Fasting – A biblical crash course

I think that many Christians have robbed themselves of one of the greatest tools in their spiritual lives: fasting. There is no one place that spells out how to fast! That is certainly one of the reasons we have been reluctant to teach on it. But, the Old Testament didn’t give much instruction on how to pray, just examples. People knew what the word meant. Jesus, in the New Testament, deepens the teaching on prayer but doesn’t change the essential definition of talking to God. In the New Testament, Jesus emphasizes the importance of not fasting like the hypocrites, but of fasting for God. But he still assumes people know the basic definition.

 

What is fasting?

 
The basic definition seems to be to not eat for a predetermined period of time. In 2 Samuel 12:16-7, David fasted and didn’t eat, but apparently still drank (water?). The Greek word for “fast” is actually “un-eating,” In Esther 4:16, drinking is also abstained from, but that seems to me to go beyond the strictest definition of fasting. That period of time should be set prayerfully sand carefully because it is better not to make a commitment at all than to break it (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). People have fasted for many different lengths of time. Early Christians, following the Jewish custom, fasted two days a week. They chose Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus). The Bible tells us of people fasting for a single day, three days, seven days and forty days (Moses, Elijah, and Jesus).
 

 Why fasting?

“The Fast” became a synonym for the Day of Atonement, the only fast prescribed in the law. In fact, it is not even explicitly called a fast in the Old Testament (but it is by Paul in Acts) – fasting is included in the broad “afflict your souls.” I think that makes it clear that fasting is a kind of mourning (Joel 2:14) of our separation from God, and was therefore not appropriate when Jesus was on earth (Matthew 9:15). It is a pretty natural connection from when we are grieving, we lose our appetite. Fasting is not always necessary but is a way of drawing ourselves closer to God. It is broad because it can represent repentance, a desire for revival or just seeking for God’s direction or action. But the idea of God’s distance is the same in all of them.
 
Since fasting is also called worship (Luke 2:37), it is a beautiful picture of how wanting to want God can itself be a form of praise. The New Testament pattern is drawing closer to him for clarity on major decisions, and fasting does seem to always be paired with prayer (Acts 13:3).
 
I think that Jesus’ quotation, when tempted of Satan, shows that fasting is voluntarily entering into the situation described in Deuteronomy 8:3. Being without food humbles us and teaches us to eat the hidden manna, the bread the disciples knew not of. That bread is the strength that comes from the Word of God (and especially the Incarnate Word). This is probably the passage I would use as my central text in a sermon on fasting, even though it doesn’t mention it specifically. God put the people in a forced fast, but I think the idea is clearly the same.
 
Jesus and the prophets condemned fasting with sin, or when fasting was just for show. I won’t detail those well known passages here, but our heart is key!

How do I start fasting?

Here is a sample prayer, demonstrating some elements of a fast.
 
“Lord, we come to you, humbly recognizing that we are not as close to you as we can be, and as we desire to be. We grow proud and self-sufficient in the illusion that we feed and clothe ourselves when we are as dependent on you for those things as the birds and the flowers are. We want to learn to be hungrier for you than we are for bread, which can only temporarily satisfy. We want to learn to draw our hunger from you, instead of from the dissolving world around us. We want to learn that we cannot live by bread alone, but must hang on your Word. So we commit to, with your help, abstain from all food and drink only water for three days.
 
During this time, every pang of hunger will not be an excuse to think of food, but a reminder to be hungry for you and to pray. As we recognize when eating is a habit, we will try to break the way we mindlessly structure our lives around it, and learn to make you the center instead. As we take the time we would have spent eating food feasting on your Word and praying, we are confident that you will draw us to yourself. Keep our eyes off the countdown to our next meal, and firmly on your face. We ask for freedom from hypocrisy and pretension, so those who see us will not see someone who is moody and hungry, but joyful and full of You.”
 
Obviously, when we are praying for specific guidance or intervention, we will tweak that some. But I think the basic idea is the same. People with medical conditions can “fast” with juice or whatever, as long as something is picked which does not undermine the entire point of mourning and self-denial. Fasting breaks the idolatry of the material world (or at least exposes it), practices self-denial in a culture which has never heard of it and is an unforgettable reminder of our real priorities.


Mother’s Day: Let’s Reschedule

Mother’s day is a much more stressful day for pastors than you may realize. The most visible difficulty is the high wire guessing game: “Who is the oldest mother here today?” But that is just the beginning of sorrows. Think about the pressure of getting everyone out early to crowded restaurants! 
 
It is not because of a shortage of references to mothers in the Bible! God has placed the word in His Word nearly 300 times. The Scripture implies it even more often. It’s not because the Bible is unclear about the importance of honoring mothers – it is the fifth commandment after all (Exodus 20:12). The difficulty comes from the biblical command to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.
 

Mourners

Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have lost your mother, whether recently or years ago. We know that your grief is described by the Bible as one of the deepest kinds (Genesis 24:67, Psalm 35:14), and want to love you in your pain. 
 
Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have no relationship with your mother, or you are a mother who has been rejected by a child. Rejection is a feeling God knows better than anyone!  We want to bring His compassion to you. 
 
Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have struggled with getting pregnant. We want you, apart from childbearing, to know you are infinitely valuable and adored by God (Isaiah 54:1-8).  
Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have lost children. Some of those children were lost before they were even born. We want you to know that the mourners are blessed because they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).
 
Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have had abortions. We want you to know the forgiveness of God. Through that forgiveness, we want to reassure you that you can one day meet the child you never knew (1 Corinthians 6:11).   
 
Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have had some or all of your children unwed. We want to show you God’s forgiveness, and let you know that although there are accidental parents, there are no accidental children (Psalm 139:19). God has used your sin for good. 
 

Rejoicers

Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday are adoptive or foster parents. We want to affirm your full motherhood and celebrate that these children are yours as much as if you had borne them. We want to thank you for modeling what God has done for us (Galatians 4:4-5). 
 
Some of you who will worship with us on Sunday have no biological children, but through evangelism and mentorship have many children in Christ (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). We want to celebrate how you have been fruitful and multiplied for the Kingdom. 
 
For those of you who are godly mothers, teaching your children about compassion, faith, and love, we want to honor you. We want to celebrate those of you who, through godly mothers have come to follow God (2 Timothy 1:5). 
 
Through the Scripture, we want to teach people how to honor their mothers and teach mothers how to be good ones. We want to rescue the family from the chains our modern world has wrapped around it, and we want to use it as a tool for raising up children as disciples of Christ. 
 

A Proposal

How can we possibly fit all of these things into one Sunday and a Hallmark card? Who can honor that which aligns with God’s plan, while still loving and celebrating those who do not, and do it all in an hour? Above all that, we have to make clear that motherhood is not your ultimate purpose as a woman! Glorifying God is. The Bible calls being unwed and without a family a gift, although everything in culture (inside and outside of the church) screams the opposite (Matthew 19:11-12). 
 
How can we do it? We can’t. This is the kind of rhythm which we must establish every week. So, tomorrow, we will try to honor moms of all stripes. We ask for your understanding and compassion as we do it imperfectly. Know this year that we love and value all of you! 
 
But, for next year, I have a better plan.
 
Let the church handle these things weekly, shaping hearts and minds for God’s glory and into His design. We’ll keep honoring mothers and revealing the Master Plan for families. But annually? Move Mother’s Day to Monday and let the employers deal with it. ๐Ÿ™‚
 
– Brother Justin
 
PS Cynics: I did get something for my wife and my mom already, I am not just looking for an extra day. ๐Ÿ™‚ 


Corporate Worship

Yesterday, I preached on the cosmic significance of corporate worship. For the sake of time, we dropped in the middle of the argument in Hebrews 12, but I thought it might be interesting to look at the immediately preceding verses, that give the practical need for corporate worship. What are some things we should seek from our time worshiping together? I am going to bold the commandments, and underline the things to avoid:

Hebrews 12:12โ€“17

Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
 

Encouragement from Corporate Worship

As we worship together, preparing for the incredible experience of encountering a holy God, we must work together. When some of us come discouraged, exhausted and ready to quit, we must lift our brothers’ and sisters’ drooping hands and wobbling knees. Some of our time together is about the warm encouragement that we can share. Life is hard, and it is easy to be a critic. It is hard to be a friend, hurting together and rejoicing together – but as the church, we must!
 
To truly worship God as we should, we have to be at peace with one another. This requires a real relationship, not just membership in the same club.  If you are not in our corporate gathering, you cannot be encouraged or be an encourager. 
Image result for twisted ankle

Accountability through Corporate Worship

We must resist sin, making straight paths to walk in, so our brokenness will not be made worse, but be healed. The sin that is not dealt with does not get better on its own. Like walking on a sprained ankle, it will not heal until the normal rhythm of life is broken and it is dealt with directly. As Christians, this is even harder and even more painful. We must be involved in each other’s lives, even when it requires a painful change of direction.
 
If we are serious about pursuing holiness, we will accept the pain of conviction. If we realize that there comes a moment when it will be too late to avoid the consequences of our actions (like Esau), we will want to be stopped now. The problem is that we tend to love sin! We would rather do what we know is worse in the long run, because of the pleasure we get now. So we keep walking on a broken foot, and the problem stays. When you’re not here for corporate worship the problem will not get better, but worse and worse. 
 

Diligence in Corporate Worship

 
It is too easy to let things in our lives drop without the accountability of corporate worship. We know from Matthew 7:22-23 that there are lots of people who believe they are Christians but are not. We have to be diligently together, examining our lives and asking those who love us to examine our lives with us. Nothing could be more foreign to the highly independent culture of our world. But we need each other! When we are following God as we should, we can help many. When we are not, “many [may] be defiled.”
 
Are you the kind of person other people can count on? Worship together matters. It is only by corporate worship that we can be everything God intended us to be. When we gather together, it is not just our money, our time, our voices, or our attention that we offer God: it is ourselves. The time we spend in community prepares us to be an acceptable offering for Him. 
 
