Date: March 9, 2022
Festival: Lenten Midweek 1
Text: 2 Chronicles 20:1-13
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Appointed Scriptures: 2 Chronicles 20:1-13; Acts 13:1-12; Matthew 6:16-21
Sermon Hymn: LSB #732 All Depends on Our Possessing
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Just like money, preaching on the topic of fasting can be difficult and challenging. There are conflicting opinions in all of Christendom concerning the theology and practice of fasting. My goal tonight is not to give a practical guide on how you should fast, which can be done with a simple Google search, but rather to examine the wide biblical witness to fasting in the short amount of time we have tonight.
To put it simply, there really is no command to fast. As we read in the Gospel, Jesus does say to His disciples, “when you fast,” but people often mistake this for a command. This was not a command but an expectation. Jesus’ disciples were all Jews, so they were already in the cultural and religious habit of fasting, so He simply expected they would do it since it’s what they normally do. But what about us? None of us are Jews, so what are we to make of fasting? Well, let us consider the witness of the Scriptures.
When examining the Scriptures, it should suffice to say that fasting occurs for 1 of 2 reasons: (1) when you’re so distraught in your suffering that you no longer care about food, so you devote yourself to prayer and fasting because you don’t have the stomach to eat; or (2) to discipline yourself when you are about to undertake a serious task.
Fasting in Spiritual Distress
First, God’s people fasting in spiritual distress is replete in the Scriptures; it is more common than cases of self-discipline. In these cases, the people who fast don’t have much of a choice. Let’s return to 2 Chronicles as our first example. It is true that King Jehoshaphat chose to declare a national fast, but the reason was because of the extreme fear he was experiencing and his determination to seek the Lord. Jehoshaphat was so afraid that food and drink were of no comfort to him; his only comfort was in the Lord. So, he abandons food and drink to seek help from the Lord, and the people of Judah do the same in their own fear. Instead of eating, the king devotes himself to prayer.
In his prayer, you can tell he’s confused. He asks God rhetorically, “Are You not the sovereign God who rules over all the nations?” The king knows the Scriptures, because he remembers back in Deuteronomy [2:4-5, 9, 19] when God forbade Israel from destroying the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Meunites, and now these people are attacking the kingdom of Judah without provocation, and they can barely hold their own against this horde.
He is especially confused because God had promised these lands to His people, but now they are being attacked by them. He admits they have no idea what to do, and he ends his prayer with, “but our eyes are on You” [v. 12]. All men, women, children, and babies stand before the Lord waiting for His deliverance [v. 13]. If we were to read the rest of the chapter, we would find that God answers Jehoshaphat, telling him not to be afraid and that the Lord would grant them victory, which He does [vv. 15-30].
Another occasion of fasting during spiritual distress is in 2 Samuel 12[:16]. As a result of David’s sin in orchestrating the death of Uriah because he slept with his wife, Bathsheba, and got her pregnant, God declared the child was going to die. This disturbed David so much that he became sick, “sought God on behalf of the child,” and fasted while he lay all night on the ground. David had no stomach to eat because it was his fault that his child was going to die.
Another time David fasted was when he mourned the murder of Saul’s commander, Abner [2 Samuel 3:35]. And Psalm 35 tells us of another time when David fasted in spiritual distress. He begins the psalm with beseeching the Lord to deliver him from his enemies [vv. 1-12], but then he shares that he mourned and fasted when they were sick as if he were grieving for his friend, brother, or mother [vv. 13-14]. And as noted last Sunday, Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai because he was distressed over Israel’s sin in worshiping the golden calf [Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:18].
The prophet Daniel also fasted and mourned as he pled for mercy during Israel’s Babylonian exile [Daniel 9:2-3]. Saint Paul also speaks of his own fasting in spiritual distress. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes how he and his colleagues, as servants of God, were forced to suffer hunger, that is, fasting [2 Corinthians 6:4-10]. A little later he writes that in addition to suffering 39 lashes by the Jews, being beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked three times, being lost at sea, various dangers in the city and the wilderness and at sea and from false Christians, he was also forced to fast without food and drink [11:23-28]; all this he and his companions suffered for the ministry of Christ’s Word.
