Fasting: No to the World and Yes to God
by Jack Wald | August 14th, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-14

We are in the midst of the lunar month of Ramadan. I find it ironic that Ramadan is called a period of fasting when people gain weight in that month. When more food is consumed in that month than any other month of the year, why is it called a fast? I have never gained weight when I have fasted. It seems more logical to call it the feast of Ramadan.

But this is not going to be a sermon about Ramadan fasting. Before we take the speck out of someone else’s eye, I want to examine the log in our own eye. The Scriptures tell us that God has often been critical of the way we fast and that is where I want to focus our attention.

The first time I fasted was soon after I had become a follower of Jesus. Our University student group at Park Street Church in Boston was having a winter retreat and there were five people I had invited to come. So I decided to fast for three days in an attempt to get them to say yes to my invitation. I drank water but ate or drank nothing else. At the end, none of the five came to the retreat.

I remember on the third day of the fast watching television on a small black & white TV set and there was a commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, a breakfast cereal. As I watched this TV ad I began to salivate. And then I remember, also on that third day, sitting in the cafeteria sharing my faith with someone who had a half-eaten plate of spaghetti in front of him. As I sat there sharing about my faith in Jesus, what I most wanted to do was grab his uneaten meatball and run away to eat it.

For a time I went away once each year to a Catholic retreat center and fasted for three days. I spent the time reading my Bible, singing songs of praise, journaling, meditating. One year I wanted to see an angel and kept looking to see when the angel would show up. No angel ever appeared.

More frequently I have fasted for just a day. If all I do is  skip breakfast and lunch, that does not seem like much of a sacrifice. For this reason I skip all three meals of the day and do not eat until the next morning which makes it a 36 hour fast.

I have fasted periodically over the years, but I am sorry to say that in recent years, my fasting has not been for spiritual purposes. Fasting has been part of my diet program. I have fasted to lose weight. My pants begin to get tight and rather than buy a larger size, I know it is time to set off on my regime and fasting is part of that.

What does the Bible say about the practice of fasting?

There is no discussion in the Bible about where the practice of fasting originated; it simply appears as a spiritual exercise. Moses fasted at Mt. Sinai when he received the law from God and he fasted again when he smashed the stone tablets because of Israel’s  disobedience when Aaron led Israel in worship of a golden calf.

In the law Moses received, the tenth day of the seventh month was to be a day of fasting, appropriate for the Day of Atonement.

In Israel’s history, fasts were declared in times of national emergencies. People fasted as an act of penitence. Fasting often was part of mourning the death of someone.

During and after the Exile of Israel there were fasts to commemorate the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. These fasts were: the ninth day of the fourth month for the fall of Jerusalem, the tenth day of the fifth month for the destruction of the temple, the second day of the seventh month for the murder of Gedaliah (who was appointed as governor of the poor left in Jerusalem after the rest were taken to Babylon), and the tenth day of the tenth month for the first attack on Jerusalem.

The fasts vary in the Bible from one day, to a day and a night, to three complete days, to seven days and to forty days.

John the Baptist required his followers to fast; Jesus made fasting voluntary.

It was while the church in Antioch was fasting that the Holy Spirit said Paul and Barnabas were to set out on their first missionary journey.

We will begin in September a series of sermons from the book of Isaiah but this morning we take an advance peek at a word God gave Isaiah to proclaim that revealed his displeasure with the fasting of Israel. (Isaiah 58:1–14) (The Message)
Shout! A full-throated shout!
Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives, face my family Jacob with their sins!

What in particular was God annoyed with?

They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side.

It seemed on the surface that everything was pretty good. People were busy worshiping God. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Aren’t we supposed to praise God? The people loved studying about God. Isn’t that wonderful? They came to God and asked what was the right thing to do. And they loved being on God’s side. What church would complain about people like this? Churches would love to have their members busy at worship, involved in Bible studies and seeking God for his wisdom and direction. What could possibly be wrong with that?

It seemed on the surface that everything was pretty good but that was precisely the problem. God does not seem to care very much for the surface. God wants to know what is going on deeper in our being. God wants to know what is going on in our heart, in the center and root of our being. God does not pay attention to the smile on your face as you enter RIC and greet someone. God is looking at the state of your heart.

And this is where the problem in Israel lay. On the surface people were doing the right things, but their actions revealed that their religious practices went no deeper than the surface.

But they also complain, ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
3–5 “Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

Does your faith make a difference in your daily life? That is the question. Does your fasting affect the way you live your daily life, the way you relate to others, the kinds of choices and decisions you make? In fact this was the question I asked when I went to university. I had been part of a Presbyterian church in my hometown and had been active in the youth group. I knew some of the men who were leaders in the church and knew what they did during the week. I rejected Christian faith because the faith professed by these men on Sunday did not seem to make much difference during the week. Christian faith did not appear to me to be anything more than an empty, social ritual.

