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Author:Rev. A Veldman
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Southern River
 West Kelmscott
Title:Christ's word about fasting points us to our personal relation with God
Text:Matthew 6:16-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Reading: Isa. 58, 1-9a
Mt. 6, 1-18
Text : Mt. 6, 16-18
Ps. 146 : 1,3,5
Ps. 19 : 4
Ps. 22 : 4
Ps. 84 : 3
Ps. 65 : 1,2,3
Ps. 63 : 2,3
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. A Veldman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Last week Sunday morning the subject matter of the sermon was: the task of the church in a secular society. We focussed on a passage taken from Christ's Sermon on the Mount in which He calls the church 'the salt of the earth.' In this sermon I spoke about the salting function the church has in the midst of a corrupt society. A high calling, indeed!

About a year ago I had a discussion about this sermon with a number of young people at a Bible Study Camp. During this discussion it came out that we can be true salt only when there is indeed a willingness to remove all the contaminants which can cause the salt to loose its flavour. In more practical terms - as I said it also in the sermon last week Sunday - we can be true salt only when there is a genuine willingness to remove all impure elements from our life.

Discussing this with these young people I put it to them: how come that on the one hand you have no difficulty in agreeing that these contami-nants must be removed, that this is what the Lord requires > you agree, yet on the other hand oftentimes nothing changes in your life. As young people you keep listening to tapes or CD's you should do away with. In some instances you keep watching movies you should not watch. You keep going to the pub or other worldly establishments to have your social gatherings with worldly friends. And so life goes on as before. Nothing changes. How come? Why is so difficult to change things? Why is it so difficult to bring God's Word also into practice, to be not only hearers but also doers of God's Word?

Of course, this not only applies to our young people. More generally I could put the question: how come that despite all the sermons we hear, often there is so little change. We keep living our life as we see fit.

During the discussion I had with these young people it came out that as long as there is not an inward change of heart, so easily one keeps going living life the same way as before. In other words, if there is not a real living relation with the Lord, not much will change.

The Lord Jesus also makes this clear in the continuation of His Sermon on the Mount. He warns those who listen to Him not to make faith just an outward thing, an act they perform. Says Christ, "Don't be a hypocrite!"

Most of us don't like this word 'hypocrite'. Often we find it a rather harsh word. Yet literally this word refers to someone giving a false appearance. You play an act, like a person in a drama production. Well, that's how at times people also act out their faith, trying to attract the attention. We do things in order to be seen by men.

Yet, beloved, what matters is not what people think about us, but how God sees us. How God sees us, also when there are no people around, when we are in our own room, during our free time in the evening and at night. What we are like when we close the door behind us.

Yes, when we are on our own, when there are no other people around, then it will become evident whether our faith is just an act, or whether we are indeed true genuine believers.

In Matthew 6 we read about the inner room. Does this make faith a pri-vate matter? Surely not! Yet to live by faith, to retain the salt, we also need the inner room. It's there first of all that we strengthen our bond with God. That's also the connection between Matthew 5 and Matthew 6.

In Matthew 5 Christ speaks about the outward side of our life with the LORD, how our life in this world ought to be. Yet continuing His ser-mon, in Matthew 6, Christ also speaks about the inner side of our life with the LORD. As regards the outward side Christ says, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." And also, "Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Yet as regards the inner side Christ says, "Take heed that you do not do your . deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven."

In the continuation of Matthew 6 the Lord Jesus illustrates with three ex-amples, viz., with respect to doing charitable deeds, to prayer, and to fast-ing. In this morning's sermon I would like to focus in particular on the third illustration to this general rule: fasting!

I preach you the Word of God under the following heading,



We will see that when fasting we ought to do this

1) not to receive a reward from men

2) but to strengthen our bond with God

I) The three illustrations given by Christ in Matthew 6, Br. & Sr., are closely linked together. Not only here in this chapter, but also more gen-eral you will find that in Scripture giving alms, prayer, and fasting are of-ten mentioned together. I may refer you to Acts 10, which records the story about the Roman centurion Cornelius, who is visited by the apostle Peter. About this Cornelius we read that he was "a devout man who feared God with his entire household, who gave charitable gifts gener-ously to the people, and prayed to God always." In this example giving charitable gifts and prayer are linked together. In Acts 13 fasting and prayer are linked together. Sending out Saul and Barnabas as missionar-ies, we read about the congregation of Antioch, "Having fasted and prayed, they laid the hands on them and send them away."

