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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Title:When You Fast...
Text:Matthew 6:16-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear                      

Nearer Still Nearer        

Break Thou the Bread of Life          

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Pastor Ted Gray
“When You Fast...”
Matthew 6:16-18
My mother, a godly Protestant, always looked forward to Lent. But her motives were not purely spiritual. She loved pastries, especially the “hot cross buns” that Roman Catholics – at least back in my childhood days – would eat as part of their giving up of other foods; it was a form of fasting during the season of Lent. Every year my mother would rush to the bakery for those hot cross buns. She said, “If this is fasting, let’s fast all year long!”
Fasting for many of us is a somewhat mysterious thing. When we think of fasting we might think of how fasting was done in Biblical times, or we might think about monks in monasteries, or the fasts that Muslims undertake, especially during Ramadan. Or, maybe, we think about hot cross buns.
But as Christians today, should we fast? And what does it mean to fast? Why did people in Biblical times fast so often? There are more references in the Bible to fasting than to baptism. More than 70 references to fasting are found in the Bible. Why did the Israelites, and the Jews of Jesus day, as well as the Apostles, fast so frequently?
There were a number of reasons for fasting. The most crucial fast was the fast on the Day of Atonement. It was the only fast that was specifically commanded by God. In Leviticus chapters 16 and 23 several commands are given for “afflicting” oneself, which is a reference to fasting. Anyone who did not fast on that day was cut off from the rest of the people.
The Day of Atonement was a crucial day because it was looking ahead to the day Jesus would be crucified. Leviticus 16 describes the procedures the high priest had to take before entering the Most Holy Place to sprinkle blood on the Ark of the Covenant. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest selected two goats. One was sacrificed and the other released into the wilderness. The sacrificed goat points us to the propitiation – the covering of our sin which appeases God’s wrath – that we have through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The goat that was released represents our expiation from sin – that since our sin is covered by the precious blood of Christ it is now removed from us as far as the east is from the west, which is an inseparable distance.
Jesus fulfilled all that the Day of Atonement symbolically portrayed. Through faith in Him our sins are covered by His precious blood and separated from us. In their place is His perfect record of righteousness. Since Christ fulfilled what the Day of Atonement anticipated, that specific command to fast has ceased. As William Hendriksen pointed out in his commentary on Matthew, “With the passing of the Day of Atonement, fasting is no longer a religious requirement.”
While the Day of Atonement was the main specific day that every Israelite had to fast, other times of fasting soon sprang up in Israel; both individual and national fasts were held. These were voluntary, that is, they were not commanded specifically by God, yet they were integral to Old Testament life. Zechariah 8:19 mentions four of them in one breath: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.’”
The Day of Atonement focused on the need for repentance and the offering of a sacrifice for forgiveness. Because of that focus, fasting became common at other times of repentance as well. For instance, in 1 Samuel 6 we read how the ark of the covenant was returned to Israel, after the Philistines had captured it. When it was returned, 70 men from Israel looked into the ark, an action forbidden by God. All 70 men died. 20 years passed during which Israel confessed their sin and turned from false gods.  Their repentance was marked by fasting.  1 Samuel 7:6 describes how “When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, ‘We have sinned against the LORD...’”
After the exile of Judah into Babylon, when the remnant returned to rebuild Jerusalem, then Ezra also went back and read the law.  The people were convicted of their sin and we read in Nehemiah 9:1-2: “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.  ...They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.” We find that same connection between the confession of sin and fasting in many other passages as well.
A third time when people frequently fasted in the Old Testament was at times of great sorrow. The book of Judges contains a long list of sad sin-stained accounts of Israel’s rebellious ways. Toward the end of the book we read about the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin. But before that tribe was reduced to a mere 600 men, it first cut down 40,000 Israelites in battle. Immense sorrow spread through Israel, and we read in Judges 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.”
