To Fast or not to Fast (Ash Wednesday, 2020)
Mark 1: 12-13; 2: 18-22
To Fast or not to Fast
So you came today for an Ash Wednesday service. Ash Wednesday is the service that begins the season of Lent. This is a season where we are fasting to prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus‘s passion; preparing ourselves for the rebirth of the church into another year ministry and service. Lent is designed off what Jesus did in the stories that were read today. Jesus went off in the wilderness and he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to prepare himself for his ministry, so we fast for 40 days and 40 nights to prepare ourselves for ours. Now, if you look at a calendar, Easter is actually 46 days away from today. So what’s the difference? Sundays are not part of Lent; they are mini-Easters. We will get back to that moment, but this is what Lent is and what it’s designed to be.
We also recognize that Jesus commanded us to fast after he is ascended. So we put these two things together and we say that we need to follow in his footsteps: we need to prepare ourselves for our ministry in yet another year, and we prepare ourselves through a fast as commanded. And we take that fast for 40 days and 40 nights. To use imagery, we are anticipating receiving new wine on Easter. So during Lent, we are building new wineskins to receive it.
What is fasting? Fasting is a means of Grace; one of the primary ways in which God normally bestows Grace upon God‘s people. The definition of fasting that I tend to use is “abstaining from something in order to seek God.” Now there has been a movement, that I’ve been a part of, from pastors the last decade or so that rather than fasting from something, instead you fast toward something. In other words, you add something to your regimen instead of taking something away; some sort of spiritual discipline that you haven’t been doing or something like that. But if you think about it, you’re really just fasting from time. If you say “I’m going to pray every morning and every evening,” then you’re fasting from the sleep that you otherwise would’ve gotten, or you’re fasting from that one more hit of the snooze button in order to conduct that prayer. You’re still giving something up, right? Even if you frame it a little bit differently. This is what a fast is.
Fasting involves going into the wilderness. Fasting, for Jesus, involves a significant change to his routine. I want to focus on this for a little bit because Mark is the only gospel that doesn’t detail the temptations at the end. We know that Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and at the end of the 40 days and 40 nights we know that the devil comes in and tempts him. But, Mark doesn’t talk about that. Mark focuses on the fast; the 40 days and 40 nights. And we understand that Jesus really changed his routine from what he was doing before when he was out in the wilderness.
And I don’t think that we need to go out into the wilderness and disrupt ourselves that much. But I do think that we need to consider how much we think we can disrupt our routine, and how much we can disrupt what is holding us back. Because I do think that what results from a fast is a spiritual opportunity. What results from a fast is Grace. You could think of fasting like this: there is a door. You are inside; God is outside. And fasting is opening the door and God pouring Grace into where you are. And how much you open the door is how much Grace you have the opportunity to receive from that fast. At the same time, though, you don’t want to open it too much. You want to find that balance as you seek the Spirit.
And seeking the Spirit is the purpose of a fast. That is the purpose. You’re trying to find the mountaintop moments that I talked about Sunday. You’re seeking out God, you’re seeking out the Spirit. That is the purpose of fasting. That is why it is extremely important that you do not just give up something you’ve always been meaning to quit for Lent. Lent is not a time to renew your New Year’s resolution that you failed two months ago. Lent is not a time to go on a diet and try and lose some weight. Lent is a time for spiritual growth. It doesn’t matter ultimately what you give up; time, all food, certain foods, lunch for a day, chocolate, whatever. What you give up doesn’t really matter so long as what you do in place of what you give up is seeking God. So, let’s say you give up sleep, or that last snooze button; it needs to be so that you pray, not so that you have eight more minutes to check Facebook. There’s a spiritual component here, you need to put some kind of spiritual discipline in its place: prayer, reading of Scripture, serving the poor, etc. etc.
But we also recognize that at the end of 40 days, Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus faced Temptations. And if he faced temptations, you can bet that you will face temptations as well. It is a part of Lent. So when you are considering what you are giving up, you do need to consider you’re probably going to be tempted. Don’t overdo it. What you are giving up for Lent should fit on the top half of the post it note that you have in your bulletin. This shouldn’t be a long list of things because you want to be able to keep it up in the face of temptation, with the help of God obviously. Part of facing temptation involves the fact that Sundays are technically not a part of Lent. If you feel you need to do 6 6 day fasts instead of 1 46 day fast and you want to eat your chocolate on Sunday, go for it. If that’s what you need to beat the temptations the other six days, then do it. The purpose is to find God, the purpose is not to lose an addiction to chocolate.
But I want you to understand that you will be tempted. And so in those moments, when you’re relying upon God to hold fast to the fast, that is the moment where God will speak the loudest. That is the moment where are you will receive the most Grace. Don’t get discouraged when these moments come up. And if you fall to one of them, I want you to hear this and remember this: you’re not Jesus and it’s OK. Get back up. Keep going as much as you can because throughout the season of Lent, each and every time you succeed you get Grace, but each and every time you fail you don’t lose Grace. That’s the way the Spirit works.
I want you to recognize that the Spirit is present in your situation in the midst of your fast. That we are present with you; holding you up and encouraging you. You’re not alone in your Lenten discipline. You’re never alone. The Spirit is always with you; your church, your brothers and sisters in Christ in this room, are always with you.
And again this year we are going to symbolize that by placing your Lenten discipline upon the post it note in your bulletin and then placing that post it note on this cross. And I’m going to destroy all of these without reading them by the morning, but I’m going to put the cross back on that altar in the front doorway. That way, every time you walk into church, you’ll be reminded that you’re all in this together, that all of us are behind you, and that you are behind all of us. In fact, that cross is not going anywhere. There’s been a cross on that alter every Sunday since last Ash Wednesday. It’s there to remind you that you’re not alone throughout the entire year.
So that’s what I want you to do: write on the top part of your post it note what you’re giving up. If you don’t want to put that in public, just write “God you know.” And God will know. But this year, on the bottom part of your post it note, I want you to write what you’re putting in place of what you’re giving up. Are you going to read Scripture, are you going to pray, are you going to serve the poor on your lunch break; what spiritual discipline are you going to put in its place? Again, you can put “God you know.” And then bring it forward and place it on the cross. I invite you to the discipline of Lent.