Take some time to read the entire chapter (Hebrews 12) and see how it all fits together. 
 


Jesus in the Aftermath

So, you made it through Christmas. You reconnected with relatives, exchanged gifts and read Luke 2 as a family. You talked about Jesus being the reason for the season, and really made an effort to keep your priorities in order. But what about now? It isn’t Christmas, it is “National Fruitcake Day.” You don’t have lots of gifts to open, but a faint feeling of guilt at throwing away $80 worth of lightly used gift bags. Jesus has come to visit, but He has not come to abide.
 
How do you keep Jesus at the center of your life when you feel like keeping work, family and church balanced is like sewing on a unicycle (unsuccessful, ultimately painful and impossible to find a picture of)? If I only talked to Colleen on our anniversary or her birthday, I would have a very unsuccessful marriage. But we are content to live with Christ once or twice a year, plus every-other-weekend visitation.
 
I hope your heart craves for more. If so, the secret is in John 15:1-10.
 
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. 2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. 3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. 5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. 6 If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. 8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. 9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. 10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Fatherโ€™s commandments, and abide in his love.
I have bad news for you: your Christmas tree is already dead. When you separated it from the root, it lost the source of its strength. Christians are the same way: if we are not intimately connected to the Savior, we wither and die fruitlessly. There is a lot of depth to this passage which I will not be able to tackle in a short blog post, but let’s keep it really practical. How do you abide in Christ, so you can bear fruit on National Fruitcake Day and every day?
 
 

“Abide in Me, and I in You”

The first point is very obvious. You cannot abide in Christ unless He abides in you. You must be a genuine Christian to abide in Christ. Are you just a cultural believer, with some faint sense there is a god and a family affinity for the Christian one? That is not good enough.  You must come to a critical point, where you realize that you have been in rebellion against God, and surrender to Him. Do you realize that, if justice were done, God ought to punish you – but He took the punishment on Himself instead (look for a more detailed post on this soon)? Do you give up all claims to yourself, and let Christ live in you? That is absolutely essential. Superficial Christians will be cut off and cast aside. Make sure you know for sure that you are saved. 

Be Pruned

 
Second, the Father must prune you. If you are a real Christian, you will not be cut off, but parts of you may need to be. Being pruned is as painful as it sounds, but it is essential to bear fruit. If you are going to be a fruitful branch, there are certain things you will not be able to do.
 
“…every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.”

I am not even referring to sin (although repenting of known sin is a key part of abiding), but to the frantic, busy lives we lead. A vine (although we may be more familiar with fruit trees in Brazoria County) can have lots of pathetic fruit, or a smaller quantity of excellent fruit. The secret is to prune some branches, not only those that are bad in and of themselves, but to allow more room and strength for the chosen ones. You are only humanl you can do do twenty things poorly or three things well. What areas of your life do you prayerfully need to let God prune, even if it hurts? What areas are sapping valuable strength, but bearing no lasting fruit? Don’t let good things get in the way of the best things. 

 
Isn’t is incredibly counter-cultural? but being truly connected to Jesus – like branches and a vine – will mean that you can’t do everything. There is a certain amount of faith required here: do you believe that God is able to take care of the things He has not called you to do? This is not an excuse to do nothing but sit around in holy-looking contemplation. It is the reality that, to live with Jesus in the every day, you will have to make room for a few key things, and aggressively channel His strength into them. 
 

Let the Word of Christ Dwell in You Richly

Finally, if you are going to bear fruit, you need to let His Word abide in you. It is not enough to read the Bible at Christmas and pat yourself on the back. You need to be in the Scriptures every day. Let’s get really painful here, because it is an area where I fall short as much as anybody.
“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”

You need to be in the Scriptures twice every day.

Once by yourself, and once with your family. How much effort would it take to get on a daily Bible reading plan for yourself (we are launching one on January 1st that will take you in detail through the New Testament in 15-20 minutes a day), and then read a chapter out of Proverbs with your family at dinner? If you have kids, they each get to pick one verse for you to explain to them, and once verse to explain to you. Then trade prayer requests and pray. Sing, if you want! But get God’s Word into your life and into your heart. When His Word abides in you, then you can abide in Him. There is no better time than now to get into the habit, and teach your family how central the Word of God really is to you. Build Jesus into the rhythm of your normal life, and watch your heart change.

Make sure you are genuinely a Christian who really understands the gospel. Prayerfully remove the clutter from your life. Deliberately prepare space for God and His Word. Abide.  

 
 


Joy to the World

Have you ever found yourself at work, and wondered how you got there? Or tried to give someone directions to a place you visit often, and found yourself struggling to remember the details of how it happens? 
It is so easy to slip into autopilot, and let the wonders of the world pass us by. 
 
In the Christmas season, we swaddle evergreen trees in lights and crown them with a star or an angel, then quit seeing them – forgetting how they point to the coming of the Eternal Light of the World. We pay lip-service to gifts being shadows of the Great Gift, but are quickly so distracted by the hustle and bustle of the season that we have checklists and reminders for every gift except the love-gift of the Only Begotten.  Read more…