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Isaiah 58 - Fasting

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The Kind of Fasting that Pleases God
Isaiah 58:1-14:
 1 "Shout it aloud, do not hold back.

    Raise your voice like a trumpet.

    Declare to my people their rebellion

    and to the house of Jacob their sins.

 2 For day after day they seek me out;

    they seem eager to know my ways,

    as if they were a nation that does what is right

    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.

    They ask me for just decisions

    and seem eager for God to come near them.

 3 'Why have we fasted,' they say,

    'and you have not seen it?

    Why have we humbled ourselves,

    and you have not noticed?'

"Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please

    and exploit all your workers.

4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,

    and in striking each other with wicked fists.

    You cannot fast as you do today

    and expect your voice to be heard on high.

5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,

    only a day for a man to humble himself?

    Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed

    and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?

    Is that what you call a fast,

    a day acceptable to the LORD ?

 6 "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

    to loose the chains of injustice

    and untie the cords of the yoke,

    to set the oppressed free

    and break every yoke?

 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry

    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-

    when you see the naked, to clothe him,

    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

    and your healing will quickly appear;

    then your righteousness [a] will go before you,

    and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;

    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

"If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

    then your light will rise in the darkness,

    and your night will become like the noonday.

11 The LORD will guide you always;

    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land

    and will strengthen your frame.

    You will be like a well-watered garden,

    like a spring whose waters never fail.

12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

    and will raise up the age-old foundations;

    you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,

    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

13 "If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath

    and from doing as you please on my holy day,

    if you call the Sabbath a delight

    and the LORD's holy day honorable,

    and if you honor it by not going your own way

    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,

14 then you will find your joy in the LORD ,

    and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land

    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob."

    The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Talking to a Mennonite fellowship about fasting

       is like playing with fire…

It goes to the core of our culture…

       ripping at the very fabric

       that holds together so much of our church community.

We just love food!

       Wereneckje & Farma-Wurscht,

       Home-made Chicken noodle soup,


       and those church pot-luck lunches…

You need a wheelbarrow

to drive your stomach home after one of those…

Just thinking about all that food makes me want to

       quit my sermon and head for pizza hut right now.

Mennonites and Food…

       we’re like a match made in heaven…

And many of us…

       like a husband and wife

proudly wearing their wedding bands…

have that spare tire around the waist

       to give testimony to that sacred covenant

       we have with food!

By now you’re thinking…

“So, what does a good Mennonite preacher think he’s doing

       talking about NOT eating?”

I ask you to bear with me…

       Perhaps we can find a spiritual truth here

       that can satisfy a hunger in our soul

       that is a thousand times stronger

than our craving for a rich piece of Westgate Cheese Cake.

I invite you to take a closer look with me at today’s topic:

An Internet search on “Fasting” turns up

all kinds of interesting results, like:

“Therapeutic Fasting and Internal Cleansing”

or “Ramadan – the Fasting Month for the Muslims”

or “Loose nine pounds every 11 days”

and many many others…

(you can guess the content of some of those sites)

From a biblical standpoint,

fasting is abstaining from food & drink,

as well as conjugal fellowship,

to focus on a period of spiritual growth.

Fasting is not some kind of “test of discipleship”,

       or “proof of our righteousness”.

It is not commanded to us by Jesus

or required by God in the Scriptures,

although in the New Testament it is assumed

that believers do fast on occasion.

Fasting can be a helpful spiritual discipline

       that makes us receptive to God’s Spirit in our lives.

The Book of Acts (13:2-3) says that

The early Church was able to discern God’s will

as they spent time in worship and fasting:

2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting,

the Holy Spirit said,

“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul

for the work to which I have called them.”

3 So after they had fasted and prayed,

 they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Fasting and prayer are often linked together in the Bible.

For us, too often, the focus of fasting

has been on abstaining from food alone.

And that concept generally does not have much appeal

       In our western consumer culture.

However, the purpose of fasting

is to shift the focus of our desires and needs

away from the things of this world,

and to focus instead on God and God’s Will.