Fasting was also done after Saul took his own life in battle. His corpse was taken by the Philistines, beheaded, and hung on their city wall. Some valiant men from Jabesh Gilead traveled all night to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. 1 Samuel 31:13 describes how “Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” The Bible records many other instances where fasting was done when either an individual, or a whole nation, was in great sorrow. Incidentally, at least two fasts have been declared in the United States, though secular historians who are busy re-writing history, probably don’t care to acknowledge them.
George Washington declared that May 17, 1776, would be a day of prayer and fasting. The day was to be observed as a day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would please Him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the Arms of the United Colonies, and finally, establish the peace and freedom of America, upon a solid and lasting foundation.”
And on April 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer.  In his declaration Lincoln observed: “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.”
In the New Testament we find that fasting was also done to commission people to service. In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas prepared for a missionary journey.  They had been set apart for service in this missionary journey because the people in the church at Antioch had been praying and fasting, seeking the direction of the Lord for their mission outreach. Acts 13:3: “So after they had fasted and prayed they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” 
In Acts 14:23 we read how Paul and Barnabas had appointed elders to work in the churches that had been planted. These elders were commissioned by prayer and fasting. Luke writes: “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them and in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”
A fifth reason for fasting is for concentration in spiritual growth, especially prayer. Thus, we find Ezra, as he is ready to leave Persia for Jerusalem, fasting and praying for the Lord’s guidance and protection. Ezra 8:21-23 “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, ‘The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to Him, but his great anger is against all who forsake Him.’ So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and He answered our prayer.”
Nehemiah 1:4 teaches that same connection between prayer and fasting, and in Luke 2:37 we read about an elderly lady named Anna who spent her time at the temple, fasting and praying. There are many other Biblical references linking fasting and prayer together.
The above five categories are not exhaustive. There were other fasts in addition to these; some were even outside of Israel, such as when Jonah proclaimed the message of repentance in Nineveh.  Jonah 3:5 describes how the Ninevites believed God, and they declared a fast in Nineveh as they repented of their sins.
At these various fasts, the people most frequently abstained from all food from sunrise to sunset (1 Samuel 14:24; 2 Samuel 1:12, 3:35).  However, there were occasions, such as in Esther’s day, when the people fasted for 3 days and 3 nights. There were also fasts of seven days, and supernatural fasts of 40 days without food or water by both Moses and Elijah.  It appears that when Jesus fasted 40 days, He may have drank water, for the accounts say that afterwards He was hungry, but they do not mention thirst.  
There were also fasts where people, such as Daniel and his friends, abstained from some food but not all food, as Daniel convinced the guard to allow him to eat only vegetables, and not the foods from the king.         
Fasting Today
How do we apply all these different aspects of fasting?  Is fasting just an Old Testament practice that still hung on in the first century?  Or is it more of a Roman Catholic practice, something that monks do in monasteries and others do by eating those hot cross buns that my mother liked so well?   
One application: While Jesus does not specifically command us to fast, He does teach that fasting is important for our spiritual life. Did you notice that in Matthew 6:16 Jesus doesn’t say “If you fast” but “When you fast...”?
The reason why fasting from food is helpful to our spiritual growth is because it causes us to focus, not on the physical “bread” that we eat during the course of the day, but instead to focus on Him who is the “Bread of life” (John 6:35).  In effect, what Jesus is challenging us to do is to skip meals for a period of time, and really focus on Him and His Word through prayer.  By not fasting we miss out on a God-ordained way to be drawn closer to our Lord.
However, Jesus also warns in these verses (Matt. 6:16-18), that fasting itself, if not done with pure motives, is both useless and sinful. Just as Jesus taught the importance of our motives for giving (Matt. 6:2-4), and our motives for public prayer (Matt. 6:5-6), so also our motives and attitudes for fasting are crucial. The Pharisees made a show out of fasting, just as they did with their giving to the poor and their prayer life. As Matthew 6:16 points out, they let everyone know just how painful their fast was, putting on the most somber face possible. By contrast, when we fast, we are not to make a show of it, but use it as a means to be drawn closer to the Lord.
