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The Fast of Joy

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

 THE PENDULUM EFFECT

My parents have a grandfather clock in their living room. During my visits, I often find myself mesmerized by the motion of the pendulum. It swings back and forth in a rhythm that moves the gears and levers to keep time. The swings are built into the mechanics of the clock. They are even required for the clock to keep accurate time. Unfortunately, throughout history attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, and values tend to swing with a pendulum effect. This has even occurred in our perceptions of and practices in the spiritual life. These pendulum swings have been very unfortunate. The Church has suffered from these excessive swings. One examples has been the practice of fasting.

In ancient times, fasting was an important exercise of the spiritual life. God called the nation of Israel to a national fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Devote Jews still participate in the observance of this day late September or early October. Individuals would fast for various reasons throughout the history of Israel. Then the pendulum swung and the Pharisees made it into a religious merit badge causing the exercise to fall into disfavor among the common people.

Both John the Baptism and Jesus showed the people of God how the exercise could be a vital component of the spiritual life. However, religious extremists expanded the requirements until the expectations became too rigorous for the average layperson. Calvin and Luther both sought to preserve the practice but the pendulum had swung back and only a few people practiced it.
I have noticed the pendulum effect in my own spiritual life. I have gone through stages in which I would practice fasting with some degree of regularity. Then something would happen and I would completely neglect it. I would use various excuses to minimize the guilt. However, I have recently been doing some reading in the area of the spiritual life and the subject keeps being mentioned by various authors. I previously mentioned Luther and Calvin. I would have thought that the great Reformers would have placed only minimal value on the practice but quite the opposite is true. Calvin does caution the devout to avoid fasting as a religious work or merit or as a form of divine worship.1 We are always to remember that we are saved by grace and grace alone. Salvation is a free gift of God. However, Calvin states "with a full stomach our mind is not so lifted up to God that it can be drawn with a serious and ardent affection and persevere in it."2 That is such rich in imagery. Notice the relationship between the mind and the belly for Calvin. If our belly is full, if our belly is satisfied, our mind cannot contemplate the mysteries of God. He also reminds people that too many of them how useful fasting is to spiritual growth.3

 THE TOP THREE

I would dare say that Matthew mentions fasting, prayer and almsgiving in tonight's passage because he considered them the three most important spiritual practices of the Christian life and the three most likely to be abused. Moreover, from my reading in the spiritual fathers and mothers of the faith I would also concluded that a person cannot sustain a dynamic healthy faith without the regular practice of fasting.

I am not suggesting that you starve yourself. I have decided that due to my schedule and my own medical needs, I will only conduct a partial fast. My fast will last from supper to breakfast and will be a fast from all snacks. Given how much I snack this will be a real exercise in self-control. On Thursday I will include breakfast. I say this not to boast about my practice but to encourage you to consider a manageable fast. Too often, we are like the wannabe athlete who walks into the weight room and tries to bench-press 300 lbs on the first lift. The person either strains a muscle or becomes discouraged and quits. An athlete learns that they must begin an exercise program with a reasonable amount of weight on the bar. To little will not exercise the muscles, too much may cause injury. We must learn to take the same approach in our spiritual life. It is more important that we maintain a fast than the strictness of the fast.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones provides some helpful insight into understanding the relationship between the three. He divides this passage from the Sermon on the Mount into three sections - almsgiving, prayer and fasting. He explains that almsgiving relates to the portion of our lives in which we do good for others, prayer is the portion of our lives in which we commune with God, and fasting is the portion of our lives in which relate to ourselves. It is important for us to understand that this three-fold scheme applies to the whole of our spiritual life. We have interactions in which we relate to other men and women, we enjoy a relationship with God but we also must relate to ourselves. Fasting is the spiritual exercise that we are to employ in the development of our own spiritual well-being.

Giving us something for Lent may help us to kick a bad habit, our "fast" should be directed at developing one of the Fruits of the Spirit. By eating less we may lose weight, any fast that we take on should also strengthen within us one of the virtues of the Christian life. The real value of the fast is not found in the hows but in the whys. Why are we fasting? What are we asking God to accomplish through our fast? 

I am using this year's Lenten fast to remind myself of my need to be more disciplined. I know that I will break my fast during the first week. I am a habitual snacker. I am always snacking on graham crackers, fig newtons or some other low fat cookie. I know what is going to happen. About 11:00 pm, I will make a cup of tea, grab a couple of crackers, and turn on the TV to watch the late news. I will remember that I am fasting sometime after I have eaten half of the first cracker and once again be reminded that I need to be more disciplined in my life.

Scott Peck provides us with a helpful reminder of the importance of discipline when he tells us a story from his childhood. Apparently, Peck enjoyed riding his bicycle to and from his friend's houses. He especially enjoyed the journey home because the steep downhill grade about a mile from his house. The steepness of the hill allowed him to gather so much speed that he would have to apply his brakes to make a turn at the bottom. One morning while traveling at a considerable speed, he decided he did not want to loose the joy of the moment by slowing down. He thought it absurd to surrender to the discipline of braking. He tried to maneuver through the turn while retaining his speed. His joy ended when he lost control and found himself propelled a dozen feet off the road. He suffered several cuts and bruises. His bike collided a tree. The collision twisted the front wheel beyond repair. Peck learned that we cannot negotiate through the curves of life without a willingness to submit to the discipline of braking.4

Spiritual disciplines are not just for spiritual driven who want to succeed in the Christian life. They are for anyone who wants to know the joy of maneuvering through the curves of life. Discipline allows us to enjoy life as it is meant to be lived, to avoid needleless pain. It enables us to maintain a balance to our lives so that he can still enjoy the thrill a steep but make the hard right turn. A disciplined life is the seat belt that protects us when we hit a wall at 180 miles an hour.


1 John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1950), p. 1245.
2 Ibid., p. 1242.
3 Ibid., p. 1241.
4 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, quoted by Brett Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/d/discipline.htm.
 


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