Avenues of Grace – “When You Fast”

Matthew 6:16-18

Word of the Day – Fasting

        A district judge had a problem. So he called on a group of young and idealistic college students to help him investigate. They were to investigate the jury deliberation process and how to improve it. These college students were excited to be a part of this important and noble mission. The students began by interviewing attorneys, former jurors, court officials, and other judges. The budding group of consultants asked the questions you would think they would ask. How many men were in the jury compared to women? What was the mix of ethnic backgrounds? How many older jurors were there compared to younger jurors? Were there any differences in the instructions given to jurors? Were there differences in the information that they were allowed to have in the jury room? Was there a difference for juries that deliberated on cases that last days compared to weeks compared to months? How late were they asked to work? They even asked what kind of food the judges ordered for them. But none of these questions seemed to matter. It turned out that all that mattered was something that the students didn’t expect.

What mattered for juries? The shape of the table. When the table was rectangular, the juror sitting at the head of the table tended to dominate the conversation, even when this juror wasn’t the foreman of the jury. This dominance prevented some jurors from sharing their views and having the same amount of input. But in courtrooms where the table was round, the jurors tended to be equal. Their discussion of the facts was more thorough. More robust. So the team of eager college consultants reported back to the judge. The juries with round tables produced the most thorough, accurate, and just verdicts for the court. The students were excited as they reported back. They felt that they had nailed the findings that the judge was looking for. They felt that they were a part in better verdicts for their area. Plus, it was an easy fix. If their report commented on the race, gender, or education level of the jurists mattered, that’d be a much more difficult problem to fix. Instead, they were just talking about the shape of the table. As they reported back, the judge was excited too. And he was excited for exactly the same reasons. So immediately, he sent out a decree to all of the courts in the area. Effective immediately, “All jury rooms that have round and oval tables are to have the tables removed. Replace them with rectangular tables.”

        Did you catch that? The judge agreed with the results of the students. But then he ordered that the round tables the consultants preferred to be replaced with the rectangular tables. Why? Because the judge wasn’t attempting to have a better deliberation process. He wasn’t attempting to make the process more just, accurate, or fair. It was to make the process faster. The district judge had a problem. The courts had a backlog of cases. He needed to get through them faster. We can the right thing. But we don’t do it for the right reason. Or we can the right thing. But we don’t exactly know why we do it. Or, why God tells us to do it. Other times, we simply aren’t doing the right thing. And need to start. We begin today what I am calling Avenues of Grace. These can be called disciplines. They can be called practices. These avenues of grace are ways that we open ourselves to God so that his grace can transform our lives. Last year, our community came together in an avenue of grace. Specifically, we decided to fast together. A fast is an act of putting God before a desire in our life. A desire that’s important to us. A desire that hurts when you give it up. Some people gave up food. Others gave up a drink they enjoy. Or even social media such as Facebook. We did it specifically during a time on the Christian calendar called Lent. What is Lent? Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter, but not counting Sundays. Only six days a week count toward Lent. This is a time of preparation. It’s a time of remembrance. It represents the time that Jesus spent in the Wilderness. He fasted and prepared for his earthly ministry. In the early church, Lent was the time that new converts were prepared for baptism. A year ago, we compared it to baseball’s spring training. Baseball players get ready for the new season. They prepare for the excitement in front of them. We prepare for Easter. We open ourselves to the new graces that God has for us.

        I recently returned from a week of study leave where I reflected on what we did a year ago. And I considered what to do for this year. Last year, I gave up something that I hardly ever go without. Coffee. As I thought about it and about our time of remembering Lent together, I remembered Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. The passage from Matthew six is a part of a much larger teaching of Jesus called the Sermon on the Mount. In this section, Jesus is most likely calling the Pharisees. The passage simply uses the term, hypocrites. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism. Which was the local faith in the days of Jesus. And the Pharisees were the super spiritual ones. They knew every passage of their Bible, which was called the Torah. They followed every law. They left one car space for every ten miles of the speed limit. And they even slowed down when cars cut in front of them. In verse 16, it says, “When you fast.” Back in those days, it was assumed that you fasted. But some would disfigure their face. They would look disheveled and hungry. They would play up their fast. They would love the attention it gave them. The Pharisees observed every fast. They followed every iota of the law. And yet, Jesus repeatedly throughout the Gospels calls them hypocrites. For they checked the box, but failed to align the heart. They did the jury study, but they didn’t know what the problem was that the judge was attempting to solve.

        So, why do I think of this passage when I think of fasting? When I think of giving up a desire for God. Because I think we can say yes to God. Say no to our desire. To something important to us. But do it for the wrong reason. The Pharisees thought they were following God. Really, they were seeking approval. For fasting, it’s possible to say yes to God. Say no to a desire. Then enjoy the health benefit. Or, we pride ourselves on checking a daily box for 40 days. Instead, Jesus tells us in verse 17, “When you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but...your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” In other words, don’t let fast for the approval of others. Don’t fast for a personal checking of the boxes. Instead, fast for God. Seek the support of others when you fast. And God will reward you. He will reward you as this avenue of grace transforms your life. Deepens your faith. And strengthens relationships.

        This brings me to a question that I have been asked several times over this past year. Will I be doing the fast again? What will I be fasting? Well, before I answer that, I want to challenge you to seek God through this avenue of grace. It’s good to let go of a desire in order to follow God during Lent. And if we do it for the right reasons, for the reasons that he tells us to do it for, then you will see change and growth in your life. Now, it’s important to remember that there are different kinds of fasts. At some points in the Bible, there are total fasts. Times when God’s people gave up all food and drink to pray fervently for an immediate need. Lent is not a time to do this fast. We need nourishment. Another fast can be giving up food, but not beverages. Common fasts for Lent include social media, a certain drink, such as coffee, or television. This is generally what people will do for Lent. Another kind of fasting is a partial fast. A partial fast is where you give up meat every Friday or something similar. So for this Lent, I have decided to do a partial fast. I will start my day off with one coffee in the morning, then give it up for the rest of the day. Here’s a few reasons for it. First, if you start a fast cold turkey, you will go through withdrawal. And that is something you need to be careful about. Also, the point of giving up coffee in Lent is to say yes to God. Saying no to coffee by itself isn’t the goal. So in order to make that point clear, I’m not fully giving it up. The point isn’t to check the box. The point is to say yes to God.

Here are a couple of other important items to remember about fasting. If you intend to fast in a way that is hazardous to your health, such as a total fast throughout Lent, don’t. When in doubt, don’t. There are many ways to say yes to God and no to our desires. We don’t need to do one that is hazardous for our health. Also, in Finish, Jon Acuff says that the most difficult day for a habit is the day after perfect. The day that you forget and accidentally check Facebook or eat that food you’ve given up. And you’re no longer perfect. On the day after perfect, use grace. Forgive yourself for your lack of perfection, and keep going. Lastly, Jesus warns us about sharing our fast with others to get their approval and admiration. I believe this is different from seeking the support of others. The Bible often shows a supportive community caring for one another and building each other up. And that kind of sharing is good. Therefore, if you decide to fast over Lent, please let me know. And we can share with each other how it is going. And how God is working through this avenue of grace.

So today, I challenge you. What desire will you say no to in order to say yes to God? This isn’t a rhetorical question. Please text me, email me, or tell me. And let’s grow in our faith and in this avenue of grace together.