When we fast, we make a declaration to God

       That we want to take our relationship with him seriously.

Fasting is a way to humble ourselves before God

and inviting God’s Spirit to work within us.

Although fasting in Scripture

is almost always a fasting from food,

there are other ways to fast.

Anything you can temporarily give up

in order to focus on God can be considered a fast.

In 1 Corinthinas 7:1-5 Paul teaches about

       Sexual intimacy in the context of a marriage

       Between husband and wife.

He says,

          5 Do not deprive each other (that is, the sexual intimacy)

       except by mutual consent and for a time,

so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.

Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you

because of your lack of self-control.

Here he is talking about fasting from sexual intercourse

       For the sake of prayer and devotion to God

       By mutual consent.

Fasting is not intended to punish our flesh,

but to focus on God.

It is not a spiritualized diet to lose weight.
When we focus on the meaning of fasting,

Rather than on the mechanics of it,

We see that  anyone can fast.

Some may not be able to fast from food

Because of medical limitations,

but everyone can temporarily give up something important

in order to focus on God.

Even unplugging the TV or Computer for a period of time,

       Or abstaining from the magnetic pull of the shopping mall,

can be an effective and God-honoring fast.

From the standpoint of our relationship to God,

it's a good idea for us to fast from time to time.

The Bible does not demand that we practice regular fasting,

but it tells us about the proper attitude

for engaging in this spiritual excercise.

The only Biblical reason to fast

is to develop a closer walk with God.

When we take our eyes off the pleasures of this world,

we can focus better on Christ.

Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:16-18,

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do,

 for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.

I tell you the truth,

they have received their reward in full

(their reward is that people have seen them).

But when you fast,

put oil on your head and wash your face,

so that it will not be obvious to men 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"


Fasting that is pleasing to God

is more than denying ourselves food

or some other earthly need or desire.

In Isaiah 58, we learn what a "true fast" is.

It is not just a one-time act of humility and self-denial before God,

       it is a lifestyle of seeking justice

and walking humbly with our God.

Fasting encourages humility,

it loosens the chains of injustice,

unties the chords of the yoke,

frees the oppressed,

feeds the hungry,

provides for the poor,

and clothes the naked.

This idea of fasting isn't just a one day thing

       or a passing political statement that you make…

it's a lifestyle of seeking first the Kingdom of God

and His righteousness.

The opening verses from Isaiah 58 suggest that

for God’s people in the day of the prophet,

fasting and praying had become a mindless exercise,

if not an attempt to manipulate God in their favor.

The people were upset with God,

that their fasting had not inclined God’s goodwill

toward them.

You can just hear them grumbling,

“All this effort… for nothing!”

“I haven’t been able to eat

Aunt Mary’s wonderful chicken casserolle

Because I’m fasting every week

so that God will send rain,

And and give us a good olive crop…

But my business is really gonna suffer this year.

What’s the use?

God isn’t paying attention here!”

You know what,

Psalm 2:4 gives us a reality check on that line of thinking.

Are you ready for this?

It says, The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

the Lord scoffs at them.

In Jeremiah’s day the people also tried

to twist the arm of God by fasting.

And listen to what God said,

"Although they fast,

I will not listen to their cry;

though they offer burnt offerings and grain offering,

I will not accept them.

I will destroy them with the sword, famine, and plague."

(Jeremiah 14:12).

Fasting did not move God’s mind one inch.
We must never think of fasting as a hunger strike

designed to force God's hand and to get our own way!

We don't need to strong-arm God.

God is good (Psalm 119:8) and eager to answer our prayers.

He is generous (James 1:5)

and eager to give us 'good things' (Matthew 7:11).

God cannot be pushed into a corner,

       And made to comply to our demands.


By the time of Jesus

       fasting had become a very important part of Jewish life.

The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12a).

They would walk through the streets

with their hair all messed up;

they would put on old clothes or sackcloth

and cover themselves with dirt;

they would cover their faces with white chalk

in order to look pale;

and they would dump ashes over their head

as a sign of their humility.

