“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

Wedding Message for Ami and Bobby; Amos 3:3 and Ephesians 4:1a-4; December 31, 2012; FPC Jesup

Wedding Message for Ami and Bobby
Amos 3:3 and Ephesians 4:1a-4
December 31, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today as we stand here on December the 31st at the wedding of Ami and Bob we are standing on the cusp of new beginnings. All around the world people are counting down to the start of the New Year. When the clock hits midnight fireworks will go off, a crystal ball will drop, and where my parents are at Lake Erie, a walleye will drop. There’s an energy to the start of the New Year: the countdowns, the celebrations.

We are also standing here at the beginning of Ami and Bob’s marriage. Many of you have been counting down to this day with excitement and anticipation. Today their marriage begins! Today they join hearts and names and families! We won’t be dropping a crystal ball or setting off any fireworks, but there is a similar energy: it’s the start of something new!

Tomorrow, when all those partygoers wake up and clean up the confetti and streamers that marked the occasion, what will be different? Sure we’ll change our calendars and start writing 2013 instead of 2012, but most of our day-to-day life will be unaffected.

At first glance it’d be tempting to say that Ami and Bob’s relationship won’t be too affected by this brand new thing that is happening today. They’ve known each other for many years. Over the years they have supported each other through job changes, relocations, and all the day-to-day work of loving one another. In just a short while I will pronounce them married and Ami can start to write Liebsch behind her name instead of Merkle, but what else will change?

Unlike the dropping of the crystal ball in Times Square, the nature of this relationship does not change with flip of a switch, or with the turning of a calendar. It changes through the covenant they make here together today. Today they vow their faithfulness in marriage. They vow to be each other’s spouse, each other’s partner. The nature of this covenant of marriage reminds me of a favorite song of mine: Paul Simon’s “Once Upon a Time There was an Ocean.” The chorus to this song goes,

“Once upon a time there was an ocean but now it’s a mountain range. Something unstoppable set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”

Though their relationship may have the same geography from today into tomorrow, this covenant changes everything.

When we were discussing possible scriptures to lift up in this service as a reflection of this marriage both Ami and Bob were drawn to our passage in Amos, which asks a short simple question

“Do two people walk hand in hand if they aren’t going to the same place?”

This is what the covenant of marriage does, unites their hands, unites their hearts, and allows them to move forward together. The day-to-day nature of this relationship will not be dramatically altered by this covenant today, but the intent of their life together is forever changed. They are bound together by a covenant.

All throughout scripture there is instruction of how we are to live life with one another. In our New Testament passage today we heard a summary of a way that this is done. We read:

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ami and Bob’s relationship has required and will require humility, gentleness, and patience. Each of these things takes work, at some times more than others. It is difficult to be humble when you feel like the other is in the wrong and you are in the right. It is difficult to be gentle when the other has does something that has upset you greatly. And it is difficult to be patient when the other is just not getting what has come quickly to you. But, by focusing on the love in our relationships we are able to do these things. The Holy Spirit unites us in the bond of peace, but that does not mean that it will always be easy. It will take work. As Ami and Bob enter this covenant today they commit themselves to this work, and pledge that they are now taking one another’s hands and walking forward together.

There’s another important covenant that we acknowledge today. God also promised to walk beside us into our lives and sent Jesus Christ to enact that promise. We are not perfect, and often the deeper we get into a relationship, the more we discover the imperfections that take root in each other’s lives. But because Christ offered His perfect life to pay for our sins, through Him we see an example of perfect love. Christ models selfless love and calls us to love each other in this same way. When we love with humility, gentleness, and patience, God is glorified through our relationships.

In this service of worship, we affirm both of these covenants, the covenant of marriage and the covenant of God’s grace for us in this gathered congregation. We promise to uphold Ami and Bob in their marriage, to demonstrate Christ’s love to them, and to enable them to draw closer to God’s desire for their lives and their relationship. They covenant to be faithful to one another, but they are not alone in this promise. As we surround them today with our presence, we and many others who together are the Church surround them with our continued support throughout their lives.

Today, we are on the cusp of a new year and they are on the cusp of a new relationship. Tomorrow as we wake up from the excitement of this New Year and this new relationship we will know that:

“Something unstoppable [was] set into motion, nothing is different, but everything’s changed.”

May we look towards the new things that God is calling us to do in our own relationships. And may we celebrate with Ami and Bob the joy of this new beginning. Amen.