For a good understanding of our text this close link between giving alms, prayer, and fasting should not be overlooked. As regards these three, no doubt prayer is the most important. One could even say giving alms and fasting give support to prayer; are an aid to pray more sincerely. Let me try to make this clear.

Praying, beloved, is not an easy task. Perhaps that's not always how we feel it. If nothing else can be done we often say, at least I can pray. I may also refer to the expression that one has to pray and work, which almost seems to say that prayer does not involve work. Yet, beloved, also prayer is work, it takes a lot of energy. By praying one sets his heart on God and His kingdom. Yet because of the business of life at times we may find it hard to concentrate. Prayer takes effort.

If I may mention just one other element, in Scripture praying is called seeking God's face. Pondering on this expression one could ask the ques-tion: but God is there for us anyway, isn't He? In the prophecies of Isaiah we read, "Before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speak-ing, I will hear." Yet, beloved, we should not overlook that this is said from God's perspective. We are to seek the face of God. We have to do so diligently and in earnest. Well, being charitable and fasting can help us in this. How?

I read somewhere, when we give it makes us lighter. And the same ap-plies to fasting. You become less concerned about the things of this world. To set your heart on God's kingdom one should not be hindered by the burden of possession and wealth.

This morning we read Isaiah 58, the chapter in the Bible that deals with fasting. In this chapter the prophet Isaiah turns against the un-spiritual practice of fasting among the Israelites, in the same way as the Lord Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount. The Israelites made quite a show of their fasting: heads down they clothed themselves in sackcloth. They sprinkled ashes and laid on it. But then by the mouth of His prophet Isaiah the LORD addresses these Israelites as follows, vss. 6 & 7, "." With these words the LORD does not condemn all external signs of fast-ing and mourning. But the point is when there is no inner humility, no brokenness of heart all this becomes worthless in the eyes of the LORD. In Isaiah' s day fasting had become merely an outward show among the Israelites, whilst inner humility was lacking. Fasting had backslid into a mere religious ritual. But - says the LORD now by mouth of His prophet - this is no real fasting. The real fast that pleases the LORD is to show justice and mercy.

One may wonder what this has to do with fasting. The point is this, Br. & Sr., the Israelites considered fasting simply as a means to gain the LORD's favour. The outward act of fasting was no longer accompanied by true self-humiliation. Yet the essence of true fasting does not lie in ex-ternals, but in a conversion of heart and life. One must rend his heart and not his garments.

Pointing to this true fasting the prophet Isaiah uses images that refer to being released, to being set free. Oftentimes our life is bound, captivated by many things. Well, the chains of this captivity must be broken. Says Isaiah, vs. 6, we are to loose the bonds of wickedness, we are to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.

A yoke is something that bears heavily on one's shoulders; it presses one down. Well, we are to break this yoke, i.e. we must set ourselves free from everything that prevents us from making our voice heard on high, vs. 4. After all, that's the real purpose of fasting: to lift up your heart to the LORD, to seek His face. Therefore all that prevents us from doing this must be removed from our life.

How now does it become evident that this yoke is no longer pressing us? Says Isaiah, when you share your bread with the hungry and when you bring to your house the poor who are cast out. For this means: you can miss something. Money or earthly goods no longer captivate you. Well, the same applies to fasting. It clears the way to God. And that's what its aim should be, especially when we look at the fact that fasting and prayer are often connected in Scripture.

Going back to our text we see that the Lord Jesus teaches exactly the same. He too stresses that fasting should never be a goal in itself, but it should have as its aim to direct us to the LORD. Thus the Lord Jesus too condemns fasting as a merely outward show, as the hypocrites practised it. They only fasted in order to show men how profound their sense of sin was. To this end they disfigured their faces. They made themselves look repulsive by not washing and anointing themselves, and by sprinkling themselves with ashes. They just made a show of it. It is this fasting that the Lord Jesus condemns. We don't fast to be rewarded by men. Instead the real fast is aimed at to strengthen our bond with God. This brings me to my second thought.

