************ Sermon on Matthew 6:16-18 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 19, 2001
"Fasting: A Hunger for God"
"Don't put on an act." "Don't make a show of being righteous." "Let your righteousness be real." That's the message we have been hearing over and over again in Matthew 6. This, congregation, is what Jesus says to you.
God expects a real righteousness in three different areas. First, you are to be righteous with others. Jesus illustrates a real righteousness with others by giving to the needy; but this giving, He says, is done in secret. Second, you are to be righteous with God. Jesus illustrates a real righteousness with God by spending time with Him in prayer; but, says Jesus. we are not to make a big show out of it. Third, you are to be righteous with yourself. That's what Jesus illustrates to us this evening. We can have a real righteousness with ourselves when we spend time in fasting; but, says Jesus, we are not to let others know about it.
Fasting is only an illustration of Jesus' point. You see, Jesus never commanded fasting, but He did speak of it as an existing custom. The most we can say is that He approved of it, although His disciples did not fast during His stay on earth. Maybe they fasted when He died. Usually it was combined with prayer.
In the history of the church before the Reformation, fasting was required of everyone. The Reformation Churches reacted against this Roman Catholic teaching and practically did away with it. But only in practice, not in theory.
You may not hear much about fasting but in Reformed circles there has always been room for it. The church may not and can not require it of her members, but she may promote it.
I What is Fasting?
A What is fasting? To put it simply, fasting is abstinence from anything legitimate for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. Normally, fasting is an abstinence from food. But remember what young Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar? Daniel and his three friends abstained from the royal food and wine and limited themselves to vegetables and water (Dan 1:8-14). And, Paul tells us that married couples can decide to abstain from sexual relations for a while (1 Cor 7:5).
B Via the Internet I got information on hunger strikes that took place this past week:
In Turkey, several hundred inmates, mostly leftists, are on a hunger strike in protest at new jails with small cells where they say they are subjected to isolation and mistreatment. They survive on sugared or salted water and vitamins. So far the campaign of hunger strikes has claimed the lives of 23 prisoners.
• A Chechen separatist leader has called for new hunger strikes among Chechen refugees in order "to bring the great Muslim victory closer". He hopes the strikes will force Moscow to make concessions at future international negotiations on the Chechen settlement and on a peace treaty.
Iraqi asylum seekers at an Australian detention center are putting pressure on children to take part in a hunger strike. Twenty-two detainees were arrested following a riot. Asylum seekers at the detention center are now involved in a hunger strike in support of those arrested. Many of the Iraqis involved in the riot are despondent about returning to their homeland and are trying to put pressure on the government to remain in Australia.
Can we say that those who go on hunger strikes are fasting?
I need to point out that someone may choose to go without food for a while but that does not mean that person is fasting. The mere non-partaking of food is not fasting any more than the mere moving of lips is prayer. Fasting, in other words, is not the same as a hunger strike. Both are a form of sacrifice; both are done to achieve a purpose; and both can be attention getters! A hunger strike gets man's attention. Fasting, however, draws God's attention. Furthermore, a hunger strike often impairs health or injures the body. Fasting, on the other hand, should never impair health or injure the body – for the Bible forbids that! Normally, therefore, a hunger strike can last for 15-20 days. A fast, on the other hand, normally lasts for as many as three meals or as little as one meal.
C We can also say that fasting is NOT a duty, an obligation. As I said earlier, Jesus never commanded fasting, but He did approve of it. So if we do it, we never do it out of a sense of duty or obligation. It is not something we do because someone tells us to do it. It is something we want to do, freely, of our own will and not out of compulsion or habit. It should be spontaneous, something that arises from our heart.
II Examples of Fasting
A As we examine the Biblical record we see many different instances of fasting. For instance, under the law of Moses, the children of Israel were commanded to fast once a year, and this was binding upon that nation and people forever. From morning until evening on the Day of Atonement no one in the land was allowed to have even a bite of food (Lev 16:29f, 23:27-32; Num 29:7). As the years went by on the Day of Atonement the people abstained not only from food but also from drinking, bathing, anointing themselves with oil or perfume, wearing sandals, or engaging in sexual intercourse.
B We also read of the people of Israel fasting during national emergencies. For instance, when there was battle between Israel and Benjamin, some forty thousand Israelites were cut down on the battlefield.
(Judg 20:26) Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD.When the Moabites, Ammonites, and others combined against Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, in battle, we are told that he
(2Chr 20:3-4) ... inquired of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. (4) The people of Judah came together to seek help from the LORD; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.
I have to mention Nineveh. A reluctant Jonah announced that Nineveh had forty days to repent or it would be destroyed. Remember what happened? The result was nothing short of amazing:
(Jonah 3:5-9) The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (6) When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (7) Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. (8) But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. (9) Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."I am having an awfully hard time trying to imagine this kind of response in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., Ottawa, Paris, London, or Moscow.
C In addition to these examples of public fasting, the Bible also mentions that of many pious individuals. When his child by Bathsheba became sick, we are told that
(2Sam 12:16) David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground.When Nehemiah was informed that the remnant of the people who survived the exile were in "great trouble and disgrace" and that the "wall of Jerusalem (was) broken down, and its gates ... burned with fire" he responded with mourning, fasting, and praying (Neh 1:3-4). When Daniel wanted Israel to be delivered from the Exile he pleaded with God in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes (Dan 9:3).
