Why don’t we fast?

Should you fast?

If you’re a Christian who doesn’t have a health problem that prevents it, you should.

The Scriptures are clear.

In Matthew 9:14-15 Jesus says that His disciples would fast when He was taken from them, and we live in that time now—the time between when He left and when He returns.

We don’t fast for one of three reasons:

1. We like to eat too much.
2. We associate it with some kind of mystical self-flagellation of the Middle Ages.
3. We didn’t really know the Scriptures taught it.

The first excuse is only more evidence why we should, and the second is an abuse of a good thing that has nothing to do with our properly practicing it. The third shouldn’t prevent our obedience once we’ve learned better.

In the middle of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses three discipleship practices: giving, praying, and fasting. Notice how He begins His discussion of each one:

“Thus, when you give to the needy, . . . “ (Matthew 6:2).

“And when you pray, . . .” (Matthew 6:5).

“And when you fast, . . .” (Matthew 6:16).

You’ve probably heard many sermons on giving and praying, but not many—if any—on fasting.

Yet Jesus implies that it’s one of the things disciples do—they fast. He doesn’t even argue for its importance; He assumes His hearers already understood that.

Besides the fact that Jesus expects it, here’s what it’ll do for you:

It will bring you closer to God.

When fasting is mentioned in Scripture, it’s often associated with worship:

Luke wrote that the prophetess Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). When the church was preparing for the first missionary journey, “they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2), and this is when the Holy Spirit led them to send Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel to the world.

We’ve got to be careful.

We live in an indulgent society. Have you seen the soft drink commercial with “And” as its theme?

The commercial’s character always wants more. . . . if you’re going to offer me something, there’d better be something more. And . . . is that all you’ve got? And . . . what else can you do for me? And. And. And.

Sometimes we need to step away from all the excess of our society.

Too many gadgets. Too much stuff. Too many distractions. Too much food.

Too much And.

We can open up a clearer line of communication with God by engaging in self-denial.

We can fast so that our attention may be more intently focused God-ward, which is something we all desperately need.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss more about how.

Fasting? Who, me?

For many of us fasting means that interminable span of time from the end of breakfast to the beginning of lunch, that horrible stretch of 3 or more hours in which we eat nothing, or at least nothing more than a snack or two. It would be unthinkable for us to refrain from eating for any longer than a few hours, at least by choice, right?

That’s the mind-set of many of us who live in a culture with a restaurant on every corner and tasty snacks in every breakroom and convenience store.

Unless you’re allergic to food, why avoid it?

If you don’t need to lose weight, why would anyone ever skip a meal?

There might be some good reasons.

In fact, there might be some reasons that will lead you actually to do it.

Jesus, for example, seems keenly interested in your diet.

Not so much in your carbs or cholesterol or trans-fats.

He seems to be more concerned with your taking time to eat nothing at all.

Here’s one thing He said about it:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matthew 9:14-15).

His point is simple: His disciples would fast when He’s taken away from them.

And you’ve probably noticed that Jesus has been taken away from us.

The conclusion is unavoidable.

Shouldn’t we be fasting?

Have you?

Have you considered it?

We don’t talk about it much, and we preachers don’t address it often.

Is it because we don’t like the thought of denying ourselves something we love? Could it be that we’re too committed to satisfying our appetites?

In a culture that worships at the steps of the Golden Arches and swarms the local all-you-can-eat-buffets, we Christians might’ve been influenced more than we’d like to admit.

We’ll think more about it this week, but for today, just ask God to open your heart about fasting. Ask Him if this is something you’ve neglected, and ask Him to help you see why you’ve neglected it.

Parties for prostitutes

Tony Campolo tells a story about something that happened when he was in Hawaii for a speaking appointment. Late one night he couldn’t sleep, so he went to a local diner at 3:00 in the morning.

While there, a big group of loud, rambunctious prostitutes came in. He overhead one girl telling another that her birthday was the next day. “What do you want us to do—throw you a party?” said the other girl, mocking her.

Campolo started thinking, and after the girls left the diner he told the owner he had an idea. The next night, before the girls came to the diner, he and the owner decorated the place, baked a cake, and waited for the girls.

They brought the cake out and shouted “Surprise!”, then sang “Happy Birthday” to the girl.

She was completely blown away, then started to cry. She said she’d never had a birthday party in her whole life.

They told her to make a wish and blow out the candles and cut the cake.

She asked if it would be okay if she didn’t cut it. Can I just keep it whole like it is a little longer? Sure, the owner said, it’s yours—you can take it home with you if you like.

