Back to series
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Joel; we’ll be reading from chapter 2.
We’re in the middle of a series on being Christian. We talk a lot in church about belief, and we should, just without neglecting Christian practice. What does it mean to practice our faith? This is what God has been teaching me since I started pastoring here, what it means to actually live out faith. Faith without works is dead. As a pastor, and as a father, I have a lot of people with whom I’m sharing my life and my faith, and I would rather share something with them that’s living. If I’m going to leave a spiritual inheritance to my children, I want it to be something which can support them as they live their lives.
I want to spend today talking about the Christian practice of fasting. Like passing the peace, this is a practice which we see over and over again in the Bible, and yet in our tradition of Christianity, it’s nearly absent from our Christian practice. Prayer and fasting go together, but since we already spent a significant part of last year talking about prayer, specifically, I’m going to focus on fasting this morning. As I already mentioned, today is the first Sunday of lent. Lent isn’t something I grew up with, and fasting, even now, isn’t something I normally practice. But it’s something I know I ought to do, in the same way I ought to play more with my kids—it would be good for me, and everyone around me. I tell myself it doesn’t make sense and I don’t have time or energy for it, and in my heart I know those are cheap excuses. The real reason lies within my own selfishness and weakness.
Fasting is an enacted profession of God’s sufficiency. Fasting is an enacted profession of God’s sufficiency. It’s a way of acting out the idea that God is enough. If you take away everything and everyone else, and all you have is Christ, he is enough. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Read with me in the book of Joel, chapter 2, and we’re going to start reading in v.12. [Joel 2:12-27] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Joel is a book written probably after the exile, that terrible chapter in Israel’s history, written after things had gotten a little better, inviting people to remember the hard times. The people of God throughout their lives would use the book of Joel as a means of mourning together in remembrance of what was lost. It’s important to begin, in our understanding of fasting, with mourning, and mourning on a broad scale. Mourning is where fasting begins.
A few years ago, in the midst of our own national crisis, my son’s pet frog died, and he really mourned the loss, he was deeply upset. It was really his first experience with death. Which is how I found myself in the midst of the many funerals I and most other pastors performed that year, performing a funeral for a frog named toadey.
As we were talking about about his wishes for the funeral, and what he thought toadey would want—we decorated a box and picked a special spot in the yard—I’m trying desperately to hide my smiles and how cute I think this is. But we’re planning out an order of service with some songs in it, and he looks at me and said, “Daddy, will you say something at the funeral? You’re the one who says the words.” And that statement from a five year old changed the way I thought of the task of preaching.
We need words when we’re hurting, and they need to be the right words. If you give a trite platitude to a person in mourning, even mourning over a frog, more often then not the words do damage, or they get thrown back at you. You need the words, and you need something to do with your hurt, and I’m so grateful our God gives us both. I’m so grateful our faith doesn’t ask us to gloss over the sad things in life to focus on the next, but instead our God left heaven and lived on earth with us so that he could enter our pain and loss. In Joel, God gives us the words we need, and the practices, which is why Israel returned to it again and again as a remembrance. The book of Joel is a gift to the person who is hurting, and fasting is a gift to anyone who has experienced loss, anyone who is longing to hear from God and come close to him.
I said already, fasting is a way of acting out the idea that God is enough, but fasting begins in mourning loss. It’s a way of admitting to people around you that you are not ok, and you can’t just keep going as usual. In the ancient near east, where Joel is writing, typically this is how you would do fast: you would cover the ground with ashes, tear your clothes, put on sackcloth, and sit on the ground in the ashes. Ashes in that culture represented ruin and loss, like the burning of a home, ashes means there’s nothing left of something you once loved. If nothing was actually burned, spreading ashes on the ground was a way of outwardly expressing an inner loss, and it was an invitation for people who love you to come sit beside you in your loss.
