I read years ago in Europa Times that Mussa Zoabi of Israel at the time claimed to be the oldest person alive. He said he was 160 years old. Guinness Book of World Records didn't print his name, simply because his age couldn't be verified.
Mr. Zoabi was older than most record-keeping systems will go. But here's the interesting thing: However old he really was, Mussa Zoabi knew exactly how he'd managed to live so long. He'd tell the secret to anybody who wanted to know. He said, "Every day I drink a cup of melted butter or olive oil!" Doesn't that sound like a great diet?!
Diets are the rage, aren't they? Everybody's got a special diet. One says his diet can cure cancer. Another promises to reduce your weight, and then to keep those extra pounds off. Already in ancient times there were diets that supposedly turned on the sex hormones and made a person incredibly irresistible!
At one time there was a report from Copenhagen that the Danes had a diet craze on their hands. People were eating horse food! You don't see many sick horses, do you?! Health Department spokesman Haagen Schmidt (not Haagen-Dazs!) said that "especially young women keep on eating hay and raw oats!" And they did it, he said, in spite of a tremendous surge in digestive problems reported by hospitals all over the country!
Diets are the rage in our society. Are you on a diet? Sixty percent of women in North America say they're on a diet! Imagine that! A woman at Weight Watchers said that a new client had begun her diet, came in to be weighed after the first stressful week. Stepped on the scale. Lost a couple of pounds! But the dieter wasn't too happy. She complained.
She said, "My friend comes here to Weight Watchers, and she said she lost ten pounds her first week! She told me I'd lose ten pounds in the first week too! But look at this!"
Well, the leader over at Weight Watchers was a little disturbed. She knew that you don't lose weight overnight. And she tried to comfort the woman by reminding her that the ideal was a slow weight loss. That kind of diet was more likely to produce permanent weight reductions. So she asked the dieter, a little indignantly, "Who told you that? Is she a doctor?!"
The woman shook her head. "Is she a nurse?!"
"No," said the woman.
"Well! Is she a nutritionist, or another Weight Watchers leader?!" Negative again!
"Well who is she?!"
The newcomer said, "I think she's a liar!"
Well, most of you know the truth and the lies about dieting. And so, maybe, you think you know all about the issue Jesus raises for us this morning: Fasting!
Fasting sounds a lot like dieting, doesn't it? At least from the things we've heard. You stop eating for a while, or at least you slow down…. And you do it for a noble cause! (Even if it is just to fit into those slacks again!) In a letter to one of his friends, C.S. Lewis wrote, "Perhaps if we had done more voluntary fasting before, God would not now have to put us on these diets!"
In fact, earlier this century, Bernard Macfadden, who had a wide following in North America, said that everybody should fast now and then, if only for the good health that it brings!
But, I have to tell you this morning, fasting is not dieting! So, even if you're on a diet today, there's something more you can learn about fasting. Stay tuned!
Let me say, while I'm at it, that fasting isn't like the hunger strikes we read about, either. One study I read said that hunger strikes of today are all that's left of fasting, at least in western society. Comedian Dick Gregory used to stage hunger strikes in protest against the Vietnam War. The mayor of Cork, Ireland, died of a hunger strike against English rule in the 1920s. That was the start of something much bigger.
History repeated itself in the 1980s, when Irish political prisoners in Maze Prison, near Belfast, carried on some widely publicized hunger strikes. Several of them died in their protests against England. And maybe you remember the days of the Cold War. Tension heightened in the old Soviet Union. And some of the Jewish people weren't able to get exit visas to travel to Israel. So they went on hunger strikes. The media turned on the spotlight, and the Soviet government was forced to give in. Hunger strikes can be powerful tools for peaceful resistance in our societies. And, especially where they have "religious" motives, they can seem a lot like "fasting." But it's not so. Biblical fasting is something else.