Fasting can include not just food, but other activity. 1 Corinthians 7:5, speaking to married couples, mentions a “fast” from the marriage union for concentration in prayer, and then the need to come back together again. While we usually think of fasting just in relation to food, think of what our spiritual growth would be like if we fasted from our time for recreational activity. How much more time would you and I have for Bible-study, prayer, and helping others if we “fasted” from TV, the Internet, and other activities that consume our time? By consciously giving up these activities we would have much more time for prayer, Bible memorization and mediation on Scripture, as well as works of service in God’s kingdom.
The initial “fasting” from such activities may also lead to a lifestyle change as the “fast” from TV, the Internet, or recreation becomes a way of life. “Fasting” from these activities can change our life as we discover that fasting is a great blessing rather than a deprivation. Instead of being consumed by our activities we instead have more time to consume God’s Word and to be faithful in prayer to Him.
For many years, my habit in the morning was to watch the news on TV. I had a cup of coffee, and then a second cup, and before I knew it the first hour of the day was gone. I became convicted that the early morning hour, the best hour of the day, was being wasted. Consequently, I consciously reduced that time, “fasting” from it. The “fast” led to the breaking of a lazy habit. I still scan the news headlines, but then I get on the treadmill. It is there that I read the Bible, pray to the Lord and have a wonderful walk, not just on the treadmill but with the Lord. For me, the most effective “fasting” was giving up that lazy time in the morning. Far from being a deprivation, it has become a great blessing. Although fasting is generally for a set period of time, you may find that fasting leads to a permanent and blessed lifestyle change.
I have to admit that I have tried fasting from food and have not experienced the spiritual results I had hoped for. And that is because of me, not because of the Biblical teaching on fasting.  Since Jesus says, “When you fast,” not “If you fast”, He clearly supports, and even expects, fasting, though it is never specifically commanded by Him. Consequently, I’m going to try to fast again from food. But I won’t let you know when I do, and I sure won’t be looking somber or disfigure my face in the process! And I challenge you to do the same, not only with food but also with the amount of time you spend in other activities, even legitimate ones.
Fasting for many of us is a somewhat mysterious thing. We think of fasting and we might think of the fasts in the Old Testament era, or monks in monasteries, or we think of the fasts that Muslims undertake, especially during Ramadan. Or, maybe, we think about those hot cross buns. But although Jesus doesn’t specifically command us to fast, He certainly doesn’t forbid it. He says, “When you fast...” not “If you fast.”  
What areas in your life and mine should be areas of fasting? Is it withdrawing from meals for a set period of time to spend more time in prayer to the Lord and to meditate on His Word?  Is it fasting a certain amount of recreational time so that more time is spent in service to other people, service in the kingdom of our Lord?
Whatever it may be in your life, keep it between you and the Lord, and Jesus promises that His Father in heaven, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you! Amen. 
                                  - bulletin outline -
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do... But when
you fast put oil on your head and wash your face...” - Matthew 6:16-17
                            “When You Fast...”
                               Matthew 6:16-18
I.  In the biblical record, fasting was done:
      1) On the Day of Atonement, as commanded (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27,29,32)
          and at other scheduled times (Zechariah 8:18)
      2) At times of repentance (1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 9:1-2, Dan. 9:3-5)
      3) At times of great sorrow (Judges 20:26; 1 Sam. 31:13)
      4) To commission people to service (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23)
      5) For concentration in spiritual growth, especially prayer (Ezra
          8:21-23; Nehemiah 1:4; Luke 2:37)
II. Fasting consisted, most frequently, of abstaining from all food from
     sunrise to sunset (1 Samuel 14:24; 2 Samuel 1:12, 3:35)
III. Applications:
      1) While Jesus does not specifically command us to fast, He does
           imply that fasting is beneficial for our spiritual life (16, 17). Fast-
           ing focuses us past physical bread to Him who is the “Bread of
           life” (John 6:35)
      2) As with financial giving (Matt. 6:2) and prayer (Matt. 6:5), our 
           motives and attitude in fasting are crucial (Matt. 6:16-18)
      3) Fasting can include not just food, but other activity (1 Cor. 7:5),
           including recreational activity. How much more time would
           you have for Bible study, prayer, and helping others if you
           systematically “fasted” from TV, the Internet and other legit-
           imate activities that consume your time?  


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2012, Rev. Ted Gray

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