Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fasting, and The Feast

Ash Wednesday
Commemoration of Aquila, Priscilla, Apollos
February 13, 2013
 A Christian software company, Logos, recently advertised some of their products for Lent. This is how the advertisement began:

“In many Christian traditions (Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian), this Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. For 40 days, observers everywhere will be forsaking things like meat, chocolate, or television—all in preparation for Easter.”

I don’t intend to criticize this advertisement, it is, after all, an advertisement, but I do find it striking that this is how a Christian company would describe Lent. Lent is often misunderstood, and this is a good example. What will happen for forty days? “Observers will be forsaking things like meat, chocolate, or television.” This way of understanding Lent is similar to how a lot of people think of it. Many people have the custom of “giving up something for Lent,” and one would assume that this came out of what was originally the discipline of fasting.

Actual fasting doesn’t work very well in our modern times. But choosing something you really like and going without it for forty days is doable. And there’s no intention of criticizing this custom either, merely to point out that what we often think of as observing Lent really has little to do with what Lent is all about and what it is for.

In our Lenten midweek worship services this year we are going to be meditating on the Lord’s Supper. In a sense, this is what Lent is all about. It’s not hyperbole to say that at the heart of Lent is the Lord’s Supper. So what role does the discipline of fasting play in preparation for the celebration and the receiving of the Lord’s Supper? Our Lenten meditation this year should help us in answering this.

It’s ironic that there are people who observe yesterday, the day before Lent, as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, as a way of indulging in those things they are going to abstain from during Lent. The idea comes out of celebrating a feast of sorts before the fasting begins. Jesus presents us with the opposite pattern, that of fasting and feasting. He outlines for us the discipline and the way of fasting, only in order to prepare us for the Feast.

The Feast, in a very real sense, is what the Christian life is all about, as we will see in the days ahead during our midweek Lenten worship services. The Lord’s Supper is the Feast our Lord invites us to and partakes of with us. But partaking of the Feast without fasting is missing the true blessings of His rich Feast He blesses us with. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are celebrating the Feast, even as it is a foretaste of the Feast to come. We partake of it now by faith, in heaven we will see face to face. We will celebrate the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in glory as we cannot imagine now.

There we will have no needs. There will be no hindrances. There will be no sin. There will be no fallen nature and no evil surrounding us. We will behold Christ in pure glory and eternal joy.

Here there is sin and sorrow. There is fallenness and sadness. There is evil and there are hindrances and temptations. We are not able to partake of the Feast of the Lord’s Supper in true glory because we are fallen and sinful and are beset by temptations. The main reason, in fact, we partake of the Lord’s Supper is to receive the forgiveness our Lord gives to us in His Holy Meal. The Feast our Lord bids us to forgives our sin and strengthens our faith. The Feast we celebrate is a joyous celebration of being forgiven and renewed in body and soul.

Thus, in this life there is fasting. At a basic level, fasting is abstaining from food. At another level, fasting is done as a religious rite. It is associated with humility and repentance. It is a discipline that can be of value to living the Christian life and trusting in God for all things you truly need.

It can also be abused. If one fasts and seeks favor from God because of it then that person is missing the point of fasting. Fasting is to be done for the purpose of getting your focus off of yourself and onto Christ. It is to be done to help you see what humility truly is, that you need to suppress your needs and desires and seek all your good from God alone in His Son Jesus Christ. If you place your trust in your fasting, or you think more highly of yourself because you fast, then you are not repentant, but self-righteous.

And so Jesus gives guidance, as we heard in our third reading: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” It is one of the greatest temptations for Christians, to think of themselves as better Christians than others. And even if you don’t fast, you can just as easily fall into this trap. “I go to church every Sunday, unlike others I know.” “I actually live out my Christian faith, unlike others I know.” And so on.

Nobody needs to know how good and faithful of a Christian you are. God knows. He sees in secret. He sees what is in your heart. So you may fast, no one needs to know. So you are here every Sunday, it needs to be because you need to be here to receive God’s blessings, not so people can see what a faithful Christian you are. If you seek glory from others, that will be your reward.

Jesus goes on to say, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” As Jesus has directed us to observe such a discipline as fasting in secret and in humility, so we see that we do so not for reward or favor or glory. We do it to help us learn humility and to live a life of repentance. And guess what God does? He rewards you. It is a reward of grace. He gives you what you do not deserve. Not because you fast, or live such a good Christian life. Because of grace.

His reward He gives is all because of the perfect life that His Son Jesus Christ lived. It is because of the perfect substitutionary death of His Son. It is because all your sin was reckoned to Him. All the blessings of eternity are thus reckoned to you, or as Jesus says it in the third reading: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Jesus’ guidance in fasting goes on from there with these words: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There is nothing wrong with eating food. There’s even nothing wrong with enjoying it. And the same goes for all the many blessings our Lord showers down upon us. He is, after all, the one who invited us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”

The reason fasting, or another similar discipline, may be necessary for us, is to keep our desires in check. It is all too easy to go from enjoying the good gifts God gives us to desiring them and trusting in them, rather than entrusting ourselves to God’s care, no matter our circumstances.

And that is where the Lord’s Supper comes in. Any discipline, whether it be fasting or another form of discipline, should be for the purpose of showing us our true need. Without keeping our sinful nature in check, we desire more and more the things of this world, and less and less the things God gives to us, which are eternal. The Catechism says this about preparation for the Lord’s Supper: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

If you fast, let it be in secret, and let it be for the purpose of hungering and thirsting for the forgiveness of sins, that very thing you receive in the Lord’s Supper. You won’t receive it from daily bread, but you will from the body and blood of your Lord in and with the bread and wine of His Holy Supper. Consider what discipline you might follow which will help you focus more and more on Christ and less and less on your needs, and your desires, and the things you too often put your trust in.

Certainly the daily practice of being in the Word of God and prayer takes time away from you to do other things you want to do and need to do. But if God’s Word and prayer become an afterthought, then it is all too easy to see the Lord’s Supper as an afterthought as well. Humility, repentance, submission of your needs and wants, these are characteristic of the Christian life. They point you to your true need, that of the forgiveness of your sin. Thus, your Lord gives you something greater; something lasting, something beyond what you would seek. He invites you to His Table. He welcomes you to The Feast. In His Holy Supper, He hosts and He feeds you with Himself, His Body and Blood, for you, for the forgiveness of your sin. Amen.


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