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The Humbling Element of Fasting

Well, this week our church did something a little bit unusual – something that has never done in this church before. In fact, as far as I can remember, I’ve never been part of a church that did anything like this. But on Wednesday over the lunch hour, together as a church family, we fasted. Instead of eating our normal Wednesday lunch, we instead, spent that time fasting and  praying for our community. Which was really pretty cool, and if you didn’t get a chance to join us this time, I’m sure we’re going to be doing this again… But for those of you are just joining us today, let me give you some quick background to all this.

Over the past couple of months we have been looking at the spiritual disciplines – or the healthy habits of Christians that help us draw near to God and that help us grow deeper in our relationship with Him. They change our understanding of who God is and how He’s working in our world.

We looked first of all, at how we can see glimpses of God in Creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere around us – in the vastness of the galaxies or the complexity of our DNA or in the wonder of a baby being born or simply in the beauty of a sunset. We see the evidence of God everywhere.

But of course, while the heaven’s do declare the glory of God, His creation doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about what He has done. That’s why God has given us His Word – the Bible. And so we spent several weeks looking at how we know that the Bible really is God’s Word and how reading and understanding it changes us as we learn more about who God really is and what He’s really like.

And while God communicates to us primarily through His Word, He has given us the ability to communicate with Him primarily through prayer. And so we spend a few weeks looking at why would should pray. Why pray to a God who already knows everything we need and who has already promised to provide it? We saw how prayer is an invitation for God to be active and involved and sovereign in our lives. It’s actually an act of worship when we pray.

And then most recently, for the last two Sundays, we’ve been talking about fasting. And fasting isn’t nearly as common-place these days as prayer or Bible reading – although I think it should be because it is an excellent way for us to draw close to God.  Fasting is a way for us to focus on the most important things in life – not just the urgent things in life. When we give up food for a certain amount of time, to instead focus on God and our relationship with Him, our hunger reminds us how desperate we are for Him – and how much we depend on Him every moment of every day. It also reminds us that this life here and now is not all there is! We are looking forward to the day when this life is over and we can see Jesus face-to-face and can spend the rest of eternity with Him – feasting and celebrating and being fully satisfied for the rest of all time! Fasting is such a good reminder of that.

And so that’s why on Wednesday, we decided to fast together as a church. I know that many Christians have never fasted before. It’s a relatively new practice for me as well. And so this was really an experiment in fasting and I hope you’ll continue to experiment with it!

Now today I want us to look at one more aspect of prayer and fasting. And by no means, have we covered it all! The more I learn about fasting, the more I realize how little I know. So far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at how fasting impacts us – how it changes our perspectives and reminds of things that we are usually quick to forget. But today I want to focus on how fasting impacts our prayers.

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Fasting with Eternity in Mind

I hope that our brief introduction to fasting last week left you hungry for more – in both senses of the word. I hope that you’re hungry to learn more about fasting and I hope that you’re hungry because you actually tried fasting. And if you did, I’d sure be interested in hearing about your experience.

Now, I know we read that verse last week about how we aren’t supposed to make a big show about our fasting – we’re not to try to look miserable and disheveled so people can tell that we’re fasting. Fasting is supposed to be something just between you and God. But that’s not to say we should never talk about our experiences in fasting.

Jesus is just telling us not to fast with the wrong motives. We’re not supposed to fast just to try to appear righteous to everyone else around us. We need to do it for the proper motives. But He’s not saying to never talk about it. And maybe that’s why fasting is so foreign to us – because the handful of Christians who do fast, never talk about it.

So if you’ve tried fasting before – even if it was just once – I’d love to hear about it! I think it would be awesome to see fasting once again become a normal, expected part of the Christian life (much like Bible reading and prayer). And to not see it just some foreign, strange ritual they did back in Bible times.

Because fasting is such a healthy habit! We talked last week about how fasting reminds us how desperate we are for God. The hunger we feel in the pit of our stomach when we fast is a physical reminder of a spiritual reality. Our body’s physical dependance on food reminds us of our spirit’s dependance on God. Like Jesus says in John 6:35…

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

Jesus is saying that apart from God we have no life. He is the source of life. He gives us everything we need to live abundantly and eternally. We are absolutely dependant on Him. And fasting is a great way to remind ourselves of that.