II) Thus far we have mainly focussed on Isaiah 58, an OT passage about fasting. One may wonder whether in the NT era fasting should not be abolished. Isn't so that also with respect to this OT custom one could say - as we confess it in Art. 25 BC - it is one of the ceremonies that have ceased with the coming of Christ. Yet, beloved, a closer look at our text makes clear that the Lord Jesus does not condemn the custom of fast-ing altogether, but only the way in which the hypocrites practised it. Says Christ, vss. 17 & 18, "." This is quite the opposite of what the hypo-crites did. Christ says here more or less: just act normal. You don't have to show the people around you that you are fasting. After all, your fast is not directed to them but to God.

This brings us to the main question, which I would like to address this morning, namely is there still need for fasting and why should we do it? Answering this question I would like to stress once more that in Scripture fasting and prayer belong together.

In our time when it comes to fasting often it is done by way of a volun-tary reduction of consumption for the sake of the environment and under-developed countries. I may refer to a 48 hour famine, 48 aid hours with-out normal food, as our young people sometimes do it to collect money for Community Aid Abroad. Yet this has nothing to do with the scriptural notion of fasting. The scriptural notion of fasting represents coming to re-pentance before God. For a few days or a few hours prayer forgoes food and festivities in order to be completely devoted to humiliation and devo-tions. We use it to strengthen our bond with God.

Here I think back of what we read with the prophet Isaiah. Fasting is a kind of loosening. You make yourself lighter. For what reason? That it may help you in your prayer life. So often we live life to the full, but at times this so easily has a negative effect on our prayer life.

Calvin in his "Institutes of the Christian Religion" writing about fasting makes the following comment, "We certainly experience that after a full meal the mind does not so rise toward God as to be borne along by an earnest and fervent longing for prayer, and perseverance in prayer." I think we all can agree with that. I think here also of a late night party with a lot of alcohol. Coming home after such a party are we still in the right condition to draw near to God in prayer? Fasting means we keep the air clean. It will teach us not set our heart on the things of this world.

It's in this way that fasting can indeed have a positive effect on our rela-tion with the Lord. And then I would like to apply this a bit more gener-ally, namely that we keep our Christian life within bounds. For example, when there is a party, we should show that we differ from the world, by not simply indulging in food and drink, but by keeping it within Christian bounds, so that at the end of the evening we can also thank God for it. Fasting in a more general way can also be applied to the way we use our time, for example. Then at certain times we might switch of the TV or ra-dio to concentrate ourselves on a good book, on the latest Clarion, or simply to have a good discussion within the family. And all this with the aim to strengthen our faith, to strengthen that bond with God, to keep the air clean, so that we are not totally absorbed by the things of the world.

That's then also the link with last week sermon. For only when we live this way we can retain the salt and continue to having a salting function in the midst of the community we live.

During that discussion with young people I mentioned earlier on I put the question: how come that although we know we have to remove all impure elements from our life > how come that often there is so little change. What makes it so difficult to bring God's Word also into practice? The bottom line is: how do we live with the LORD. If we concentrate our-selves more on prayer, there will be a difference. For in prayer we cling to God's promises, to God's promises in Christ, that we have been set free. When seeing more clearly what this means, it becomes less difficult to break with sin. Then overwhelmed by God's amazing grace we will also render thankfulness to God for it. Not in own strength but by power from above. Yes, then by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit changes will take place.

In the Sermon on the Mount Christ holds before us the law of the king-dom of God. When He does so He also explains this law in its full depth. He turns in a very explicit way against a merely outward obedience of God's commandments. Says Christ, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall no commit adultery.' But I say to you, that who-ever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Also, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your ene-mies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you . . ."

