Speaker, Tristan Sherwin
Next Sunday morning we will be gathered, in the building, able to worship together.
It is a significant moment for us. One many of us have craved for a long time. It’s also going to be a strange moment for some of us—we’ve not been inside a building together for nearly eighteen months.
That’s a long time.
During that time, many of us have become accustomed to a new way of being and navigating through life. When lockdown began, our patterns and priorities changed. Just as it took some consideration moving into a lockdown-way of life, it will take some consideration and discernment as we move out of that.
Each of us is different. Each of us has our own anxieties and expectations about what comes next. There will be teething problems as we meet together. We’ve gotten used to Zoom, and it’ll take some time to readjust to the logistics of being back in-person.
We are also not the same church coming out of lockdown as we were going into lockdown. Like many churches during lockdown, we’ve lost people. We’ve had some people join us, too. There were things we engaged in prior to lockdown that will not be able to function when we get back. In many ways, it feels like we are at a beginning, in that it’s not a matter of rebuilding that lies before us, but building afresh. As I said last week, this past two-years have been a humbling time for us a church. It will take time to find our feet.
So, let’s be patient with one another. Let’s act in love and compassion towards each other. Let’s be willing to serve.
We’ve changed. It was inevitable. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There’s a new day before us, and I’m confident that God is up to something. If we are willing to take it slow and steady, if we are willing to remember and refocus on Jesus’ command to love one another, I firmly believe God will surprise us. This doesn’t mean it will be plain sailing. But, as a Pentecostal person, I do long for the sails in our church to be filled with, and moved forward by the breath of God.
And so, this coming week, in preparation for us meeting together again, in preparation of this new day, we want to invite you to join with us in a week of prayer and fasting as a church.
Olivier, when I hand back to him, will describe how that will look formally this week. But outside of the formal, I want to encourage each us to give ourselves to prayer and fasting this week. And I’d like to spend a few moments this morning just sharing what I mean by that, as fasting can be understood in a number of ways.
READ: MATTHEW 6:5-18 (NLT)
SOAP & FASTING
At the start of lock down, we found ourselves, as a family, having to buy something we haven’t bought for a long time: Soap.
I mean a bar of soap, because we struggled to find any liquid soap—we still washed before COVID. Honest.
We had a problem, though. Our bathroom sink doesn’t have a pre-formed crevice in which to put a bar of soap. It’s a flat surface around our taps, so this wet bar of soap was sliding everywhere. We didn’t own a soap-dish, either. We’ve never needed one. So, we got creative. We did own a butter dish. It was a wedding gift. We have never used it, ever! But, for the first time in 21 years, it now had a function. It wasn’t what it was intended for, but it worked well.
On occasion, some things can work well outside of their intended purpose.
This is not always the case. Keys aren’t really made for opening paint lids. The arms of the sofa are not for sitting on. Chairs have four legs for a reason. And fingernails do not make great screwdrivers! Trust me.
Fasting would be another good case in point. The purpose and practise of fasting has something of a chequered history within Christianity.
In some places, it’s been elevated to a law, a commandment, almost, and placed as a burden upon others—even though it was never a law in the Old or New Testaments. In some places, it’s been misused as a means of punishing the body. In some places, fasting is almost superstitious; some people teach that fasting persuades God to do something (‘if you want something, pray and fast about it’). In other places, fasting can be done so routinely that it just becomes an empty practice that is mechanically observed with no heart behind it, or it just becomes about what we can give up. In other places, fasting has just been abandoned altogether.
And then there are the times when fasting gets a book deal and it becomes a trend.
Even in Jesus’ day, as per the passage we’ve just read, the priority and motive behind fasting, as well as prayer, wasn’t were it should have been. It was being misused. For some people, as Jesus points out, they prayed and they fasted just to draw attention to themselves—it made them look devoted to God. The focus wasn’t where is should have been.