One more thing, before we get into Jesus' teaching. Fasting isn't a form of sacrificing for others, either. And this hits close to home. Remember, back in the '70s, when our denomination began the World Hunger Sunday program? It was a concentrated effort to heighten our awareness of malnutrition around the globe. Every year we designate the first Sunday in November as World Hunger Sunday. The first Sunday in November is roughly halfway between the Thanksgiving celebrations of Canada and the U.S. So, just at the time when we're stuffing ourselves with the fat of the land, our denomination calls us to hold off from food for a while, and to share what we have with those who have little. Remember the challenge? Fast for that Sunday, and then give the cost for your usual meals to hungry folk elsewhere. It's a great idea. I whole-heartedly endorse it. But I have to tell you this: that's not fasting! Even that, good as it is, is not what fasting's about!
I. Why Did People Fast?
So what's Jesus talking about, when He encourages us to fast? In the world of His day, there were three specific reasons why people fasted.
The first was repentance. You fasted because you sinned. You fasted because you did something wrong. You fasted to say to God, "I'm sorry! I'm really sorry!"
I remember how it was, when my older sister first got her driver's license. Suddenly she knew how to drive! And that summer we were going to go on a long trip together, as a family. So the day before we were leaving, Jean asked if she could wash the car. Get it all ready for the travels. It was a nice thought, of course. But all she wanted was a chance to drive the car. So she opens the garage doors.
We're living on this old, old farm, out in the Minnesota countryside. And the garage is really an ancient horse buggy barn. Car barely squeezes in. Mom and Dad had told her so often, "Make sure you check behind you when you back up! Be careful for anyone else who might be there!" (We always had a bunch of little ones running around.)
So Jean gets in the car. She starts it. She steps on the brake, and slips the gear shift into reverse. She turns around and looks back to make sure there's no one behind. She lets off the brake and revs the engine. And as she's looking back, she turns the wheel! SCREEEEEEEECH!!!!!! She proves the laws of physics! Two bodies of matter cannot occupy the same place at the same time! The left front fender is wrapped around the doorjamb on the garage! And I'll never forget what Jean did then! She jumped out of the car, crying and shouting. She was saying, at the top of her voice, "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry! I'll stay home! I won't go on vacation!"
It was a hoot, looking back at it! But you get the point, don't you? If you do something wrong, you want to make amends. And part of making amends might have to do with giving up something significant to you.
And so it is with fasting. Great King David fasted after he did his thing with Bathsheba. David's up on his palace roof one summer's evening. The day's been hot. Catch a breeze as the sun sets. And then he sees her! Beautiful! She's bathing at dusk behind her house! And he likes what he sees! So he arranges to have an affair with her. And he clears her military husband from the picture in a strategic move of battle.
"Send Uriah in on a suicide mission!" he tells Commander Joab.
And next thing you know, Bathsheba's living in his house, pregnant as the day is long!
Hey! He's the king! He can get away with it! It all belongs to him anyway, right?
But kings can stumble. And even great kings can sin greatly. And when God checks in with David, through Nathan the prophet, David collapses in grief:
"What have I done?" he weeps. "How did I get myself into this?! Where did I sell my soul to turn this corner?!"
David fasts. He falls on the floor of his room in prayer and repentance, and he will eat no food till God resolves the matter with him. That's why people fast! Because they know just how deep sin sinks into their lives. And they know that without the struggle of pain in the body, there is sometimes no struggle of agony in the spirit.
And so you read about fasting in the Bible. King Ahab fasts in repentance before God after he and Jezebel steal Naboth's reputation, his life, and his property. The people of Nineveh fast in repentance to God after Jonah shouts his warning through the city streets. And fasting was even built into the regular rhythm of Israel's life as a nation.
There was the annual Day of Atonement. The whole nation fasted and prayed that day. There was a sense that we tend to flit through life too carelessly, without taking stock of the grit of sin that sticks to the soles of our feet, as the writers of Hebrews described it, and the tether of evil that snags our hearts at inopportune moments.
Remember how Abraham Lincoln put it? The year was 1863. The Civil War ripped the nation's belly. And Lincoln said this can't be! What have we become as a nation?! So, he called the people of this great nation together on Thursday, April 30, to spend the entire day in fasting and prayer. This is what Lincoln said in his official proclamation:
It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God: to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow …
The awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins …
Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self- sufficient to feel the necessity, and too proud to pray to the God that made us.
The people of the United States humbled themselves before God in a day of fasting and of prayer. Will you struggle with me in prayer wrestling with God for the good of our nation?!