What displeases God? Take a look at the ministry of Jesus and see where his wrath was directed. Did Jesus condemn sinners? No. To the woman caught in adultery he said: (John 8:10–11)
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Who did Jesus condemn? (Matthew 23:13–36)
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

It was the religious leaders, the ones who worked hard at the synagogues, the ones who were most respected in the synagogues. These were the ones who received the brunt of Jesus’ displeasure.

God does not want your praise or your tithes or your Bible study or your service as a leader on the church board or in the choir. God wants your heart. God wants not just your surface life but your deep-down life. What did Isaiah say God wanted?

6–9 “This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

Fasting that pleases God results in our transformation and the world becoming a better place for us to live. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray that earth will become more like heaven. Fasting is a tool we are to use to help this happen.

When someone tells me about a revival I ask if the revival has resulted in an improvement in the social conditions of the area where the revival occurred. Over the past decade there was a lot of publicity about a revival in Florida and another in Toronto. I went to an annual meeting of a Nigerian denomination where there were between 3 and 4 million people gathered. I am happy people are enthusiastic about Jesus but I want to know if this interest is a superficial enthusiasm or something that has gone deep into the heart.

Genuine revivals have always affected the social conditions of the society where the revival took place. In the Great Awakening in Britain, slavery was abolished, child labor laws were instituted, organizations to help the poor and oppressed were established. A revival that does not result in marriages being restored, less divorce, less marital infidelity, less drunkenness, less gambling, greater concern and care for the elderly, for the poor, for the oppressed – a revival that does not reflect these changes is not a revival.

This was God’s complaint about the fasting of Israel during their time in exile in Babylon. God spoke through the prophet Zechariah. (Zechariah 7:1–14) For seventy years Israel had observed the fasts in remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Now that they were returning to Israel from Babylon, they wanted to know if they should continue the fasts.
4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5 “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6 And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?
8 And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, 9 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”

Fasting that does not result in more godly behavior and thinking is not fasting as God intends it to be.

Let me offer three principles of fasting.

First, fasting is a tool used to open ourselves more fully to God, not something we do to get what we want.

When I fasted for the first time, why did I fast? I fasted because there were five people I wanted to come to the retreat. Was there anything wrong with this desire? Was there something wrong in wanting these people to come to a retreat where they would be exposed to Christian fellowship and teaching about Jesus? It’s not like I was fasting to get a nice car or get a particular girl to like me. There was nothing wrong or selfish in my desire. But the problem was that I set an agenda and then fasted to get it.

Did God want these five people to come to faith in him? Of course, but how was that going to happen? God had a plan and I had a plan. I chose to fast to make my plan work. I did not really pay attention to God’s plan.

It would have been much better if I had fasted to ask God if there was someone he wanted me to invite to the retreat. If I had done this and listened, perhaps I would have been led to invite someone I had not thought of and perhaps that person would actually have accepted the invitation to come to the retreat.

Fasting is not about me, it is about God. Fasting is a tool to further God’s agenda, not my own. When I fast to get something I want, even if it is something good that I want, God has been relegated to being my assistant. I fast to get what I want and then God goes to get it for me.

God is not my assistant. God is my King, my Lord, my Savior. I want his agenda for my life, not my own.

Secondly, fasting is a tool that helps me to say no to the world and yes to God.

What happens when we do not eat? It helps to talk with an expert like Winnie the Pooh, a bear in a book by A.H. Milne. Winnie the Pooh loves food and especially honey. He is always thinking about honey and where he can get some. Here is a dialogue with his friend, Piglet.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”

Here is a second Pooh quote:
“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?””

And one more because it has a wonderful philosophical edge:
“”Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best — ” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called”

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who eat to live and those who live to eat. Winnie the Pooh is the latter and so was my father and so am I. I love food. I love new foods. I love delicious food. It does not need to be fancy. A baked potato covered with sauteed onions and peppers and a covering of cheese is absolutely delicious.

But whether you eat to live or live to eat, when we do not eat we feel something and what we feel makes us think of what we like to eat. And the longer we don’t eat, the more we think of what we would like to eat.

It is a miracle for someone to live for a week without water. We can live for six to eight weeks without food. The point is that we have to eat to survive.

When we do not eat our body sends us signals that it wants food. I looked up on the internet to see what people feel when they are hungry. Most mention an empty stomach with grumbling noises. Many mention the feeling of hunger moving up to the throat. Some say their arms feel weak. One person said her fingers feel hollow. However we feel, our body is telling us it is time to eat some food.