After it calmed down a bit Campolo asked everyone if it would be okay if he led a prayer.

So he led all the prostitutes in prayer. He prayed for the birthday girl, as well as the others. He prayed that God would protect them and save them.

When Campolo finished, the owner of the diner leaned over and said, “I didn’t know you were a preacher. What kind of a church do you belong to?”

Campolo thought for a minute.

“I belong to a church that throws parties for prostitutes at 3:00 in the morning.”

“If there were such a place, I’d join that church,” the owner said.

Is there such a place?

Maybe that church description isn’t too bad at all.

Jesus loved parties, but the people who attended them weren’t comfortable rubbing elbows with polite society. He tells this story:

A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet’” (Luke 14:16-24).

He’s talking about the church, of course.

One of the reasons many of the religious elite hated Jesus was that He associated with the untouchables, the outcasts.

He invited them to His parties. He talked to them in the marketplace. He ate and drank with them, touched them, healed them.

He broke all sorts of social conventions because of how He treated the marginalized of His world.

It was almost as if He treated them as equals, as if He loved them and accepted them and saved them.

Which He did, of course. Not in their sin, but from it.

He let one girl from the red-light district kiss His feet and wipe them with her hair at Simon’s house.

Maybe Campolo got his idea from Jesus.

The Lord also seemed to like to throw parties for prostitutes.

Maybe he didn’t really mean it?

Some of God’s commands don’t really matter, and it’s okay if we disobey them.

On the other hand, breaking the big ones will get you a fast pass to a bad place, so it’s wise to tread lightly here.

Murder, child molestation, rape, violence, . . . God reallyhates those things. They’re the first-degree felonies of God’s judicial system.

And then there are some things that God doesn’t like, but maybe He likes them a little better than the really bad things. Mild violence, occasional dishonesty, impatience, unkindness, traffic violations, not liking cute puppies, etc. God frowns at these sins, but He’s more likely to look the other way. I guess these are the misdemeanors.

And finally there are the things God said but didn’t really mean. They’re sorta like suggestions . . . we can choose to follow them or not, depending on our own personal preferences.

Are you with me so far?

No?

You don’t agree with any of that, and neither do I, but I fear that we think like that more often than we’d like to admit.

This week we’ve been emphasizing the need for joy in the Christian’s life, and God’s urging us to be joyful in every situation is one of those commands we like to pretend isn’t there.

Have you noticed any of these verses lately?

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4).

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer (Romans 12:12).

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (Acts 5:40-41).

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

Maybe I’m misreading my Bible, but I keep getting the unmistakable impression that God expects us to live joyful, triumphant lives. In other words, he wants us to be optimistic, happy, and content.

And the thing is, he never connects these things with everything going the way we want it. He never says, Be happy when the stock market’s up, you feel good, and the kids aren’t threatening each other.

Instead, he says to rejoice no matter what.

On many days that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow, but is that a legitimate excuse to ignore it?

God’s attitude seems to be: we serve a risen, victorious Savior, and one day He’s going to fix this big old mess we call Earth. Until that happens, we need to be excited about what He’s doing and spread His joy to as many people as possible.

Best I can tell, if God’s got categories at all, He puts this one in the box labeled “Very Important.”

Going to a party with Jesus

For some reason the word “party” often carries negative connotations.

If a guy is described as someone “who likes to party,” we usually don’t think of lazy lawn get-togethers with cake, ice cream, and clowns.

If we hear about a girl who’s “the partying type,” again, church socials don’t first come to mind.

Why is that?

God talks a lot about parties. Big parties. Good parties.

Here’s one of them:

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:1-14).

Admittedly, that story has a few unexpected turns, especially the string of executions, and I’ve yet to see the first execution at any party I’ve attended.

But don’t miss the point: God’s kingdom comes to us in the reign of Jesus Christ, and He’s invited all of us to come to the great celebration.

Why would anyone miss it?

In Jesus’ story, one guy missed the feast because he had to work on his farm, another needed to attend to his business, and the others just didn’t want to come.

People sometimes have mistaken notions about what it means to come to Christ. It’s almost like they think He’s inviting them to a bland, lifeless existence, or perhaps an inquisition, or maybe even worse.

Instead, Jesus wants you to come to the greatest party ever thrown. It’s a wedding banquet, celebrating His marriage to His beloved bride.

Near the end of the Bible John writes, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” (Revelation 19:7-8).

Because we’re part of God’s family, we get to participate in this beautiful marriage.

