This sermon was preached at the West Congregation of The Austin Stone. You can find audio of the sermon here.
Below is a rough outline of what I said.
Happy Memorial Day weekend. We remember those who have sacrificed so much so that we can be here.
If you have a bible, please turn with me to Matthew 6:16. We are teaching right through the Gospel of Matthew. Have spent most of this year in one sermon from Jesus. It took Jesus about 20 minutes to preach it, but it is taking us about 6 months to explain it.
Part of the reason for that, is that we forget that Jesus of Nazareth made seemingly outrageous claims and calls when he called people to His new Kingdom. We keep wanting Him to be a bit more civilized, and sedate, and compromising. But He is ruthless in tearing down the thinking that kept people from His Kingdom, and kept people from living the best Kingdom life that they could.
He is so patient with people who just cannot get it together. And so cutting with people who pretend to have it all together. I love reading the words of our Lord.
The text that we will look at today is part of a three-part argument that Jesus was making. He was calling people out for religious hypocrisy. You don’t like religious hypocrisy? Good, neither did Jesus. He said, in essence, don’t think that God is impressed with public acts of devotion when they aren’t consistent with a life lived for God. Don’t think God is impressed with outward appearance, just because other people are.
- And so, when you give…no song and dance.
- And, when you pray…keep it simple and talk to your Father.
- And, today’s text, when you fast…
Text: Matthew 6:16-18
16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
So, here is what was happening. The religious folk of the day were making it very clear to everyone when they were fasting. Fasting, in the biblical definition is the voluntary denial of food. There are other kinds of fasts, but that usually is what was meant when fasting was spoken of.
Richard Foster defined it as:
“…the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”
There was only commanded fast annually in Judaism – for the Day of Atonement (Lev 16 and Lev 23) – and so voluntary fasting was seen as a sign of extreme religious piety, but religious piety isn’t very impressive or rewarding unless people could congratulate you for it, and so those who were fasting (supposedly as an act of devotion to God), would make sure that they looked like people who were fasting. So, they would make sure that the looked gaunt and hungry and sad…like religious people ought to apparently…and then they would get the acclaim of all the “well-fed sellouts” who would look to them with envy and respect.
Jesus addressed that sort of religious hypocrisy head on, and said essentially…
Fast, by all means. Keep doing that. But , wash your face. And anoint your head. And fast it as a means of private devotion to your Father, and He will see it, and He will reward it.The sort of devotion that God loves and rewards is devotion that is consistent across your life and doesn’t exist primarily for acclaim from others.
So, here is the thing, we really could close in prayer now. That is the meaning of the text.For some of you that seems like a marvelous outcome, that this hostage situation/sermon might be over!! But it’s not. Because I think we ought to pause today and ask something of the text and what we know from the rest of Scripture.
If Jesus assumes that His followers would fast, and was just addressing the mode in which it should be done, then shouldn’t we have a better understanding of what fasting is and what it is for?
I don’t know about you, but fasting hasn’t been a regular and disciplined part of my spiritual journey, and yet it is something that we see many times over in Scripture and is an assumed from Jesus on what faithful followers would do.
What then is the point of fasting? What does it accomplish? Seems like a strange concept. Why would God want us to endure something like that?
I have a strange relationship with food. I like eating. A lot. Grew up in a house with three brothers, a young sister and usually a lot of “cling-ons” in our home. Our dining room table was always full. It was an “eat or go hungry” sort of scenario. So, I never left anything on a plate, and if there was more, you ate more. All this means that I have a tendency to eat too much and to eat too quickly. In addition, I have realized as I have gotten a bit older, that I tend to eat all of my feelings. Some people drink theirs, some tweet them out, some stuff them so deep down that it takes an archaeological dig to find them. I eat a lot of mine. So, fasting is a big deal for me. Being hungry is a big deal for me. It is a wrestle, but something that I am learning to appreciate.
I love how in Christianity the physical and spiritual aren’t easily separable things.We live an EMBODIED FAITH. So, things like feasting and fasting and resting and working matter in our walk of faith. The idea isn’t to escape the physical but to glorify God WITH OUR BODIES. I am learning that, and fasting helps.
What does fasting do? Lots of things. But four broad principles today, alliterated for ease of memory hopefully.
Fasting reminds us of our absolute dependence
Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to be someone who acknowledges that you have deep need. You know that everything you have is a gift from God, and that even right standing with God is going to need to be something that is primarily provided for you and not created by you.
Fasting says…GOD WE NEED YOU! We can see this in so many of the biblical examples of fasts undertaken by people.
Often associated with repentance for past sins in the OT (Eg. Judges 20; 2 Samuel 3; Nehemiah 1; Zechariah 5; Jonah 3). The people fast corporately to say “Oh God! We have lived as if we don’t need you, and so we fast to acknowledge that, and to turn from that! We need you desperately and want to live your way as a sign of our need!”
Also associated not just with repentance for past actions but for God’s intervention in current and future events (Eg. Exodus 34; Ezra 8; Esther 4; Joel 2; Acts 13 and 14) Here we have people saying, “God we need you. We don’t know what to do. We need you to give us wisdom, we need you to move in power.
And here’s the thing. I don’t know how this works, because I know that God isn’t a genie in a bottle who just needs the right incantation to work. I know that. But He responds to this sort of desperate plea from His disciple. He does. When people humble themselves, show God their deep dependence, He meets with them. Look at what Arthur Wallis said:
“Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importance into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The one who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that they are truly in earnest.”
We live in a context where we do whatever we can to make sure we aren’t reminded of our desperate need. We numb it, we dull it. We keep our minds and hearts constantly distracted, so that we don’t feel the need to repent or to cry out to God for help. Fasting helps us to feel that need, but we don’t like it.
We are constantly eating and yet never feel full. We have learned to never feel hungry and as a result we never feel satisfied.
Fasting teaches us to practice denial
Self-denial is a key part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is the call Jesus puts out to be a follower of His in Luke 9:23.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
Again, we live in a context where self-denial is seen as insanity, some form of cruel self-harm. If you feel you want something, have it, take it, get it. But the Scriptures tell us again and again that in order to live this embodied faith we are going to have to fight against elements of it. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9 of subduing his body, making it his slave, so that he doesn’t live as the slave of all of his desires.
Have you ever felt that? Like you are a slave to your urges? I have, and do, and food is a vivid way to experience that. Part of being a faithful follower of Christ is learning to say no to some desires. Fasting is a great way to practice self-denial in small ways in order to do it in big ways.
Fasting is part of a lifestyle of devotion
It is important to note that there were some people on the bible fasting, and yet they weren’t pleasing God in their fast. The one set was the one that Jesus addressed in this passage. People fasting for public acclaim. But there is another group too. And it is a string warning, and one we must heed. It is in Isaiah 58 and shows that God doesn’t desire fasts in isolation when people don’t live in devotion in other areas of their life.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ 
So fast, yes. But do it as part of a lifestyle of devotion to God. Don’t add it on, expecting God to hear you when there are vast areas of your life where you refuse to honor Him.
Fasting teaches us to be patient with delay
Part of what it means to be a follower of Christ is to be a people who are good at waiting. We fast to remind us that we aren’t home. We will feast one day for sure! Jesus said this in Matthew 9:14-15 when He was challenged about why His disciples didn’t fast. He said,
15 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.
- Fast your self-righteousness and independence starting now by declaring your total need of God.
- Try a one day fast with us this Thursday (details in your inbox)
- Sign up for a 40-day prayer and fasting journey this Summer. Details will be in the announcements.