When I think about the history fasting has, and about the way some people still talk about it within church circles, today, I find myself agreeing with John Wesley, when he said that, ‘Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.’[i]
Fasting is not a law. Fasting is not a punishment. Fasting is not a superstitious act and it is not about looking pious. The focus of fasting, I’m going to suggest, is not even about giving something up (bear with me, we’ll get to that in a minute). And yet, fasting does have its place and can have beautiful results if exercised within its intended purpose.[ii]
We’re not doing a Bible Study this morning, although there are many texts we could look at which describe people fasting and which can help us to grasp the heart behind what fasting is and is not about. For example, you could explore: Joel 1: 14; 2 Samuel 12:15-16; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:5; Exodus 34:28; Isaiah 58:1-12; Zechariah 7:4-14; Matthew 6:5-18; Luke 2:37; Luke 4:2; Acts 13:2-3, 14:23; 1 Corinthians 7: 3-5.
All those passages are worth taking some time to study. In many of them, people often give up food (they fast from eating). And there could be good reasons for this, which I’m not going to get into this morning.[iii] However, it’s not always the case that people fast, or are called to fast from eating. A few of those examples mention fasting as a regular practise. But the majority of them are particular moments, prompted by particular events. Some of them last days (Jesus fasted for 40 days), some are just a mealtime, some are life-long patterns.
Whatever the case, however it looked, the focus was the same. And, I suppose, that if I were to reduce those passages down to a specific purpose behind fasting, then fasting, in the Bible, would be about cultivating space and time to be exclusively with God, in order to be moved and shaped by God’s heart.
‘Fasting is about cultivating space and time to be exclusively with God, in order to be moved and shaped by God’s heart.‘
Fasting is not about what we can ‘give up’. Rather, it’s an invitation to use our time and energy differently. Fasting is not about manipulating God, by thinking that if we do ‘this’ then God has to do ‘that’. Rather, instead of us trying gain some hold over God, it is about us being vulnerable before God. Fasting is not even about us proving to God how much we can sacrifice. It’s not about us or our accomplishments, at all. To follow on from what I said last week [BE : AT // BLESSED ARE THE CRACKED], fasting is acknowledging our dependency on God, it’s about having a poverty of spirit, and about crying out to God for God.
That’s why, whenever fasting is spoken about in the Bible, it’s never on its own; it’s joined with prayer. People didn’t just give up stuff, like food, for the sake of giving up stuff. They reinvested their time—time formally spent on other things, like food—in in coming before God, seeking God.[iv]
Prayer and fasting. Fasting and prayer.
A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
The Methodist theologian, E. Stanley Jones, once described prayer as follows; ‘If I throw out a boathook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.‘
This week, as a church, we want to invest time in coming humbly before God, aligning our will and hearts to God’s will and heart.
All I’m asking this week, is for each of us to devote ourselves in prayer to God. There will be times when we will corporately do so. But I’m inviting each of us, as individuals, in our own time, to stand before God, in stillness and silence maybe, listening and allowing God to speak to and shape each of our hearts.
I’m inviting you to fast, to adopt an alternate set of patterns this coming week, and to take some time, that you would normally spend doing other things, and use that time to be with God. It could be that you fast certain meals, or switch off the television set, or that you come off Facebook for a while. Again, I’m inviting you, not to give things up, but to use that time differently. Take that time normally spent preparing and eating a particular meal, or that time normally spent watching a specific TV show etc., and use it to be with God.
Fasting is not about giving things up, but to use time differently.
It will look differently to each of us. But use that time to listen, to seek, to wait upon the Lord.
The goal of this week of prayer and fasting is not to bend God to our will. It is not to bribe God to bless us as a church. It is not us seeking to have our way.
I just want us to be more in awe of God, and more receptive to God, and opening up our hearts to God.
In a strange way, I’m reminded of one of my favourite stories—a classic piece of literature that is up there with The Lord of the Rings and the The Count of Monte Cristo.
It’s a story called A Squash and a Squeeze, by Julia Donaldson (the author of a famous story called The Gruffalo).