Fasting had become a "look-at-how-spiritual-I-am" exercise.

       It was a hypocrisy.

A close look at the Biblical meaning of fasting

Reveals that true fasting always occurs together with prayer.

It is meant to be an avenue of communication with God,

       And an attempt at opening ourselves up

       To discerning God’s will for our lives.

A friend said to me once

after I had preached on this topic in another church:

“How does God expect me

to concentrate on my relationship with Him

if my stomach is constantly growling?”

That question demonstrates our preoccupation with food

       And the appetites of the body.

It also demonstrates how much we are conditioned

       By our culture to crave the things that this world has to offer.

The hunger pangs can serve as a reminder

       To pray on the spot for a specific situation

       And to ask God’s guidance.

God said,

"When you seek me with all your heart,

I will be found by you" (Jeremiah 29:13,14).

It does not say,

       “if you fast twice a week

       I will stand on my head for you.”

A few weeks ago,

       The Mennonite Church in Vietnam extended a challenge

to Mennonite Churches around the World:

       to fast and pray during a specific time period

       when their pastor and other church leaders

       would appear before the court

on false charges of disrupting the peace.

We shared the challenge with you

to offer solidarity and encouragement

to the Vietnamese church.

It would be interesting to see how many people

       Took that challenge to heart

       And spent time in fasting and prayer

       For the church in Vietnam.

See, that is the kind of fasting and praying

       that is pleasing to God…

       an earnest pleading that is not centred on

me and my little wants and needs…

but rather on God’s promises to partner with us

and to intervene where there is injustice and suffering.

In the Bible prayer and fasting is also closely linked

       To repentance and confession.

True fasting can only have meaning

       If we are willing to examine the ways

in which we contribute to the injustice in the world

and if we are willing to repent

and make amends where we can.

As Isaiah points out,

       When you’re fasting while exploiting your workers…

       Or fasting while striking each other with wicked fists

       (either physically or with gossip)…

       Don’t expect your voice to be heard on high.

Even the most disciplined and religious fasting

       When it is disconnected from God’s will for all people

       Does not turn God’s crank.

In fact, The One enthroned in heaven laughs;

the Lord scoffs at them.

       “Is that what you call a fast?

…to look pious for a day

so that you can be admired by all people

for your superb spiritual stature?”

God says, “Give me a break!

       Don’t insult my intelligence.”

“This is the kind of fasting I have chosen:

    to loose the chains of injustice

    and untie the cords of the yoke,

    to set the oppressed free

    and break every yoke?

to share your food with the hungry

    to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -

    to clothe the naked,

    and not to turn away from your own family.”

What does that mean?

Well, to me this means that fasting is not at all about food!

Rather what it means is that,

       denying ourselves - even on an occasional basis –

of some of the things we take for granted

       can mean the difference between life and death

       for another human being.

Think about these things:

How often have we put the yoke of oppression

on our brother or sister

        with the pointing finger and malicious talk.

This Bible text says,

When you fast…

       fast from pointing the finger,

       and finding blame,

       and putting another person in his place with malicious talk.

By doing that,

       You will lift the yoke of oppression from his shoulder.

Fasting is about shifting the centre of our attention

       away from ourselves

       and toward those who are oppressed

       and hungry and lonely

       and depressed…

Refraining from eating food occasionally

       or abstaining from some worldly need or pleasure

       can make us more aware of the fundamental needs of others

       and God’s will that All people would

       come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Fasting reminds us that we are

       “repairers of broken walls” and broken lives,

       and that we are a part of God’s mission in the world.

It reminds us that someday in eternity

we will feast on an inheritance that is not of this world,

and that is promised to us as a spiritual treasure

on a lay-away plan for us in heaven.

When we go from here today

       it is my prayer that we would strive to be more aware

       of our realtionship with God.

As God challenges us to a closer walk with him,

let us think about the earthly pleasures that we can

and would give up for a period of time

to centre our thoughts and our heart more on God

and the justice He desires.

What will you fast from in this coming week?

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