Keeping A Lenten Fast: A Sermon on Matthew 6:16-18

A sermon preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, March 15, 2020
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Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,
for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  
so that your fasting may be seen not by others
but by your Father who is in secret;
and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

Many of us are in the habit of giving something up for Lent— chocolate, a bad habit, or something that consumes a lot of our time, like Facebook or binge watching a TV program.  Ideally our renunciation has a higher purpose than mere self-denial and self-discipline. For when we clear out the clutter in our soul through fasting, we give God space to do something new in our life.

It is only in the last 150 years that fasting has become less and less a part of the Christian experience.  In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people fasted not only on the Day of Atonement, but also twice a week.  By the year 125 AD the early Christians observed a 40-day Lenten fast and also fasted twice a week.  During the Reformation, although Calvin and Luther reacted negatively to the compulsory nature of Catholic fasts, they also recognized it as a valuable private practice.  John Wesley fasted twice a week and urged all pastors to follow his example.  And in 1810 the charter of Princeton Seminary, included these words: “It is also wished and recommended, that each student should ordinarily set apart one day in a month for special prayer and self-examination in secret, accompanied with fasting.” 

While Jesus never explicitly commanded us to fast, he does assume that fasting will be a regular part of our life.  In verse 16 he does not say, “If you fast;” rather, he says, “Whenever you fast,” which implies that he expected fasting to be a regular part of our life.

So this morning we want to think about fasting, particularly as it relates to giving up something for Lent.  Rev. David Matthis, author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, defines fasting this way: “Fasting is voluntarily going without food—or any other regularly enjoyed, good gift from God—for the sake of some spiritual purpose.”  As we consider this definition I want you to see 5 things.

1. Fasting Must Be Voluntary.

First, fasting must be voluntary.  Don’t give up something for Lent because Pastor Mike tells you to do it. Don’t do it because all of your friends are doing it. 

Do it because you are hungry and thirsty for God. Your attitude should be that of the Psalmists.  “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God (Psalm 42:1).” If you seek God with a hunger and thirst in your soul, God will satisfy you in ways that you had never expected.

2. Fasting Must Be Done in Secret.

At this time of year, it is common to share with friends and acquaintances what we are each giving up for Lent.  If we’re honest, we will admit that we often do this to look spiritual and to compare ourselves to others to see who is making the greater sacrifice.  But Jesus has some strong words for this kind of sharing.  In our scripture lesson he calls people who make a show of their fasting, “hypocrites.” Instead, he says don’t let your fasting be seen by others, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” So Jesus commands us to keep our Lenten practices to ourselves.

So does that mean you can’t tell your spouse or a good Christian friend what you are giving up for Lent?  No, I don’t think so.  There is something to be said for being held accountable for your promises.  One of the good things about a Lenten fast is that I know that my brothers and sisters are experiencing the same thing as I am. There is a strength in solidarity especially if we are praying for each other.

BUT, and this is a big but, if you share, don’t do it widely and do it only to ask the other person to pray for you and to encourage you. 

So what do you do if someone asks you, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

In response, I give you my permission to throw me under the bus. Try this: “Thanks for asking.  My pastor encouraged me and the rest of the congregation to keep this between God and ourselves and I’m trying to take his suggestion.”

Keep your fasting private and God will bless you.

3. Fasting Can Be Joyful.

For the Jews of Jesus’ time fasting was a symbol of repentance and sorrow for sin.  It was an attempt to gain God’s forgiveness by being sorry. So when people fasted they put on a somber face and didn’t comb their hair.   To counter this practice Jesus says, “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.”

At first glance it seems Jesus is telling us to just go about our ordinary daily routine—comb your hair, wash your face and make sure you wear deodorant.  However, putting oil on your head was not a part of the daily personal hygiene routine of Jesus’ day.  You only put oil on your head when you were going to a dinner party or wedding or some other happy event.

Oil is a symbol of joy; it’s even called the oil of gladness in Isaiah 61:3. So when Jesus says “anoint your head with oil”, he’s telling us fasting should be marked by joy, not sadness.

Why?  Because the Christian knows she is already forgiven even before she confesses her sins.  Therefore, if, while I am fasting, God points out my faults it’s not an occasion for shame but for gratitude.  Fasting is a joy because through it we draw closer to God who loves and forgives us through Jesus Christ.

4. Fasting Must Be Accompanied by Prayer. 

Someone has wryly said that “Fasting without prayer is just punishment.” 

And they’re right! It’s hard to fast.  If we focus on what we have given up, we will soon grow disheartened and discouraged.  As time goes by we will begin to develop deep cravings for chocolate or have an incredible desire to binge watch our favorite Netflix show.  The more we focus on the thing we are missing, the more miserable we will become, until we finally succumb and indulge.

You see fasting creates a hole in our heart and that hole must be filled.  If it isn’t filled with prayer, we will begin to feel that we are punishing ourselves. As David Mathis says, “Fasting walks arm in arm with prayer.”

5. Fasting Must Have a Spiritual Purpose

This week as I was researching this sermon, I found all sorts of articles on the internet promoting a new diet fad called “Intermittent Fasting.” As near as I can tell it involves long hours between meals skipping meals, and reducing the number of meals you eat.  Everybody swears by it, but I predict that by next year it will be replaced by the newest and best diet plan that has ever existed.

Spiritual fasting is not about losing weight nor is it a fad.  Spiritual fasting is about developing a hunger for God. John Piper says,

Fasting is the hungry handmaiden of prayer,
who both reveals and remedies.

She reveals the measure of food’s mastery over us —
or television or computers or whatever we submit to again and again
to conceal the weakness of our hunger for God.

And she remedies by intensifying the earnestness of our prayer
so that we say with our whole body and heart:  
I long to be satisfied in God alone!

John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God, p. 171

Fasting does two things.  First, it reveals what has mastery over us.  For example, my computer can have mastery over me.  When I got home from work I used to sit down at the computer to play games like Scrabble or Bejeweled.  I played them until supper and afterwards I’d play all evening until bedtime.

When I gave up these games the first thing I noticed was how anxious I felt in the evening.  Without my games I didn’t know what to do with myself.  Fasting revealed my dependence on a false god.

But second fasting also provides a remedy.  That’s what it did for me; it created a space in my life that God could fill with something new.  Instead of spending hours playing games, I now spend time reading and working on my blog.  I also spend at least a half hour every night rubbing my wife’s feet.  My hunger for God and my relationship with my wife have both improved since I began fasting from my games.

Let me ask you a question, when you are anxious, bored or sad where do you turn to make yourself feel better?  Food? Social media? Binge watching TV shows?  What is your weakness? 

What would happen if you gave it up for the remaining days of Lent?  Might you start to realize just how great a hold it has on you?  Might you start to develop a deeper hunger for God?

Psalm 73:25-26 is a great prayer for someone who is fasting.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:25-26

When we fast, when we give something up for Lent, this prayer takes on a new earnestness.  As Matthew Henry says, fasting puts an edge upon devout affections.”

May the Lord put an edge on your affections and give you a deeper hunger for God.

Rev Michael A. Weber, March 15, 2020.
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2 thoughts on “Keeping A Lenten Fast: A Sermon on Matthew 6:16-18

  1. Excellent post on this. I always say that fasting from food is my “worst spiritual discipline” but it is probably truer to say I stink at all spiritual disciplines across the spectrum, having never really been taught, and struggling along alone. This post is so revelatory of all that we miss when we do not really seek more than an idea of merely being “saved” but the real commandment and real joy of becoming and being DISCIPLES! As always, thank you for a way of speaking truth that is loving but searing, convicting and encouraging — like God’s truth should always be.


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