Fasting for Self-Discipline
So, as we have seen, most of the time God’s people fast because they have no choice during intense fear, anxiety, and persecution, having lost all appetite for food or no chance to eat at all. On the other hand, fasting can at times be a personal choice for the purpose of self-discipline when you’re about to undertake a serious task. One example is when the priestly scribe Ezra proclaimed a fast for the serious undertaking of returning some people to Israel after the Babylonian exile, trusting God would grant them a safe journey [Ezra 8:21].
Another common occasion for purposeful fasting has been for the preparation of undertaking pastoral ministry. For example, as we read in Acts 13[:1-3], in Antioch some of the disciples fasted as they prepared for pastoral ministry. And, of course, as we also observed last Sunday, Jesus chose to fast for 40 days before He undertook His earthly ministry.
When You Fast
So, when you fast, when should you do it? Well, first remember that the common experience of God’s people is that often, it’s not much of a choice. Have you ever been so upset or so distraught that you’ve literally had no desire for food? If you haven’t, count yourselves fortunate. Such an experience is a good time to fast. I can recall times when something has deeply disturbed me that even when I was hungry, my appetite completely disappeared, I didn’t eat for hours, or I barely ate anything for several days. In these moments, I do admit that I turned to the Lord in prayer not because I had chosen to fast (because my distress forced it upon me), but rather because all I could turn to was God. Much like the prophets and kings before us, sometimes the fasting was on my own behalf or on behalf of others.
I’ll share just two examples. The first time I can recall fasting in spiritual distress was directly after graduating from basic combat training in the Army. This was long before I met my beautiful wife Emilia, and at this time I was engaged. Unbeknownst to me, while I was at basic training, my finacée at the time got pregnant with another man’s child and married him, and I didn’t find out until a month after basic training when her best friend (of all people) told me what had happened. I could barely eat for weeks. When I did eat, I barely ate anything. I cried a lot, much like David in his psalms, and most of that crying was in prayer.
Another time was at seminary when I found out that one of my best friends lost not one but two of her babies to miscarriage. I remember that it was chicken wings night, and I was really looking forward to dinner. But when she told me about this, immediately my appetite was gone, and I couldn’t eat anything for almost 24 hours. Once again, fasting was forced on me, and I prayed for her, her husband, and her babies.
So then, at any time when fasting is forced upon you, remember to spend the time you would be eating in prayer and lament, calling upon the name of the Lord to grant you mercy and help, just as God’s people have done before us. Or do so for the sake of others. Some of you are distraught over the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Perhaps now would be a good time to fast and pray for them and also practice almsgiving, for which we have information in the Sunday bulletins.
Or, if you so choose, you may fast for the purpose of self-discipline as you undertake a serious task. I wish I could say I fasted before I received and accepted my first call to serve as your pastor here, but I didn’t. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because it’s certainly not required. But maybe this is something we all should think about more often when we’re about to undertake a serious task, whether that be ministry, serving on a board, starting a new job or promotion, starting college, preparing for a sports championship, and so on.
Lent is the time when people most often fast, but there’s something about this that troubles me. During Lent, fasting is treated like a fad to advertise how pious we are; and so, we become like Pharisees. We will fast from things like social media, every kind of meat except for fish on Fridays, television, alcohol, or what-have-you only to return to these things. But if God’s people in Scripture only fasted during times of spiritual distress to repent and pray, and at times for self-discipline as they undertook ministry, are we truly fasting when we cut something trivial from our lives for only 40 days out of the entire year? Even more, if something like social media or alcohol or whatever it is is causing us to sin, why give it up temporarily only to return to it? In the words of the holy proverb, how does this make you any different than the dog that returns to its own vomit [Proverbs 26:11]?
The only example we see of fasting in the Scriptures is people abandoning food either because (a) they have lost all desire for it in their suffering and need God to sustain them, or (b) to discipline themselves for ministry. They didn’t give up trivial things like convenience items; they gave up the necessity of life: food and drink!
So then, when we fast, let us first not treat it like it’s a fad but rather set it apart for times of distress and serious self-discipline. Second, if something is leading us to sin, let us forsake it with true repentance by abandoning it entirely rather than leaving our sin only to return to it because we miss it so much. And third, let us obey what Jesus says in Matthew 6: when you fast, no one should know you’re doing it.