And that’s just one of the benefits of fasting! That’s probably a good enough reason in itself, but today I want to dig a little deeper and point out even more reasons why fasting is such a healthy habit. There are several reasons I think, why this spiritual discipline has been practiced by the men and women of God for centuries.

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An Introduction to Fasting

I want to begin today with a clarification:

Christianity is all about our relationship with God. It’s not about following the all rules in the Bible or becoming a better person or going through certain rituals or ceremonies. We may do all those things, but don’t confuse the cause for the effect. All those things we do (like going to church, obeying the Bible, even taking communion or being baptized – those are all the effect – not the cause.

We do those things in response to God’s incredible love for us. We can never cause God to love us. There is nothing we can do to earn his favor or His acceptance. There’s nothing we can do to deserve forgiveness or the promise of eternal life. But yet we have all those things because of God’s incredible love for us.

  • So when I read the Bible, it’s not because I’m trying to earn God’s approval by doing that. It’s because I want to know more about this God who created me and who loves me – I want to know who He is and what He’s like.
  • When I take time out of my day to pray, it’s not because my prayers somehow give me better standing with God. I pray because God is my heavenly Father who cares about me. I want to tell him about my victories and my failures and my struggles. I want to cry out to him for help. I want to thank Him for his goodness. I pray because I know my heaven Father loves me.
  • Even in things like communion or baptism. Those things don’t change our standing with God. I’ve been baptized because I want to make a public declaration that Jesus loves me. He died and rose again for me. And because of that, I’m committing to follow Him for the rest of my life. That’s why I’ve been baptized.

In all of the things that we do as Christians, God’s love is the cause – all of our actions are the effect.

And that’s so important to remember as we talk about these spiritual disciplines.

We’ve spent the last several weeks talking about the Healthy Habits of Christians. These are the things Christians have done over the centuries – not because they earn us salvation or God’s love or God’s approval or anything. We do these things in response to God’s incredible love for us. This is how we get to know Him and trust Him more.

And so far, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about just two of most common spiritual disciplines. We started by looking at reading and studying God’s Word and then after that, we spent some time talking about prayer. I think almost every Christian today would say that they’ve practiced those two disciplines at least a little bit. It’s probably pretty tough say that you’re following Jesus if you’ve never talked to Him and you’ve never read His Word.

But today, we’re going to talk about a spiritual discipline – or a healthy habit – that probably most Christians have never practiced. Which is a real shame, because this healthy habit is an incredibly effective tool in helping us draw near to God.

Which is, of course, the point of all these spiritual disciplines. They help us draw close to God. That’s what the Scriptures do. That’s what praying does. That’s what all these healthy habits do – they help us draw near to God – to know Him and to grow deeper in our relationship with Him. And that’s what our next healthy habit helps us do as well. So hopefully, by the end of the message today, in addition to your Bible and prayer, you’ll have another tool at your disposal to help you grow deeper in your relationship with God.

The healthy habit that I want to talk about today is the habit of fasting. And like I said before, probably most Christians today have never practiced this spiritual discipline. Fasting is just not something we North American Christians have had much experience with. But when you look over the scope of history – we are the odd ones out. Fasting has been practiced since the time of Moses.

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The Purpose of the Disciplines

Healthy HabitsAs I grow older old, I’ve noticed that being healthy and fit is not my default state. If left alone, that’s not where I naturally end up. When I look back over my last 15 years, I can see my tendency to slide towards being unhealthy and unfit.

Of course, in my younger days, it certainly seemed like health and fitness was the default. When I was in my 20s, it didn’t seem to matter what I ate or didn’t eat. I didn’t have to go to the gym or really, pay any attention to my health or fitness. It seemed I was just naturally in pretty good shape.

But now, as the years have passed, I increasingly find that that is not the case! I can no longer do all those things that I once did. I can’t eat whatever I want without consequence. When I’m doing physical activity, I get tired quicker. My energy runs out sooner than I’d like. My body complains loudly after I do some of those strenuous activities. 

