The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page at www.wearesoutheast.org
A friend of mine named Jeff sent me a message a couple of weeks ago inviting me to join him at Fort Benjamin Harrison to do some mountain biking. He had a spare bike, was experienced on the trails, and wanted to hang out. Since I had never been mountain biking before, I thought it sounded like a great time.
Now, usually, when I’m out on a bike, I spend my time thinking about life and things that are going on. On a mountain bike, all you think about is not falling off. The way my friend, Jeff, put it, was that on a mountain bike you don’t really have time to think about anything else because you are too busy trying not to die. Mountain biking brings that whole will to live and self-preservation thing right the forefront of your mind.
I asked Jeff if he’d ever crashed and he told me about the time he hit a root in the trail that threw him and his bike into a tree, and he crashed and busted his helmet. Again, this is all information that might have been helpful before I agreed to do this.
The trails we went on weren’t just straight dirt trails. They were uphill, downhill, quick turns, through creeks, and rock formations all while flying by trees only inches from your face. It was exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time and nothing like riding on the road. What I discovered as a result was that everything I had learned about riding a bike didn’t apply at all to mountain biking. I mean there were two wheels, pedals, and handlebars but everything else was completely different. I was frustrated, and several times I just wanted to give up.
So, there were times I would be struggling through the obstacles (tree trunks fallen over, rocks, and jumps) and I would watch Jeff ahead of me. He was just gliding through twists and turns, jumping off these rocks, and it all just seemed so natural. At one point I heard him yell out in joy as he jumped over a huge obstacle and, when I finally caught up to him, he had this huge smile on his face. He didn’t care if I saw him make the jump. Riding these trails had become natural for him, and he wanted me to experience what that felt like.
Here’s the thing, Jeff was right. At one point where I just stopped thinking about it, and it actually started to feel natural. I hit this jump, landed it, and didn’t care if anyone else saw.
The reason I told you about this is that this is a great parallel to faith. Faith in Jesus’s day had become this awkward public show. All these people were worried about what everyone thought of them. They wanted to make sure they looked religious enough, said the right words, and did the right things when everyone was, but they seriously missed the point.
The danger for us is that we end up missing the point. Jesus desires that faith wouldn’t be this awkward struggle for us but that it would become the natural part of our lives it is meant to be.
We’ve talked about this for a couple weeks as we looked at what Jesus had to say about giving to the needy and praying. But this week we turn to a subject most of us don’t really know a lot about, but I think we will see it has the potential if we understand it and actually apply it, to have a significant impact on our faith.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Right away we have some questions we have to ask. The first question is obvious. What is fasting? And, the answer is actually straightforward. Fasting is abstaining from eating or drinking anything for a specified period of time.
Now, there are all sorts of other ways that people fast. You see this during that time right before Easter that we call Lent. We will hear people say they are giving up things like meat for Lent. That’s a traditional thing to give up. It’s why we have all these Fish Frys all over the place which I’m definitely not complaining about.
People have also started to give up things like chocolate, Mountain Dew, or social media. But this has become ridiculous. I saw an article this week that had a list of the top 100 things you should give up during a fast. The list included things like internet trolling, not cracking your knuckles, and plumber’s crack. I mean serious, plumber’s crack? Is this really what Jesus was talking about?
And, while I commend their desire to cut these things out of their lives, and I’m thankful if more people would do the last one, the reality is that this is not what Jesus was talking about when he talked about fasting. And this matters because when we really look at fasting, we will find that fasting isn’t about what we are giving up, it’s about what we are responding to.
So to understand what Jesus was talking about with fasting, and what we are responding to when we fast, we have to go back to see where fasting came from and what happened along the way.
In the Jewish world that Jesus lived in, fasting wasn’t the weird idea that it is to us today. That’s because it was a part of their festivals. The holiest of those festivals was called the Day of Atonement also known as Yom Kippur. It’s described in the Old Testament book of Leviticus this way.
Leviticus 23:26-28, 32
26 The Lord said to Moses, 27 “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. 28 Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. 32 It is a day of sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath.”
The Day of Atonement was a day where they focused on repentance and forgiveness. And they did this on Sabbath day: the day of rest that was always meant to remind them that everything was from God. They didn’t fast so that God would forgive them. They fasted because it was God that rescued, redeemed, and restored them.
Now, this isn’t the only place we find fasting in the scriptures. There are countless stories of people who fasted, but the common theme in all of them was that fasting was a response. People fasted in response to sin, death, war, sickness, and fear. And fasting always pointed them back to their faith and trust in God.
But by the time of Jesus something had changed. Fasting had become a bi-weekly activity that was scheduled and expected. Now, here’s the thing, there isn’t a single place in the scriptures where the people were told to fast twice a week. So, rather than fasting as a response to trust in God, it became part of the religious checkbox that they marked off twice a week.
We actually see this check box referenced in the book of Luke. We’ve looked at this passage before, and it once again provides a picture of how people took good things and missed the point.
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee in this story thought his fasting made him good. He didn’t fast and give because of His trust in God. He was trying to impress. And even worse he was bragging about it trying to impress everyone with how religious he was. And this is what Jesus ultimately addressed.
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
They got exactly what they wanted. They would try to look hungry and thirsty for everyone else’s benefit so that people would be impressed with how religious they were being. And here’s the thing, if it was just a big show, what’s the point? Instead of pointing themselves to God they were pointing to themselves. They couldn’t have been further from the intent if they tried.
Jesus says there is a different way to approach fasting.
17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Now, the phrase “put oil on your head and wash your face” sounds like they were supposed to do something special but this phrase is actually pointing to every day things that people in the first century did. He was just telling them to make fasting a natural part of life.
Fasting isn’t meant to be a performance to show yourself or anyone else how religious you’re being. It isn’t about bragging about giving up coffee, video games, or Facebook. Fasting is a physical response to your need for God and to the very real reality that regardless of the situations you face, you can put your trust in God that he rescues, redeems, and restores.