That’s really hard for us. We love to brag about our piety. When we decide to fast, we like to post about it on social media, even when we want to “fast” from social media! “Hey everyone! I’m fasting from social media but let me post about it first!” Such hypocrisy! This is the same kind of false piety when people do any kind of good work like helping a homeless person or donating to a charity and then boasting about it on social media. Think about the Apostles’ missionary journeys and the examples of fasting we’ve looked at. They didn’t advertise what they did; they just did it. So, when you fast or love your neighbour, don’t advertise it; just do it. When we boast in our fasting, we become no different than the Pharisees whom Jesus calls out for their hypocrisy by making a show of it.
Remember that fasting is not a command but merely an expectation Jesus has according to the common experience of His people. Mostly, it happens in Christian suffering. Jesus expects His people to suffer, and He therefore expects His people to fast in suffering just as the apostles, prophets, and kings before us, even Christ Himself. Therefore, when Lent comes around, there is no lawful obligation for you to fast; but whenever you are so distraught over sin and evil that your appetite is robbed of you, or you wish to discipline yourself before the Lord for a serious undertaking, use that time to fast and call upon the name of the Lord for help and strength.
But whenever we fast, we must approach it with caution. In Luther’s day, fasting—among other things—was weaponised by the Catholic Church to burden the consciences of Christians for assurance of forgiveness. The Pope and his priests required—and still require—their people to make “satisfaction” for sins through things like prayers, fasting, masses, pilgrimages, and praying a certain number of rosaries to Mary. Consciences were burdened because they could never pray enough, fast enough, or do enough good works to relieve these so-called satisfactions and be relieved from punishment in Purgatory (unless, of course, you were wealthy enough to buy your way out of it through indulgences or empty out your savings). But as Luther helped people to see, the Gospel relieves Christians of these impossible burdens—that the Gospel is the free forgiveness of sins “without subsequent or previous good works” from God’s pure mercy [Pieper I:13-14; emphasis mine].
I think we are inherently suspicious of free things, which is why we will add good works like fasting and prayer and so on to salvation and forgiveness of sins. In our commercialised society, the marketplace will advertise “free” stuff that always comes with strings attached. You might win a “free” car, but you still have to pay insurance and taxes on it. You have a chance to win a “free” t-shirt or a “free” smart device, but only if you give to our charity first.
But God’s forgiveness comes with no strings attached! If you repent, you are forgiven, and you do not need to attach things to it like fasting and prayer or community service to earn it, for it is given to you out of God’s pure mercy. The only thing in this world that comes free is the grace of God.
Sadly, people utilise fasting to showcase their so-called righteousness before God and others, but as we can infer from the biblical witness of fasting, it has nothing to do with you but everything to do with God. For whether one undergoes fasting in times of spiritual distress or conscious self-discipline, the focus is never on the self but always on God’s mercy. For Jehoshaphat, David, Ezra, Daniel, the Apostles, and even Christ Himself, the emphasis has never been on their show but always on God’s good and gracious will. In times of distress, those who fasted pleaded God for mercy and salvation, and it was given to them. In times of conscious self-discipline, those who fasted depended on God to give them the strength to pursue the energy-draining task of ministry.
There is no need to showcase our fasting, for as Jesus says, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” God knows you are fasting; nobody else needs to know. What is the reward He will give you? Honestly, I’m not exactly sure, because Jesus doesn’t disclose that information. But because these words come after the Beatitudes, I cannot help but think that those promises are the reward, which are quite similar to the mercy the kings, prophets, and disciples received in their fasting. The promises of these Beatitudes are the kingdom of heaven, comfort, the inheritance of the earth, hunger and thirst for righteousness being satisfied, mercy, seeing the face of God, being called sons of God, and as Jesus ends these Beatitudes that is strikingly familiar to His concluding words here on fasting: a great reward in heaven [Matthew 5:1-12].
Who knows what all of these will look like? But one thing we know for certain is that God promises mercy to His people who plead for mercy when they fast—but again, not because of their fasting, but solely because of God’s pure mercy.
Therefore, when you fast, may the mercy of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.