There's a second reason people fasted in Bible times, and that was to remember. When King Saul and Prince Jonathan died in battle with the Philistines, David, who took up the reigns of power, called the nation of Israel to a day of fasting. Why? Because something tragic had happened. And when something tragic happens, only the careless, the cowardly and the callous are unmoved.
"No man is an island," said John Donne. "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind!"
Daniel fasted when he remembered the destruction of Jerusalem, and the loss of his people's homeland. And in Jesus' day there was an annual fast to remember the holocaust that nearly wiped out the Hebrew race, when the hordes of Babylon swept down from the hills of Ephraim. Fasting showed solidarity. Fasting declared shared involvements. Fasting said, "What happened was tragic, and I will not forget the pain of it!"
We've just had a bit of a fast here, haven't we? Several of the leaders of our community died suddenly, and we didn't know what to do. You can't just carry on with "business as usual" when you hear the news. You have to stop and think. You have to pause and find yourself again. And, out of respect for the dead, you have to set everything else aside for a time. Only the careless and the cowardly and the callous don't. And they're the poorer for it.
There's a third reason people fast. It also starts with the letter "R". Not only to Repent. Not only to Remember. But also to Rivet attention on God. You know how it is. Earlier this week, one of our daughters asked me a question about her homework from school. But I was at the computer at the time, working on a letter. And the television was on, shouting the world news. And our other daughters were busy with a noisy fight. And I suddenly realized that I couldn't concentrate! I had to pause. I had to tune out the other messages. And I had to focus my attention on the one who came to me for help. Sound familiar?!
So it is with our lives before God. Are you ready to worship God right now? Do you have a sense of his presence? Could you lead another person to Christ?! Can you find him for yourself? When Queen Esther had to go to her husband, Persian King Xerxes, to plead for the life of her people, she asked her friends to fast with her. Why? You don't do something like this, taking your life in your hands like water, without getting in tune with the spiritual dimensions of your soul.
Remember Ezra? He's about lead a contingent of Jews across the desert wastes to Jerusalem. They prepare well — all the food for the journey, letters of legal documentation, organization of travel groups… But this is how they finish the preparations — they fast together for several days, riveting their attention on God, whose leading they hope to follow.
Jesus fasted for 40 days before He started His public ministry. Can you imagine that? The very son of God, fasting in order to get in touch with His own Father!
Paul and Barnabas were fasting and praying, and the whole congregation at Antioch with them, in order to find the future directions of the ministry God was calling them to. This Friday evening and Saturday morning the Council Executive and Staff are meeting together. We've been given the mandate by Church Council to help plan the next steps in ministry here. And we're hoping to begin with a meal together. Maybe we should plan a fast, instead!
II. What Does it Mean for Me to Fast?
Let's get real specific now. Do you ever fast? Oh, I know you do, in some way, at least. What's that meal called, first thing in the morning? Breakfast, right? (Maybe, for some of you that first meal's lunch!) But for most of us, the day begins with "breakfast."
Did you ever think about the meaning of that word? Break fast! Breakfast is the meal which breaks our fast of the night time! So we all do fast, at least in one way. We all fast while we sleep at night.
But do you ever fast in other ways? In a purely "religious" way? Sounds a bit corny, doesn't it? Sounds like something out of date and ancient! Why should any of us fast?
When I fast, I declare a religious truth, and that truth is this: I am not merely a consumer. There's something more to me than just my appetites! Now that sounds so easy to say, doesn't it? But in our consumer-oriented society, it has a very tough feel about it.
A few weeks back Brenda helped with one of our daughters' field trips from school. She drove the car for their transportation. And our daughter climbed in with a few of our friends. That car is a bit old — nearly 11 years old. And it's rusted in spots. It's got 150,000 miles on it. It's not as nice as it used to be. Our daughter was embarrassed. She was embarrassed to have her friends riding in her parents "old" car. And we talked about it together as a family. And we could get a new car.
One of our sets of parents wants to help us out a bit right now. So we could get a better vehicle than that one. But what's the point? Shall we get a new car simply because we can?! Shall we buy something we want, merely because we want it? There's nothing wrong with wealth. Certainly not! But the danger of our society is to say that if you can afford something you like, why, you deserve to have it! You need to buy it!