What was true for the Old Testament saints was also true of those in the New Testament. Anna, for instance, spent much time "fasting and praying" (Lk 2:37). When the church at Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first preaching tour, they did so only after a period of prayer and fasting (Acts 13:3). Indeed, on any important occasion, when faced with any vital decision, the early church always seemed to engage in fasting. Nor can we forget the example of the Lord Jesus. Need I remind you that He fasted for forty days and nights when He was in the wilderness being tempted of the devil?!
III Purpose of Fasting
A Why did God's Old Testament and New Testament people fast? What was their purpose in fasting? And, why should we living today fast? Various reasons or purposes are mentioned in the Bible.
First of all, fasting was one way to identify with the pain and struggles of the poor and suffering. That's why many Christians today fast in connection with world hunger. This connection makes the fasting a more meaningful experience. Nehemiah was that way when he heard about the poverty and suffering of the returning exiles. He responded in prayer and with fasting.
I used to get letters from World Vision about world hunger. More than once they wanted me to urge "my" young people to participate in what they called "a 30 hour famine." During the famine the youth are asked to eat no food: no candy, burgers, pizza, or hot fudge sundaes; no dinner; no breakfast. The money they save is supposed to be used for world hunger.
B Second, fasting comes under the general heading of discipline. Are we able to discipline ourselves to the point where we can say "No" to bodily appetites and desires? Is our God our stomach, and other body parts? Or, is our God the Lord almighty? That's the question. Are we able to control our cravings or do they control us? That's the question. Remember what Jesus said:
(Mt 16:24) "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.Are we able to deny ourselves to the point where we can fast?
C Third, fasting in the Bible was usually combined with prayer. They are almost always linked together, as we see with Anna (Lk 2:37), Paul (Acts 14:23), and the early church (Acts 13:3). What it comes down to is that fasting aids or helps or assists our prayer life. It seems that when the stomach is full, the body and mind are less able to concentrate on spiritual things. As my sermon title puts it, fasting actually expresses a hunger for God. We abstain from food and other things so we can better concentrate on God and the things of God.
D Fourth, fasting is also an expression of sorrow for sin. That was certainly the case with Nineveh, David, and others. Those who sin want to fast as a sign of their repentance. They want to show outwardly the inner sorrow and grief that they feel.
I can't help but think that perhaps our entire country should be fasting because of abortion, stem-cell research, pornography, same-sex marriages, homosexual activity, racist attitudes, and discrimination – to name only a few of the more public sins that afflict our land. As a country we all need to look deep within ourselves and repent. As a country we perhaps should have a national day of fasting and prayer.
Topic: NationAt that time in our history, God and the Bible were given more reverence and recognition than they are today. Many of our country's founders realized they were not blameless, that they too had wrongs to repent of and sins to confess.
Title: Mending the Bell
Many are unaware that the Declaration of Independence did not come into being until a day of fasting and prayer had been observed. Appointed by the Continental Congress, it was kept by all the colonies on May 17, 1776.
E Fifth, fasting is a sign of our unworthiness. It is a sign that we deserve nothing, not even the food we eat, the water we drink, or the air we breathe. On April 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. In this proclamation he said:
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, the many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.
Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
The people of Haggai's days took their food and drink and every other blessing for granted. They discovered too late that this was a mistake. So God forced hunger and want upon them. Like the people of Haggai's days, we too should "Give careful thought to (our) ways" (Hag 1:5). Fasting compels us to do that.
IV The Manner of Fasting
A Finally, let us consider the manner of fasting. What Jesus says comes down to this: Don't be like the Pharisees. Don't be like the Pharisees who made as big a deal about their fasting as they did about their praying and their charity. Remember how the Pharisees practiced charity? They would announce their giving with the blowing of trumpets so everyone would sit up and take notice of their generosity. Remember, too, how the Pharisees engaged in prayer? They made a big show out of not being able to wait to get to the Temple to pray so they would pray on the street corners, aloud, for everyone to hear them and see them. And, when they got to the Temple, they would go forward, in front of everyone, and would pray loud enough for all to hear.
The Pharisees did the same with fasting. They boasted that they fasted twice a week. And, so that all would know they were fasting, they would wear old clothes and wouldn't wash their face or anoint themselves with oil or perfume.
Jesus advice: Don't be like the Pharisees when you fast. Act natural.
B Three times in Matthew 6 Jesus says that those who do their religious acts in public to be praised by men have their reward. In other words, their only reward is the praise of men. However, those who do their acts of piety for God and the sake of God, will someday be rewarded by God.
What it comes down to is this: Fasting is a matter between you and God. If you let others know about it, you have missed the point. Fasting is not for others to know. Fasting is your way of showing God how you hunger for Him, how you want to bring Him glory, how you want to bring all of life under His rule. Then, says Jesus, "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
As I said before, the church cannot tell people that they have to fast. But it can encourage this. So I encourage you, practice fasting as a hungering and a thirsting for God and the things of God.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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