When our body tells us that, if we are fasting, we are reminded that we are fasting and that is why we are hungry. This makes our body a constant reminder that we are intending that day to be a day when we focus on God. Every time our stomach grumbles or we think about some food it would be good to eat, it is like an alarm going off to remind us that today we are saying no to food and yes to God. Not eating makes our attention to God more focused and more intense. Our stomach alarm goes off and we remember to pick up our Bible to read, or to pray, or to reflect.

Thirdly, fasting is more than not eating.

What kind of fast is it when you do not eat or drink anything but water and then spend the day on the internet interacting with friends, playing some football or watching a football match with your friends, and then watching a movie? What kind of fast is it when you do not spend significantly more time with God than you do on any other day?

The point of fasting is to focus on God and try to hear what he might be saying to us. God speaks to us all the time but the noise of the world is so loud we cannot hear what he is saying.

In order to hear God speak we need to shut out the messages the world sends our way every time we watch TV or a movie or read a magazine. The advertising industry is very clever. They hire experts, PhDs in psychology, who figure out how to make people want the products being sold. They play on our insecurities and fears, on our dreams and desires. Subliminal messages as well as more overt messages come our way every day. We are bombarded with the world’s messages.

If we want to focus on God and hear what he is trying to say to us, we need to turn off the computer, turn off the phone, stop tweeting and texting, put away the books and magazines, turn off the television, find a quiet place and take time to read the Bible and reflect.

It may be that you cannot take off the whole day to focus on God, but you can go to school or to work or work in the home and still focus on God. Use meal times or nap times to be alone with God. If you use the computer for work or school, don’t check your email – unless it is work emails. Don’t play any computer games. Resist clicking out of curiosity. Take the minutes that open up throughout the day to pray and think and write down what comes to you. Use the time when you walk or drive to be present with God.

There may be times when you need a special sense of direction about a choice you have to make or when you need help with a particularly difficult situation and then you need to go away for a day. But this does not discount the value of fasting during our regular work schedule.

When I think of fasting, I think of my friend Uchenna who worked with me in our church association. He is one of my closest friends and I have learned a lot from him about how to live a life devoted to Jesus. One of the things I have admired about Uchenna is how he heard God speak to him. Many times he would tell me, “God is telling me…” and I would listen attentively because I often heard God speak to me through Uchenna.

Uchenna fasted often. Many times I invited him to lunch or we had a meeting and ordered pizza, but Uchenna did not eat because he was fasting that day. Fasting was and is a regular part of his life. Uchenna did not fast because he wanted something; he fasted because he needed God’s direction in his life and his ministry. He fasted so he could more clearly hear what God was saying to him.

Uchenna’s fasting was not obvious to the world. I only knew about it because I asked him to share a meal and he declined. Uchenna was faithful to Jesus’ teaching about fasting. He did not broadcast the fact he was fasting but he did not hide it either.

Uchenna did not fast to win favor with God or with men or women. Uchenna did not fast to make himself seem more spiritual. Uchenna fasted to focus more intently on God.

He was deported from Morocco last July but a year or more earlier, he had sensed from God that he was supposed to go to seminary. So when he was told he had to leave Morocco, this meant he was leaving only a year earlier than he had intended. And this past week he arrived in Boston where he will be attending Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the seminary from which I graduated and where I am currently studying for my Dmin. His arrival is a bit of a miracle. The funding for him and his family seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle. But he received a scholarship from the seminary and help from a couple churches as well as some friends and the funding for his three years of study has been provided. It is clear that God blessed his obedience and that he is doing what God wants him to do.

Uchenna is enjoying the blessing of God because he was faithful in listening and hearing from God the direction he should take in his life. He is receiving God’s abundant blessing because he took time to listen, to say no to the world and yes to God.

This is the challenge for me and the challenge for you. Are you hearing God speak to you? Are you taking the time to listen?

I challenge you to fast, not fasting to lose weight, but fasting to focus on God. I challenge you to fast once each month. It may be that you are not able physically to fast and you will need to eat during the day. That’s ok, but limit what you eat. But we can all turn off the cell phone and turn off the computer and not watch television. We can turn off the world’s bombardment of it’s worldly propaganda and listen to what God might be saying to us.

I don’t know what will happen, but I know if we listen to God speak to us, whatever happens will be good. It might be that God has plans for you and you know nothing about them. It may be you are pursuing your agenda, and it may be a great agenda, but perhaps God has a different agenda for you. It may be you are missing out on God’s blessing in your life because you have not taken the time to focus and listen for his leading in your life. When you pursue God’s agenda for your life, then you can expect to receive his blessing.

I am sensing that God wants to take me deeper into his truth and life. I do not want to live my life and preach on the surface. I want to go deep and perhaps fasting is a tool that will take me deeper. I invite you to join with me.