I used to spend a lot of time at camp and back then I had just as much endurance and energy as any of the kids. Of course, I was never the most athletic guy – I’ve never been super muscular or particularly skills at sports. But I certainly wasn’t out of shape. I loved the wide games at camp. I could run pretty quick, so I loved capture the flag or prisoner’s base or all those running games.

Well, I played floor hockey over at the Innisfail Baptist Church a few weeks ago – and after an hour of running around, (and certainly not at the intensity that I used to) I was pretty exhausted. And the next day, man, I was feeling it! 15 years ago, I could have done that with no problem. But not anymore.

And its not just a matter of getting older though… The guy in charge of the floor hockey was at least 10 years older than me and he was still quicker at the end of the night than most of the young guys! So it’s not simply an issue of age – it’s a matter of health and fitness.

So over this past year in particular, I’ve noticed more and more that being healthy and fit is not my default state. Unless I do something to stop this downward progression, I will increasingly grow less healthy and less fit. My energy levels will continue to drop.  My ability to run or play games with my kids or go for hikes or all those things – I’ll be less and less able to do those things. And that’s certainly a concern for me.

We just helped move my Grandma – who is 94 year old now – into a senior’s home just a few weeks ago. She has certainly slowed down, but for a 94 year old, she done a pretty good job over her lifetime of keeping healthy and fit. I hope when I’m 94 years old, I’m as healthy and fit as she is.

I was out for a walk a couple weeks ago and I stopped to chat with my neighbour who was out edging his lawn. He was mostly done by the time I came by – he had edged up and down the sidewalk in front of his house and had done most of the walkway up to his door. There was quite pile of sod that he had trimmed up – and as we were chatting, he told me that he was cerebrating his 80th birthday that week. Man! I hope when I’m 80 years old, that I’m healthy and fit enough to still do as much work as what he was doing.

But I’ll tell ya, if I don’t intentionally do something to change my natural direction, I won’t be. I’ve got to intentionally work at staying healthy. If I don’t want to be shuffling around with my walker when I’m 60, then I’ve got to start working at being healthy and fit today. If I still want to be able to play and run with my grandkids or my great grandkids when I’m 70, then I need to start working at it now.

And it does take work – that’s for sure. Recently, I’ve been experimenting – trying to find the best way for me to stay healthy and fit. And so there’s two specific things that I’ve been trying. One of them is just trying to eat a little more healthy. I found an app that I like for my phone that tracks what I eat. I find that just seeing how much I eat in a day helps me refrain from over-doing it on snacks and second helpings and such. But it’s hard… There are a lot of good things to eat in this world, so it’s work for me to exercise that self-discipline and make sure I don’t over do it.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do is just to exercise more. As a pastor, much of my day is spent sitting and having coffee with folks or reading and studying or working on my sermon in front of my computer. There’s not a lot of physical activity required. So I’ve had to make a particular effort to be more active in my recreation time. In the summer time, that meant lots of family bike rides or going for a walk around the block. Sometime when I can, I try to walk to the church instead of driving there. But again, it all takes work. It’s much easier to drive across town than to walk – but if I want the benefit of being healthy and fit – especially in my later years, then I’ve got to put the work in today and make the sacrifices today so that I can enjoy that later.

And I tell you all this this morning because I’ve found that my spiritual health and fitness works very much the same way. Just like how everyone wants to be physically fit and healthy, as Christians, I think we also want to be spiritual fit and healthy.

We want to enjoy a close relationship with God. We want to continually make right choices and honour God with how we live our lives. We want to be like those great heroes of the faith that we admire so much. We want to do our part in helping others come to know and love Jesus. We want to experience the full and abundant life that God has promised us.

But unfortunately, spiritual health and fitness isn’t our default state either. As people born with a sinful nature, our natural inclination is away from God – not towards him. And just like how, without intentional effort, we tend to grow physically unhealthy and out of shape, likewise, without intentional effort, we tend to grow spiritually unhealthy and out of shape.

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