, one might compress the vision sideways a bit. As I have to make each decision, each preference, I come a little bit closer to what is the right prescription for me, the view I’d like to keep for my next pair of glasses.

This is we’ll be doing in worship this Lent. Though our view of God is as in a dim mirror, we will be discussing various spiritual practices that will hopefully each allow us to see God a little clearer, each one allowing us to focus a little bit differently as we seek to see God through each of them.

Unlike this eye exam we are not looking for one set prescription that will give us the way to see God. Our vision of God will only be entirely clear when we leave this earth and meet God in heaven. So, these different lenses of spiritual practices, this different mirrors reflecting God are all tools that may help to reveal just a bit more about God, help us to see God from a different angle.

Slide04 So, what are spiritual practices then? Just as we refer to doctors as “practicing medicine,” practicing our faith is a similar exercise. We can dig deep into the knowledge of God by encountering God through scripture and through shared experiences of God in history and our lives today. The more we get to know God, the more questions we have, but we also grow in our familiarity and comfort in asking those questions. They also seek to prepare us for the sort of encounter with God that Jeremiah experienced in our text today, enabling the Lord to “put [God’s own] words in [our] mouth[s].”

Slide05Today the nation will watch as the 49ers and the Ravens face off in the Super Bowl. These teams have been training for this one event for months, some of them playing football for their whole entire lives. This one game is the culmination of every other NFL game that has happened this season. Fans all over the country, and even around the world will watch with intensity to see what will happen on that football field.

Can you imagine how very different this game would be today if there was no sort of preparation? If there was no work to come to this point? Perhaps if someone like me decided to walk on the field and play today? I can say with certainty it would not go well for me. Best case scenario I would confuse everyone. Worst case scenario I would get utterly crushed. Nothing in my life has been directed towards becoming a professional football player. I am utterly unsuited for such a game and trying to jump in would be a terrible situation for everyone

SLIDE 6 - Spiritually FitThis is not to say that each of us needs to have professional athlete level of understanding of God in order to “get in the game,” but that we should work to be as spiritually “in shape” as we can be in our own lives, in our own time, so that we may be equipped to do the work of God in this world. God desires to meet us just as we are, just where we are, and to change us through the ways we seek God in our world.

SLIDE 7 - Encountering GodSome of the pieces of this spiritual equipment that we will encounter this Lenten season are: iconography, seeking God’s image in this world; fasting, hungering for God; prayers of petition, crying out to God when we feel hopeless; traveling a labyrinth, encountering God on our journey; prayers of confession, admitting our need for forgiveness; foot washing, encountering others with a servant’s heart; and prayers of praise. Each week we will discuss a different spiritual discipline and each week we will add another lens through which we may seek God.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorEncountering our 1 Corinthians passage with today’s mirrors in mind provides another level of understanding what was intended here. Though our mirrors are much clearer than that of ancient Corinth, mirrors only show us one side of things. Even when we use another mirror to reflect an image behind us, we are still only seeing the surface of things. Mirrors only allow us to see what is tangible, not what is intangible. Trying to encounter an uncontainable God in a two-dimensional way will always lead to disappointment.

Richard Foster, theologian and author of “Celebration of Discipline,” writes this of our need for spiritual practices: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to answer to a hollow world.”

Slide10During Lent, many Christians around the world temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in these various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In our passage in Corinthians, Paul says we will know God even as we are known. That is an exciting thing to think about: that one day we will fully know God, and that right here and now God fully knows us. This knowing of God requires us to “grow up” in our faith, as it says in verse 11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

What does it mean to understand God as an adult? Episcopal pastor, Rev. Robert Wright explains that it has much more to do with an attitude of selflessness than with our age. He writes, “The beginning of understanding comes with listening. A grownup love listens.  It listens to God and it listens to the world.  It hears what is said and what is not said.  It hears with the heart.”SLIDE 13 - Lent Child

This message of calling us into adulthood seems contradictory to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10: 14-15: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We are called to live in this tension: to have the faith of children but seek to understand God as an adult. The faith of a child is one of trust but also one of questions. As we study the different spiritual disciplines throughout this season of Lent, I would encourage you to ask these questions, but also to live firmly in the faith that God is seeking to be present in your life.

May we discover new ways to connect with God, so that we may be spiritually fit to bring others into God’s kingdom. Amen.

Letter for February Newsletter

Grace and Peace to you!

As I write this, the wintery weather is keeping me inside, canceled Jesup schools for the day, and canceled our worship service on Sunday. When it is so cold, so icy, or so foggy outside, we sometimes have to choose safety over community. Though a necessary choice, this weather can be isolating. Add to that the darkness of the short days of winter and it can seem pretty gloomy in this season.

Here in this time of slushy weather, flu season, and darkness, it is no accident that it is also the time that we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day to bring us out of our introspection and melancholy, a day to celebrate love. While every store you walk into is eager to sell you some way to commemorate this holiday of love, as the Church we are able to offer a priceless gift in this season: the gift of God’s grace, which we encounter through Lent. Lent begins the day before Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday. It commemorates the forty days before Easter (Sundays are not counted as part of Lent) and is a time of considering the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This is the ultimate gift of love, which cannot be contained to a Valentine’s Day card, or box of chocolate. Christ’s gift of love was the gift of his life, given selflessly for all of our sins.

Lent has been historically celebrated in Christian traditions through fasting, which is translated into present day by giving up something like chocolate, pop, or junk food. The idea of fasting is to temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In Ephesians 3:16-20 Paul offers a prayer of love that I echo today:

“I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

May you know the love of Christ and share it will all you meet!

Pastor Kathleen Sheets