You’ve probably been to some pretty cool parties in your life, but they can’t hold a candle to this one.

At the banquet table you’ll sit down with God’s people and enjoy intimate fellowship that we only dream of now. You’ll live eternally in the presence of God and His angels and friends and loved ones.

It’s sad to hear about the earthy, licentious parties that unbelievers attend here. They have no idea that God has one so much better for them if they’ll only respond to Him.

He’s already sent out the invitations. I hope you’ll come. It’ll be the party to end all parties.

See you there.

Just go ahead and enjoy life. It’s okay.

Some Christians have a hyperactive conscience. They wake up feeling guilty and go to bed feeling even guiltier.

At some point in the day they start to relax, which reminds them that they probably shouldn’t, so they return to the guilt.

It’s not a great way to live.

Are you one of these people?

If so, you need to listen to that inner voice, because it’s saying something you need to hear. After all, God created the conscience with an important purpose, right?

It could be telling you that you’re neglecting an important part of your life, or that you’re rebelling against God.

But your conscience might also be lying to you. It could’ve been misinformed about what Christianity is. Somewhere along the way, it became convinced that walking with Christ means being miserable.

Fun? That’s for those terrible heathens, people who don’t know Jesus.

Enjoying life’s pleasures? Maybe a little, but only occasionally, and not too much lest you become one of those terrible heathens.

I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for guilt and self-examination, and I think we ought to be sober-minded. I don’t think we ought to act as if this world isn’t messed up in so many ways.

But Christians ought to be the happiest people on the planet. Who has more to be excited about?

Here’s an obscure passage that says something about God’s desire for joy in our hearts:

You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household (Deuteronomy 14:22-26).

That’s Bible-speak for God’s commanding us to go out and enjoy life.

Has God blessed you? Enjoy it.

Delight in a rainbow. Marvel at the frost on the grass. Listen to the rain and thunder and wind.

Relax with your hobby or have fun with your kids. Go hunting or fishing or shopping. Listen to music or watch a movie.

And don’t feel one shred of guilt.

Since when did Satan get a monopoly on fun?

God is the One who created both pleasures and the people who enjoy them.

Open my eyes that I may see

Ever feel outnumbered?

Perhaps you’re surrounded at work by people who care nothing for matters of faith, and they do little to hide their disdain for your convictions.

Or your struggles come at school where your peers think your Christianity is absurdly antiquated.

If we were predicting the outcome of good versus evil based strictly on numbers, it would be Satan in a landslide. CNN would call the race early on this one.

But we’re not seeing anything even close to the whole picture.

An Old Testament story about one of God’s prophets gives us a better perspective.

The king of Syria, Israel’s enemy, couldn’t understand how the king of Israel always knew where he was setting his traps. He finally figured out it was Elisha, and when he found out where the prophet was, he surrounded the city with his huge army at night and waited for dawn.

Here’s the good part:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).

I wish I could’ve seen the servant’s face when Elisha told him not to worry. “No big deal,” the prophet said. “We’ve got more than they do.”

Elisha’s servant probably thought Elisha was losing his grip on reality. “Um, Master, you know there are just 2 of us, right? And they’ve got a pretty big army out there, horses, chariots, real weapons. You and I really have no hope.”

Then, after Elisha prays, the servant’s eyes are opened, and he sees that the mountain is full of God’s army.

Looked at with mere human eyes, it was a mismatch. Syria wins every time.

From God’s perspective, though, it looked completely different. Game over, God wins.

I love what we learn here: God’s army fights for us.

Maybe you’re the only one in your family who walks with Christ, or perhaps your enemy is a suspicious MRI or pathology report. You feel outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered.

I hope God will help you see His army on the mountainside. I hope he helps you see what most people can’t: it really doesn’t matter how many chariots the enemy has. God will win, and the only question is whether we’ll be with Him or not.

O Lord, please open our eyes that we may see.

The only voice that matters

Sometimes it’s better just to say nothing.

I rarely regret what I didn’t say, but I often kick myself for what I did say.

If the apostle Peter felt the same way, he must’ve walked around in a perpetual self-kicking posture.

As we would expect, Peter was blown away when he witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and the sudden appearance of 2 men who had been dead for hundreds of years. Jesus’ clothes became intensely white and radiant, and Moses and Elijah appeared beside Him, talking to Him.

Peter felt the need to say something, but what do you say in a situation like that?

“Hi Moses, Elijah. How are you guys doing today?” wouldn’t have sounded quite right.

So Peter said what he thought was appropriate . . . Here’s the first part of the story:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified (Mark 9:2-6).

