Heritage Presbyterian Church

February 26, 2020
Ash Wednesday
Scripture reading – Isaiah 58: 1-12

From Gruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, the following comments on the concept of fasting:

Fasting has, in all ages and among all nations, been much in use in times of mourning, sorrow, and afflictions. It is in some form inspired by nature, which in these circumstances, denies itself nourishment, and takes off the edge of hunger. There is no example of fasting, properly so called, to be seen before Moses; yet is presumable that the patriarchs fasted, since we see that there were very great mournings among them, such as that of Abraham for Sarah, and that of Jacob for his son, Joseph.

It does not appear by our Savior’s own practice, or any commands that he gave to his disciples, that he instituted any particular fasts, or enjoined any to be kept out of pure devotion. It is however inferred from such statements in Scripture that he expected his followers would do so. The one condition he made was that it be sincere.” (Gruden, copyright 1949, page 204)

I have heard it said that fasting is good for the body, that it promotes good health and digestion, cleaning out the body of excess, and clearing the mind. My dietitian wife does not agree with this theory…

I have also heard it said that when we fast, we are really REALLY trying to get God’s attention, such as when a child or a beloved one is sick or in serious trouble. Fasting can remind us of what we are praying for in a way that also holds our easily-distracted minds in clear focus.

And of course, Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert as he battled the devil. We may not be battling the devil out in the desert when we fast, but Jesus’ example certainly sets a high standard for the practice of fasting.

During the season of Lent, we prepare ourselves for what we know is coming:

· The triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday

· The betrayal at the Last Supper

· The agony in the garden and his arrest

· The trial and condemnation

· The crucifixion

· The death and burial of Jesus on Good Friday

· And the triumph over sin and death on Easter morning.

It’s the sort of list that almost demands some preparation by the people of God if we truly want to examine it properly. That’s where the concept of fasting comes in.

Perhaps you call it “giving up something for Lent.” This usually involves not doing something that you know isn’t good for you, or doing something that is good for you, or abstaining from some food that you really, REALLY like as a form of discipline. In modern times, fasting can also involve adding something to your daily routine that you don’t usually do – but you know it would be a good idea, such as daily prayer, reading Scripture, studying some simple theology, watching less television, or putting down your cell phone and talking with others instead of playing various on-line games.

All are good practices, and all these – and more – that all of us can quickly name for ourselves.

But there is a good reason that Isaiah’s words are included on this day called Ash Wednesday. Isaiah was talking to the so-called people of God who considered themselves to be the MOST religious of God’s people. Isaiah noted all their rituals and their practices, and he declared that it was all a big sham! Those folks had memorized all that they did and practiced, and they had it down to a polished art. However, God was unimpressed…remember that even the pagans fasted!

The people of God had moved away from sincere acts on behalf of ourselves and others – and had instead begun converting religion and faith into private acts of memorized study and practiced rituals. They had forgotten two big parts of the instruction and the call that God had used for centuries: namely, community and sincerity.

Without the community of God working together, praying together, sacrificing for one another, taking care of one another, the people of God were just a well-organized group of every-man-for-himself folks. Each of them had their own way of interpreting and practicing God’s commandments, and many of them were too good at working around them. (Recall that I preached a sermon on this a few weeks ago.)

The biggest problem Jesus ever condemned – and he did it repeatedly – was with the hypocrites. Their hyper-correctness in their observances, and their delight in displaying their correctness to others, was offensive to him – and he called them out on it. Jesus never ordered anyone else to fast as a form of discipline, nor did he ever instruct his followers to follow specific, seemingly meaningless rituals that had been laid down by others just for a measure of control. Instead, Jesus told his followers things like:

· “When giving alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

· “Do not pray as the Pharisees do with their long-winded passages and their repeated phrases.”

· “Whatever you do to the least of my friends, you do to me.”

Notice the lack of specific instructions. Instead, Jesus pointed out that a sincere heart was what God truly appreciated.

· It was not the alms – but the one who is giving and why that counts.

· It was not the dirt that was on someone’s hands that makes them dirty – but rather what comes out of their mouth that does it.

· It was not the fasting – but the one doing the fasting that counts.

Don’t forget the rest of what Isaiah had to say. In his message that we heard this evening, the prophet’s attack on the false and insincere worshipers was countered by the grandeur of the fast that was pleasing to God:

· The sincere fast…

· The fast that involved caring for others…

· The fast that involves justice, especially for those who never receive it…

· The fast that will heal the soul of the faster…

In other words, if we fast, let it count sincerely. If we do good things, let them care for more people than just ourselves. If we give up something to practice self-discipline, then let it also serve something higher than ourselves.

If we fast, then let us also love like Jesus did.