The New Century Version of the Bible is written with childlike simplicity. In that version, “Fasting” is translated simply, “go without eating”. Some people place great significance on “Fasting” and consider those who practice it to be going above and beyond the call of duty. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, fasted two days a week, and advised all of his ministers to do the same. Jesus started his ministry with by fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.
There is not one word about Fasting in the law of Moses. If the children of Israel went without eating, it was because they had no food, and not with any spiritual intent.
The first reference to intentional fasting in the Bible is in Second Samuel is where David fasted in hopes of saving the child of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. It did not work. The child died anyway.
But fasting is in the Bible, so it must be a good thing, right? The Bible’s second reference to fasting, and the first officially declared fast in the Bible, was in the book of First Kings. It was declared by the evil queen Jezebel. In that declaration, she made false accusations against Naboth the Jezreelite. This time, the fast had its intended effect; Naboth was killed, and Jezebel’s husband Ahab was able to take his land to make a garden.
If you remember the story, Jezebel was punished for declaring that fast. She was thrown from the city wall and eaten by dogs. When Ahab saw it, he humbled himself and fasted; for that, the Lord spared his life. And that was the first reference to a fast that was actually honored by God.
Already, there is a pattern here. David fasted to avoid punishment from God; and Jezebel declared a fast to deceive the people. No good came from the fasting of David and Jezebel. Ahab’s fast saved his life, because God paid attention to it. But it was Ahab’s newfound humility, his repentence, and not his fasting that saved his life.
So fasting is not a practice given by God to the Hebrew people, nor to Christians. This search of the scriptures seems to say that it was a pre-historical practice. By itself, it is no better than a superstition, like throwing salt over your shoulder. We know that as early in history as King David, people thought Fasting would cause God to hear and honor prayer. In that early reference itself, we see that fasting does not work that way. And in the example of Queen Jezebel, we see that fasting can be evil if it is done for the wrong reasons.
Jesus fed the 5,000 because he didn’t want to send them away fasting. Their fasting was not an act of worship; it was simply that they had no food. Later, there was a mob of Pharisees intent on killing the apostle Paul, so they swore they would fast until he was dead. Again, a fast with evil intent.
Maybe the simple New Century Version of the Bible is right. Maybe fasting means nothing more than, “to go without eating.”
The prophet Isaiah talked about a fast with wrong intent. “Why have we fasted,” the people were saying, “and God doesn’t see it? Why have we afflicted our souls, and God doesn’t honor it?”
Isaiah answered that they were fasting for pride, and fighting about it. God will not honor such a fast. “I did not choose this fast,” God said through Isaiah. “I did not ask you to afflict your souls. All of your scraping and sackcloth and ashes mean nothing to me, God said. It is not an acceptable fast.
Fortunately, God also told Isaiah what IS an acceptable fast. “Isn’t this the fast I have chosen,” said God, “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to feed the hungry, and house the poor, and be kind to your relatives? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health will be restored. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer. If you break the yoke, and stop gossiping about each other, and stop bragging, and feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering, then the LORD will hear you.”
I’m not making this up! That is what God says about fasting through the prophets. By itself, there is nothing good about fasting. Now, some of our young people have fasted for the last 24 hours, to raise money for Week of Compassion. The fasting does not make them holy. No, it is their caring for the poor that makes them holy.
Now, some of our youth are NOT fasting. Their little bodies just do not hold enough energy to keep them going for 24 hours. But they did help raise pledge money. Some of them helped us feed the poor last week in a local soup kitchen. THAT is the fasting that God wants; not to hurt yourself, but to help other people.
The young people in our church, without exception, are caring, and humble, and eager to please God. That is true for those who fast; it is also true for those who do not fast. They are precious, and holy, and righteous in the sight of God. I have heard them talk about God and Christ with great sincerity, and with love, and with respect. I am extremely proud of them, yes, each and every one of them.
Our youth group will be joining us for Communion today. For some of them, that little flake of bread will be their first solid food in more than 24 hours. I ask that you do not ask them which ones fasted and which ones didn’t. That is not important to God, and it should not be important to us, either. What is important is that they care about the poor, and about our church, and about each other.
If fasting is a part of your worship, so be it. That is between you and God. He who sees your fast in secret will reward you openly. But there is no shortcut to God’s heart. God does not honor our ceremonies. Instead, He sees the desires of our heart. The question is not do you fast, do you pray, do you honor the Sabbath. The question is, do you care? Do you help others? Do you honor God with your very life?
I think that John Wesley thought of God every time his stomach growled during those two days of fasting. His fasting left more food for his family and his community, and that is good. You do not have to fast to get close to God. All you have to do is to love his children.
Your children, our children, are the children of God. Let us pledge to love them, to guide and protect them, and to encourage their concern for others. God does not honor them because they fast. God honors them because they care. And as we care about our children, as we love one another, as we love our enemies, as we love those who are homeless, hungry, discouraged and oppressed, God will honor us as well. That is the fast that God wants.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Tropical Sands Christian Church – March 2, 2003