My wife and I are foster parents, which means we deal with a lot of trauma in the lives of our children. One of the things you do to address trauma is called a nurture group, which is just a way of giving nurturing space for kids to express hurt. The way you do it, I would ask my kids, do you have any hurts, and usually they says yes, because they want the band aid. I don’t know if you know any kids, but every kid I’ve ever known has loved band aids. So I ask if they’re hurt, and then I ask, if the hurt is on the outside or on the inside? And if it’s on the outside, the bandaid goes over the wound, but more often they ask me to just place it over their chest, over their heart, as a way of showing a hurt that might otherwise go unknown. Sitting in ashes is like that. Just admitting to the people close to you, I’m hurt; helping them see it.
Tearing your clothes—our passage uses the word rending, meaning tearing—then and now, represented extreme anguish and grief. You feel torn apart, so you’re tearing your clothes in the same way. The sackcloth represents uncaring, being focused on something else to the point of neglecting all else; because sackcloth was the material of the time that would have been cheap, available, overused, thrown out. It’s like the other day, I saw a young woman at the store in sweatpants and an overlarge t-shirt buying a pint of ice cream. Her hair was a mess. That’s the language in our culture of something consuming our minds and emotions, needing someone to sit with us.
So there’s a kind of fasting we do, just naturally, when we’re grieving, and understanding fasting begins with mourning. Our passage, though, is different, and Lent is different from a grief fast, and the differences can help us understand the purpose of—let’s call what we’re entering into in this season of lent—a ritualized fast, and how ritualized fasting became a part of our regular Christian practice. In v.13, Joel writes, “rend your hearts, not your garments.” Leave your clothes alone, don’t wear sackcloth, don’t sit in ashes, because you’re not actually mourning. That would all just be a lie. Instead, he says, break your hearts.
Jesus says something similar in his sermon on the mount, he tells people, when they’re fasting, not to go around in sweats with ice cream, but he tells them take a shower, wash your hair and fast in secret. Joel’s invitation to rend our hearts is, instead of a response to mourning, an invitation into mourning. Why? Why break our hearts? Why remember times of grief? And of course, Lent goes even further than remembering times of grief, Lent invites us to contemplate our own deaths as well, repeating God’s words to Adam in the garden when death first entered the world: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
I went to an ash Wednesday service at another church; we didn’t do one this year at our church just to care for our ministers after the chaos of Mardi Gras. At the service I attended, there were a lot of people in the room, and when they invited us up to impose ashes, we were toward the back of the room. To be honest with you, this year and last, I started crying in the midst of the ritual. As each person turned around marked for death that way. As my own children approached, the baby in my arms, marked with ashes.
If a bomb goes off in a room like that and every man, woman, and child perishes at once, it would be counted as one of the world’s great tragedy’s, and the world would be shocked and mourn. But the imposition of ashes reminds us, in our sin we’re in the midst of a tragedy far more horrible than even that, only it lies “in the very fact of frequency,” to quote Eliot. Every last person in that room will die. In our sin we’ve brought death into the world, in that room and in every other.
One person dying is a tragedy, but the human race dying is unthinkable, and so we don’t think of it—but we ought. When we contemplate our own deaths, when we rend our hearts instead of our garments, when we learn to grieve the tragedies lying “in the very fact of frequency,” we’ll learn to praise God for the fact that he was able to change, undo, what none of us could even avoid. He was actually able to overthrow the death which so completely, crushingly rules over us. Just like in our own lives, so in the world, you have to understand the depth of depravity and darkness to begin the grasp the height of God’s love and grace. You have to understand how desperate our situation is to understand the staggering weight of his salvation.
So we rend our hearts as Christians, or at least we should. We remember the darkness of our lives even while striving “further in and further up” into his “marvelous light.” We do it by fasting. Going without food, or drink, or red meat, or caffeine, whatever is necessary to remind ourselves that we are completely and utterly dependent upon Christ, and that he, even if it’s Christ alone, with nothing else, he is sufficient. He is what we really need, and he is not a meagre meal; he is a feast, and the more we depend upon him alone, the more filling and sufficient Christ becomes.