It's no wonder that after having explained the commandments of God with such great seriousness, next the Lord Jesus turns to prayer. In fact we see this also in our confessions. For example in the Heidelberg Cate-chism, which after having dealt with the Ten Commandments also turns to prayer. Why? The point is, beloved, that our outward obedience needs an inner motive. Our outward obedience needs to be carried by a close relation to the Lord.

Having read Matthew 5, one could easily sigh: this is too difficult. Who can keep God's commandments so strictly? We all can agree that this how we should live. But we find it too difficult and so nothing changes. Isn't that how if often goes? I can't do that?

Beloved, instead of taking this attitude, should we not rather fold our hands and ask God to help us to make the necessary changes in our life. Yes, obeying God's commandments requires an intense prayer life. So intense that at times we may forego our food to direct ourselves to prayer. Then we hunger and thirst for righteousness, asking the Lord: help me to break with sin. Help me to remove those impure elements from my life. Lord, it's a struggle, every day again, but wilt Thou give me the strength to be firm. Lord, I cling to Thee, to the promise of Thy Spirit by which Thou wilt renew my life.

Such prayer, beloved, will not easily be found by those who live life to the full. That's why in many places Scriptures calls us to be sober. Sobri-ety keeps the air clean.

Does this now mean that we are not allowed to enjoy life? Surely not! In his first letter to Timothy the apostle Paul writes, "For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiv-ing; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer." With these words the apostle Paul rejects the heresy of those who forbade marriage and preached that one should abstain from food. These heretics consid-ered the material world to be evil. Therefore the believer should abstain from it as much as possible. Rejecting this heresy Paul affirms the essen-tial goodness of God's creation. The occasional glass of wine is not wrong. Scripture surely does not forbid us to enjoy life. On the contrary!

But Paul also says, you are allowed to enjoy the good things in creation, as long as it does not hinder your prayer. Well, that's what also the Lord Jesus teaches us in our text, when He links fasting with prayer. The aim of fasting thus is to strengthen our bond with God. Fasting is meant to humble oneself before God. In this way, it becomes a custom that even today should not be written off altogether. At certain times it might in-deed be good to restrain oneself, so that our life with the Lord may flour-ish by it.

Fasting - it's a custom we are not so used to anymore. Yet having heard the Word of God this morning, perhaps we should give it some thought again. After all, beloved, would it not be wonderful if in this way our bond with God indeed would grow stronger.

More generally, our text teaches us Christian sobriety and this across the board. Yes, then the bottom line indeed is: how do we live with the Lord. Last week we heard that we are salt. But, beloved, to remain salt is only possible when also our heart is devoted to the Lord. In turn, this is only possible when we keep the air clean, i.e. that we make sure that the things of this world do not come between us and the Lord. Then we keep life within Christian bounds.

Again, this does not mean that there will be no enjoyment left in life. We may have that party, as long as when we come home we will still be able to bow your knees and thank God for what He gave.

Kneeling - again a custom I'm afraid of we are not so familiar with any-more. A couple kneels in the church when they get married, but what about the rest of life. Drawing a line from our text, where Christ speaks about the custom of fasting as a means to humble ourselves before God, it can be clear that also our bodily posture in the inner room is surely of significance for God. A supplicant kneels. God observes also the prepara-tions for our prayer and our posture. No one sees this. Yet your Father in heaven sees what is done in secret and He will reward.

Beloved, the subject matter of this morning's sermon was that our out-ward obedience of God's law must also be carried by an inner motive. God looks at the heart. Again, let us take the lesson of this morning's sermon to heart and work with it, in order that our life with the Lord may flourish. Always keep the air clean, i.e. make sure that you live life in such a way that your prayers are not be hindered by it.

For, Br. & Sr., it is only by prayer that we receive the strength to remove the impure elements from our life; to remove the contaminants so that the salt does not loose its flavour. Yes, only when in prayer we live close to the LORD that changes can be made, not in own strength but by power from above. Since in prayer we look on high and ask God for the strength we need to break with sin, to live life pleasing to Him.

Beloved, may God grant that in this way changes indeed take place and this for the glory of God and also for the edification of His church here in West Kelmscott.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. A Veldman, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2001, Rev. A Veldman

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