Then comes Jesus, and all He says is this, "When you fast… When you fast…" He reminds us in those words that it takes real effort to keep from being swallowed up by our consumer society. Why are we "consumers"? Isn't it because the strength of our passions is so great? We desire, so we take! We want, and we have the wherewithal to make it happen, so we do! We're hungry, so we eat!
But fasting stops us. Fasting puts the brakes on. Fasting pulls us up short because there is no greater craving of our souls than the hunger for food. Our days are organized around it — our coffee breaks, our lunch breaks, our supper hour and our snacks. Our lives are organized around eating.
And when we fast, when we stop eating for a while, we make a religious statement. We say that there's more to us than just our appetites. There's something left of our wills. There's something bigger about our spirits. We are still masters of our flesh!
When you're addicted to drugs, you can't stop on your own. You need that next fix, that next hit, that next pill. When alcoholism grips you, you'll do anything to get another bottle. Some of you here can testify to that in large stories of horror and truth. But what about the addictions of the soul that society says are okay? What about the fads of fashion and culture that rule our shopping habits, and our eating habits, and our sexual habits?
Can you wear less than you can afford? Can you drive less than you have the means to buy? Can you develop a relationship with someone else without jumping into bed before marriage? Can you do it?
You won't know until you've tested your soul the way fasting tests the hunger of your body. You and I are gripped with powerful diseases of the flesh beyond which we're often willing to admit. And the medicine of fasting is one way to check out just how deep the cancer cuts.
There's a second thing that fasting that fasting can mean to us. And that's this: we fast in order to find the contours of our personalities. Who are you? Do you know? Yes, you are your ambitions. Yes, you are your abilities. Yes, you're even your relationships. You are also your "No!'s" You and I are found, at least in part, in the "No!'s" of our lives.
Chesterton once said it this way, "Art and morality have this in common — they both know where to draw the lines!"
When you know where to draw the lines on the picture, it begins to have beauty and meaning. When you know where to draw the lines on a building, it begins to have definition and purpose. And when you know where to draw the line in your life, you begin to have character. The person who will stop at nothing, will say yes to anything! The man who has no limits also has no identity of his own. He robs it from the victims of his cruelties! The woman who doesn't know how to say "No!" will never be able to say "Yes!" to the things in life that matter most. And the child who isn't taught the boundaries of behavior grows up to be an adult without a conscience.
Yet lines are hard to draw. Character is difficult to fashion. And limits are tough to set, especially when society laughs at the pointlessness of it all! But fasting is a spiritual discipline that takes us back to our roots, that sets us down in the company of the great ones of the past, that teaches us the mastery of God over self, and helps us find our way back home. Do you know who you are?!
Your identity is found, at least in great measure, exactly at the points in your life where you will say no. The Yes of your life falls precisely within the limits of your No. And fasting will test those limits for you.
Back in the 1980s, People magazine interviewed Dolly Parton. She surprised the interviewer at one point. It comes through in the article. The question was, "Where do you ever get such a strong character?" And Dolly told about her family and her Christian faith. "I quote the Bible real good!" she said.
"What about psychiatry?" asked the interviewer. "So many people find the need to get counseling, especially in the stresses of show business."
"No," said Dolly, "I don't see a psychiatrist. I fast instead."
Is that like a diet?!
"No!" said Dolly. "I do it to get in touch with God! Sometimes I'll… fast 7, 14, or 21 days… I don't drink nothing but water and I don't ever say when I'm on a fast — Scripture says you're not supposed to." She went on to say that she's never made a major decision without fasting and prayer. The interviewer was astounded. But the truth of it remains — Jesus expected us to fast. And when we do, we find the contours of our souls. We find the definition of our characters. We find out who we really are before God.
Says the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay:
I drank at every vine. The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine, So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root, I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and the bean To the vinter and the monger;
I will lie down lean With my thirst and my hunger.
She means this: there's a hungering in our souls that food can't fill; there's a thirsting in our spirits that drink can't supply; and sometimes the only way to find out who we really are is to fast. To say "No!" to our appetites and "Yes!" to God.