Scripture: Zechariah 7:1-6; Joel 2:12
Date: Feb 17, 2013
7 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev. 2 The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat theLord 3 by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
4 Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: 5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
My earliest memory of Jesus from child hood came from a casual play time at the Roman Catholic church I was attending at the time. I was grade 1 or 2 at the time. It just happens that I was around the church’s bible study teachers and one of them randomly asked “Do you know how many Jesus fasted in the desert?” There were many other kids who could’ve answered but me being an obnoxious kid had to rush my answer without thinking carefully. “400 days!!” she smiled at me cheerfully then she said “no, Jesus did not fast for 400 days but only 40 days.” When I said 400 days, I wasn’t able to relate but when she said 40 days, somehow, I was able to related and I remember thinking “it must have been hard… Jesus, what a man!” Believe or not, that is my earliest memory with the name Jesus. It was about Jesus fasting for 40 days and I praised him for enduring such painful task.
Many of us are not all that familiar with fasting and it appears that not many Korean EM churches are encouraging fasting. It appears as if they are afraid that too much emphasis on fasting might make them look like “too religious” or “too legalistic” that it will turn people off and they will never return but the truth is that fasting always had a great part of Christian tradition and in the scriptures we find many places where people either practice or teach a lesson on fasting – Jesus included.
But if you read the scripture with one eye open, you will notice that there is tremendous appreciation for food – many Israelite feasts and festivities were celebrated with food and the food laws were God given. We also see Jesus and his disciples eating frequently at banquets, celebrations, feasts and of course with each other. What was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before starting his way to the Cross and what was the first thing that Jesus did in John’s Gospel when some of the disciples who went out fishing came back to the shore with net full of fish? He ate.
So if the scripture has tremendous appreciation for food AND sharing of it is a sign of intimacy, why the fast? What does it do for us (not for God) that appreciation for food AND foregoing of it are equally celebrated as important human activity? For today’s sermon, let me highlight few benefits from physiological perspective as well as spiritual.
1: For the first point, we have to keep in mind that in the scriptures fasting is ALWAYS accompanied by prayer. Let’s look at verses 5 and 6 of Zechariah:
‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?
This means fasting is never an end in itself. We fast prayerfully and all prayers have direction – to God. Therefore, fasting must be also directed to God.
In fact, there is no such thing as fasting apart from prayer or to say it another way, fasting exists for the sake of prayers. Having that understanding, we need to turn our thinking into how fasting helps our prayers rather than our bodies.
First and most obvious of all, fasting helps prayers in that empty stomach rather than full stomach helps us to stay focused on praying. Have you heard of post-prandial somnolence? That’s the medical term for what we call “Itis”. It happens when we have food (especially too starchy or sugary food) and the blood rushes down to digestive system in order to handle all the food that was ingested. After having a nice, hearty meal on a warm afternoon and you had very active evening the night before that you are short on sleep. When 1 o’clock or 1:30 o’clock hits after your hearty meal, you are going to feel the “need” for sleep due to post-prandial somnolence. Fasting will help you to focus in that, despite having closed your eyes, you won’t be falling asleep.
Secondly, think for a moment how much our time is spent thinking/worrying about food or food related things. It is no SNS if there is no picture of food on facebook, twitter and Instagram. Two of the most common new year’s resolutions but also two of the quickest dropped or failed resolutions are exercising AND dieting. Why? It is because one of the most intrinsic, foundational and instinctive pleasures that people crave is pleasure AND gift of “eating”. As such, our fasting means we are not wasting our time anticipating our lunch times at school any more. Our fasting means our minds are freed of worrying about dinner and its caloric count and its tastiness. For those of you whose dinner is provided for you (as I imagine most of you are), your mind is readily less occupied since you can skip your meal – you don’t have to anticipate the dinner time or what your mom or dad is making would be pleasing to your taste buds or whether they know the fact that you are on a strict diet. For those of you who need to either provide for yourself OR your family, fasting can eliminate that “worry” – “Oh goodness, what’s for dinner… what am I going to make?” Having to come up with a dinner idea is a huge stress in itself but once you have an idea (even if it’s as simple as rice and kimchi) you have to concern yourself about shopping for groceries, how to make, how much to make, “Will my family like it?” “Will I like it?” etc etc.
All this means that one of the most intrinsic, and therefore most powerful, obsession and worries are removed from our lives by going on fasting. Fasting is never an end in itself. It is dedicated and directed to God and is accompanied with prayer. By having the most powerful obsessions and concerns removed from our minds, we are freer to focus on God in prayer.
2: Secondly, let’s come back to verse 5 of today’s passage:
‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?
Fasting without God in mind only angers God. What about mourning? How is fasting related to mourning? To be sure, mourning without fasting does not anger God but there is a sense of appropriateness in fasting when we are faced with threats, dangers, tragedies and/or serious situations. There are two main occasions for fasting in the scriptures:
- Repentance as people are made aware of their sin
- King of Assyria in Nineveh declared national fasting when Jonah preached to them about their sins and violent ways
- King Ahab upon Elijah’s confrontation fasted (1 Kings 21:27-29)
- Daniel confessing the sins of his nation (Israel) fasted (Da. 9:3-6, 19)
- Pleading with God for help in the awake of calamities: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
So where is all this going? There is a disconnect between enjoyment of lavishing food and deep sorrow. People may eat during those times for health reasons but there is something odd about eating so lavishly when calamity is upon them.
Fasting, then, is an activity suited for the occasion that emphasizes our earnestness before God. That is to say fasting has an element of dependence and confession of helplessness before God.
I have to stress again that fasting is never an end in itself and it must be accompanied by prayer. One time, my friend’s father was very ill and was on the verge of dying and he prayed that if his father is spared of death then he will give up eating beef. Now think about this for a moment with me. If anything, is it the act of not eating beef that saved his father? Or is it the power of God that saved his father? If your answer is “because he gave up beef, his father is spared”, I have another question. “What is my not eating beef or any other food item to God that God would spare another human being?” As in, what is such a big deal about my not eating beef? It’s not like God is so crazy about beef that God is competing for the supply of beef. It isn’t a big deal that we give up food but the idea is that when the occasion is so desperate and so dire that we even skip meals to pray before God, it will show our earnestness and it indeed shows our honouring of occasion. I bet no one here will act all playfully at someone’s funeral. Just as there is appropriate behaviours when serious occasions arise, fasting just might be the “right” spiritual activity when calamity or serious situations strike our lives.
The most number of days I have fasted was three days and it was for a friend whose life was about to put out because he caught SARS and I was joined by many other faithful Christians who genuinely petitioned before God for our friend’s life. Not that number of days really matters or that number of people on fasting matters but if the situation is THAT serious then it is also natural that we just might have to approach God’s throne with appropriate level of fasting. God commands us in Joel 2:12:
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
We cannot forget that what God wants to see is the returning of heart to Him during fasting but we cannot ignore the fact that fasting IS God given command. After all, Jesus fasted for 40 days after he received confirmation from heaven that he IS indeed the messiah who will have to bear THE Cross.
Therefore, if there are serious events or if you feel that you have drifted away from God or any other occasions arise in your life that you need assurance from God, consider fasting. When fasting is accompanied by prayer and if you are genuine in your seeking of God’s presence, God will be pleased with your dedication.
I am not guaranteeing that you will get what you wish for like from a genie as a result of your fasting but at least God will be honoured and pleased in his answer to your prayer and you are proven obedient to the command given through prophet Joel “return to me with all your heart”.