When we’re scared to death, we say things we shouldn’t. Peter’s comment here was well-intentioned, but he simply didn’t understand the significance of what was happening. He still thought Jesus was just another great man like Moses and Elijah.

He didn’t fully recognize who this Rabbi really was.

God responds to Peter quickly and decisively:

And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only” (Mark 9:7-8).

When Matthew tells this story, he lets us know that Peter and the others dove for cover when they heard God’s voice (Matthew 17:6).

While they were planting their faces in the dirt, they got the message: Jesus is infinitely greater than Moses and Elijah.

God worked through Moses to lead His people and deliver His Law.

God spoke through Elijah and the prophets to guide the people back to Him.

But don’t miss this: the point of the Law and the prophets was Jesus, and that’s what it’ll always be.

And that’s the main idea to take from today’s passage.

We hear many voices in our world: religious voices, secular voices, cultural voices.

Quite often they’ll tell us different ways to go.

This Rabbi who was transfigured before Peter and the others is the only voice that matters.

This is God’s beloved Son.

Listen to Him.

Self-discipline doesn’t work

If we’re the resolution-making type, what we’re really resolving to do is to have more self-discipline, right?

We just apply it to different areas of life: weight loss (avoid Krispy Kreme), productivity (manage time better), spirituality (stick to one-year Bible-reading plan).

It’s all about self-discipline.

Everything will work out if I do this or don’t do that. If I do what I don’t want to and don’t do what I want to. If I stick with it.

It’s all about me.

Except it’s not. Not really.

Especially when we’re talking about spirituality.

Growing in our relationship to Christ is about what God does in us. Notice the common factor in these verses:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).

. . . that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being (Ephesians 3:16).

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:12-14).

Did you catch the common thread?

How can you can be more loving, joyful, and patient? Paul says it comes from the Spirit; it’s His fruit (not ours).

How do you grow spiritually? Is it by trying, praying, and serving harder? No, it’s God who strengthens you.

Too often we get frustrated spiritually because we think it’s all up to us. We’ll reach our spiritual goals if we can just get the formula right: incorporate the spiritual disciplines in the right way, and conformity to Christ follows.

But it doesn’t work that way.

We need to realize that holiness—growing more and more into Christ’s image—is God’s work, not ours.

So much of our striving and stretching and reaching ends up putting the focus where it doesn’t need to be—on us.

And history shows that our efforts at attaining holiness fail miserably.

This year, focus on trusting God, not yourself. Talk to Him. Love Him. Worship Him. Ask Him to mold you and shape you.

Sure, read your Bible, but not so you can claim sainthood as a Daily Bible Reader. Do it to know God better.

Pray to God, not to shape His will to yours, but to cultivate your relationship with Jesus.

Worship Him weekly, not for what you get out of it, but to love and adore Him openly.

When everything we do is God-focused, I think we might be amazed at the incredible things He will do.

He just doesn’t really need our help.

God likes new things too

There’s something cool about new stuff.

The smell of the new car, the sparkle of the new gadget, the feel of the new book. We like new.

Maybe because we know it’s unspoiled, blemish-free, perfect.

Like the beginning of a new year. The first week of January is fun, isn’t it?

2011? Yeah, I messed that one up. Badly.

But not 2012. Not yet.

Sure, it’s only 3 days old, but I’m doing great.

I’ve read my Bible and prayed every day. I haven’t lost my temper with my spouse or kids (yet).

I haven’t gotten discouraged or stressed out, and I haven’t succumbed to the pessimism that whipped me last year.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I know, of course, that January will give way to February, and the resolutions I made in the optimism of the new year won’t be quite as resolute as they were when I made them.

But I don’t want to think about that now. Not yet.

But I need to.

What we need to remember right now—perhaps more than ever—is that a relationship with Jesus is continually starting over again. It’s not the upward trajectory of an unrealistically optimistic earnings forecast, starting low and increasing steadily over time.

Discipleship is messy and unpredictable. It doesn’t follow the plan we set on January 1.

No, instead it’s constantly asking for, and receiving, a clean slate.

A fresh start, a new beginning.

We need to face up to the fact that we’re going to flop on some of those commitments we made Saturday night. By March we probably won’t even remember that we made one or two of them.

But that’s okay.

It’s okay because walking with Jesus means a new day every day. It means putting the past behind us and looking to the future.

Again.

And again and again.

This is still one of my favorite songs at church camp, perhaps because it reminds me that God likes new things too.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:22-24).