Practically speaking, I would encourage you to plan a fast this week, if you normally don’t. Homework! And when you fast, in obedience to Jesus’ words, don’t be showy about it. Don’t post about your fast on your social feeds, or talk about it constantly, except to people who might help you, or who you think may benefit from the practice. This is a private and very personal practice. An introspective discipline, if you will.
Also practically speaking, I would encourage you to engage with the ritual of fasting, in obedience to our passage. Meaning don’t be silly about it. Begin with remembering grief and loss. In other words, “rend your heart.” Remember grief and allow it to lead you to joy about what God has done in your life. I hope that makes sense. I don’t have time this morning to teach about the power of ritual, but what I mean, practically, is just to tie your fast into the history of the practice and use it as a chance to mourn with those who mourn. I know intermittent fasting is big right now as a weight loss tool, and I have nothing against the practice, but that’s not the kind of fast I mean.
Another example would be a girl I knew growing up who would fast from coffee each year and just drink a lot of coke during Lent. That’s also missing the point. I hope you see what I mean. Think about the things you do every day, the things you’ve really come to depend upon. Eating is one of them, which, caveat, some people have a variety of issues with eating and blood sugar, and I don’t want to encourage anything unhealthy. But for me, fasting from food is good and healthy and reminds me of my dependence upon God alone.
Since I’ve been pastoring I’ve been fasting intermittently from my phone, which now rings constantly. I find that particular fast very helpful and I would suggest it. There are several companies which make their money on drawing your time and attention onto a screen, and they’ve gotten very good at it. Usually on Saturday, which is usually my one day off, if I’m with my family, I leave my phone in the other room. I started a fast in the pandemic from social media which may become permanent, because the effects in my life have been so healthy—I’m far less anxious, and I care less about people’s opinions of me, in a good way. I have better and more frequent conversations with friends because I don’t already know what’s happening in people’s lives.
Last year I was on a sequestered jury—y’all may remember this—part of the sequestration was that they confiscated our phones. For about a week we had only intermittent access to them. For several folks the initial anxiety with that was intense. One lady was removed from the jury because she went home after the first day and posted everything she had heard at trial on social media. Another guy said he felt like he had lost a part of himself with the loss of his phone. At one point I asked the group if anyone ever fasted, or took a break from their phones, and only one of the eleven other adults had in recent years. By the end of the week, I could see the benefits of losing access to phones in people’s actions and in the conversations around the room. We were engaged in each other’s lives, having real conversations and making real, in-person connections.
Coffee, I think, is a good fast for many. And alcohol, both things which are easy to become far too dependent upon. For some, watching and reading news. Watching television. If something scares you and sounds impossible to actually fast from, that’s probably the thing from which you most need to take a break. Find a way to fast from purchasing and owning things. Maybe allow a close friend or spouse to choose a fast for you. Remind yourself that the only absolutely necessary thing in your life is God.
Historically speaking, Lent became a time of fasting because it leads up to the celebration of Easter, and early Christians would take the time to prepare their hearts for the celebration of the resurrection. They would fast, yes, but also during this time they would prepare new Christians for baptism through what became in some traditions catechesis, or in our tradition, a new members course. And I think this is fascinating, during lent anyone who had left or been expelled from the church because of their sin, they would invite to rejoin the fellowship.
All of this, at it’s core, is because fasting is an act of faith. Faith that God is able to restore anything you’ve lost. In our passage, beautifully, Joel writes, “He will restore the years the locusts have eaten,” and he is able to restore you to life, redeem you back into family, to wipe your tears, and to satisfy our longing.
My friends, I would invite you into a life that is dependent upon Christ, and nothing else this morning, which begins in contemplating loss. May the Spirit of God be what fills us. May Christ be what nourishes us day to day, and may God, the Father, be the only thing or person on whom we depend. Pray with me.