AN APPETITE FOR FASTING
March 15, 2015 by Ken Dale
The first thought I had about today?s spiritual practice of fasting was that I had no experience with it whatsoever. Then as I thought about it being part of youth group 30 hour famines came to mind and I decided I had ? those are an example of ?partial fast? and only fruit juice is consumed. It may me wonder ? how many of us have experience with fasting?
Now was it fasting as a spiritual practice? In ancient Jewish tradition the purpose of fasting was twofold. One was to express personal or national repentance for sin, in humble supplication before God. The second was a way to prepare inwardly to receive the strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service to God. Our gospel lesson this morning of Jesus in the desert for 40 days is an example of that. As we heard Jesus combined prayer and fasting to overcome the temptations to self-sufficiency, to self-display, to power at the price of integrity. All of these would have put Jesus at center stage instead of God. Even Jesus accepted his limits and lived within the normal constraints of human life. Jesus lived out God?s deepest intention for human beings.
In Jesus? time regular fasting was a normal part of Jewish life and that continued in the early Christian Church. It is still practiced in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. We Protestants seemed to have lost the practice forgetting Luther, Calvin, Wesley and Edwards were all strong advocates of it. Marjorie Thompson continues that our suspicions about fasting may simply be a rationale to cover deeper anxieties. We live in a land where food is so abundant (though certainly not for everyone!) that we both glorify it and trivialize it. She says that it is taken for granted as a constant in our lives and the thought of intentionally being without it for a day may threaten some of the unconscious assumptions on which we build our lives. She says that fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions behind them. Food is necessary to life but we have made it more necessary than God. Fasting brings us face to face with how we put the material world ahead of it spiritual Source.
Thompson had a wonderful reflection on Lent ? that season we are currently in the midst of. Lent is the great fast of the church year which we perhaps do not take as seriously as we should. A dear friend always gives up lima beans and liver ? it?s a great laugh but I think it also captures a great truth. Lent in the early church was understood as an opportunity to return to normal human life ? the life of natural communion with God that was lost as captured in the story of Adam and Eve and eating what they were asked not to. According to the story in Eden God gave them every fruit of the garden to eat except one. That one fruit indicated a limit to human freedom. Accepting that limit was the only abstinence required by God. But ? as the story goes ? they gave into the temptation ? they took the bait ? and metaphorically, Adam and Eve ?broke the fast? transgressing the one limit required of them. They reached for the very place of God ? they wanted it all.
On the way home from CA the week before last I watched a movie on the back of the seat in front of me (you can tell I don?t get out much). It was about a space mission to go through a worm hole in the galaxy to find another planet that humanity could inhabit because earth was about to die ? having been all used up ? or something like that. There was one line that really struck me when one of the astronauts said ?Six billion people all trying to have it all.?
It does seem that too many live as if there are no legitimate limits. We may bow temporarily to practical limitations but through the powers of technology and intelligence limits are to be overcome. Is it our ?God-given right? to use every resource and creature on earth for personal gain or enjoyment? The drive is to acquire more, experience more, and stimulate every sense to capacity and beyond? Thompson rightly states, ?A life that recognizes no limits cannot recognize the sovereignty of God. When created things have become an end in themselves instead of a means of divine grace, they can no longer offer real life.? She also makes the point about Lent which comes from the word meaning ?spring.? She says that in the early church Lent represented a time to return to the fast that Adam and Eve broke ? to return to ?a life in which God was once more center and source and the material world was again received as a means of communion with God? ? time to return to authentic life.
Fasting is abstinence from that helps us keep God at the center and we do by doing without to keep a proper perspective. If the ?material world? is used as a means of communion with God our fasting may include food ? but Thompson adds this list: drink, sex, drugs, guns, cars, clothing, energy, gadgets, television, radio, social media, online activity, gossip, fads, ideologies, programs, work and leisure. We need to learn to enjoy God?s gifts so that all those things on the list are to be enjoyed in moderation and gratitude, not as objects of consumption to fill our emotional voids. Think of instances in life when you see in your own life or perhaps in the lives of others how what they are consuming is actually consuming them, what they are in possession of actually possesses them. Self-denial is giving up those things that come between us and God.
But the practice is for a closer relationship with God ? not a way to lose weight, save money or some other motive that we may come up with ? especially to get brownie points with the Holy One. We need to ask ourselves the question ?What do I do in excess?? ?What in my life has control over me?? And then in our practice of giving up ? ?What does God want to accomplish in me through this practice of fasting ? of abstinence??
Spiritual practices such as fasting can open us to God?s presence ? and they can teach us something about ourselves as well ? something God may be pointing out to us that we need to know. If we are willing to go there.
Thompson has some interesting thoughts ? what forms of ?fasting? may be needed in our lives: abstain from constant media stimulation, choosing natural sounds or even silence over incessant television or radio, choosing to check e-mail or social media sites only at chosen intervals, resist the expectation of updating, stop eating overpackaged and overprocessed foods, give up throwing away packaging that could actually be re-used ? just the other day I held up a plastic bag something came in and mentioned to Kathy ?we could reuse this instead of buying plastic bags? ? but then I threw it in the trash. Ever considered abstaining from needless shopping sprees, abstaining from a lack of physical exercise or even from fitness mania, compulsive dieting or compulsive eating, judging others or judging yourself, or the incorrect prejudgments we make in both instances? Do we think about how we over-schedule ourselves and/or our children?
Thompson concludes that fasting is not primarily a ?discipline through which I gain greater control over my life but one through which God gains access to redirect and heal me in body, mind and spirit?
For many years I have know the truth that no one needs to hear the sermon more than the preacher who is delivering it. So I conclude by saying that I sincerely hope and pray that this message has challenged you as much as it has challenged me.
So may it be ? for us each and for us all —?? Amen!
Contents of this sermon are from Marjorie Thompson?s book SOUL FEAST.