In A Squash and a Squeeze, there’s ‘a little old lady who [lives] all by herself, with a table and chairs and a jug on the shelf.’ And a ‘wise old man hears her grumble and grouse, [that] there’s not enough room in my house.’
She asks the wise old man for help. The wise old man advises her to bring her chicken into her house. The old woman is confused, but she brings her chicken into her home. The chicken just makes a mess, and knocks of the jug on her shelf, and the house feels smaller with the chicken.
So she asks the wise old man for help, again. The wise old man then tells her to bring in her goat. Which she does, but there’s more mess as the goat chews her curtains and her table legs, and it’s full of fleas (which the chicken pecks at).
So she asks the wise old man again, who then tells her to bring in her pig. Well, the pig raids her larder, and the house, that was too small for one, now feels ‘teeny for four’.
So she asks again for help. And the wise old man tells her to bring in her cow, and it gets worse, causing the little old lady to cry, ‘Heaven’s alive!’ because a house that was ‘teeny for four’ becomes ‘weeny for five.’
So, one final time, she asks the wise old man for help. This time he says, take them all out. And so, one by one, she pushes each of the animals out; the chicken, then the pig and the goat, and finally she pushes out the cow. With all the animals gone, the little old lady changes: she begins to appreciate what she has. She thanks the wise old man, for what he has done, because a house that was weeny for five, is suddenly gigantic for one.
I’m sharing that story because, like the little old lady, I want to see our eyes opened this week.
As I said at the start, we’ve been through a tough few years. And maybe we’ve picked up some baggage during that time. Maybe there are things that need pushing out of our hearts; things that have come to occupy us and motivate us. Maybe there is bitterness, anger, resentment. Maybe there are distractions and consumer impulses. Maybe, understandably, we just feel fed up, disillusioned, fatigued, and uneasy. Maybe nostalgia of the ‘good old days’ or an obsession with the next new thing has possessed us. All these ways of thinking can have a way of distorting and disrupting our appreciation of one another and God.
But my hope is that in coming to God in prayer and fasting, like the little old lady in that story, that the Holy Spirit will highlight those things to us, and will help clear them out and bring about a newer and clearer way of thinking, and a fresh appreciation for each other, for church, and for God.
What I’m really hoping for this week, for you and for me, is what the Apostle Paul prays for in his letter to the Ephesian church (in 1:16b-23, and 3:16-21), and I’m going to close with these words:
‘I pray [that] God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, [would] give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself. (Ephesians 1: 16b-23, NLT)
‘I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21, NLT)
NB: The artwork used in the header is by the creative genius, Scott Erickson. You can find more of his work on his Instagram Profile.
[i] John Wesley, The Journal of the Reverend John Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1938), p.147 (as quoted in Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline).
[ii] For clarity, this message is talking about fasting in a religious context. In our wider culture, fasting is a word that people are using again. There are plenty of diet gurus and physical trainers, today, talking about the health benefits of fasting. There are also people in our culture talking about fasting from technology; advising us to look after our mental health by taking the time to disconnect and unplug ourselves from work, and consuming information, and from social media. Both of those kinds of fasts are good things. It is good to look after your body. It is right to care for your mental health. However, although, at first glance, those kind of fasts share traits (and benefits?) that are seen within religious fasts, the focus, the motive, is different.
[iii] Some people would posit that fasting from food, feeling that craving in our body, emulates, or reminds us of our spiritual craving and our need for God. I’m not going to say this isn’t the case; I can certainly see how that would work (as long as it isn’t unhealthy or abusive, or seen as an act of self-punishment). However, not all fasting in the Bible was food based. Personally, I would lean more to the side of those that posit food was preferential because of the time that would be made available—time otherwise spent preparing and eating a meal would be spent in prayer. Of course, both of these reasons could have gone hand in hand.
[iv] Or, as the Quaker, Richard Foster, describes it, ‘The central ideal in fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.’ (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, p.73). Foster’s chapter on Fasting, in this book, is a great place to start if you want to explore fasting.