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“Fasting and Grief” on Matthew 6:16-18 by Joe Ellis – Feb. 12, 2023

Let me first say, for those who aren’t familiar with what we’re talking about when we’re talking about fasting — fasting is voluntarily going without food or water for a set amount of time. There are stories of heroic fasting in the Bible, Moses and Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights — but the normal practice of fasting usually consisted of going without breakfast and lunch. This wasn’t crazy, but it was long enough to feel hungry. As we talk about fasting, and you think about perhaps fasting yourself, let’s keep it simple by just thinking about this type of normal and moderate practice that has been practiced for centuries.

If you’ve been around the church for a while, you may have heard people talk about fasting in a way that’s made you feel slightly uncomfortable. You may have heard people talk about fasting as a way to pressure God into giving us what we want, or fasting as a way of getting Him to do things the way we want him to. It's suggested that if you are really serious about a prayer request or spiritual growth, fasting will increase the odds that God will grant your request or give you some gift of the Spirit. Fasting in this way becomes like a magic spell, or a sort of of divine arm twisting. Understandably, this would make faithful Christians uncomfortable, and it’s not remotely close to the reason we fast.

We get a glimpse of the reason we fast as we listen to Jesus’ words to the play-actors in Matthew 6:16-18 about how they were fasting. Jesus said, “When you fast, don’t be gloomy like the play-actors.” Their problem was that they were fasting for show, trying to impress others with how faithfully and regularly they fasted. Now you can’t really show people you’re not eating, everyone will just assume that you ate earlier or are going to eat later. Right now none of us are eating — we don’t assume that others are fasting. The hypocrites had to show that they were fasting some other way. They did that by acting gloomy, they contorted their face. Why is gloominess a cue that these play-actors were fasting? The answer gets at the reason why we fast.

Fasting was and is one practice that can help us respond to either a sacred moment or a grievous moment. In this sermon, I’m going to focus on how fasting can help us respond to our grief. The play-actors wanted people to know they were fasting — so they acted gloomy. They acted gloomy because fasting is a way of expressing grief. That’s one of the chief purposes of fasting, to help a person express their grief.

As you read through the Old Testament, so many passages describe the people of God fasting in response to grief or anguish of heart. Fasting was a response taken up by people as they grieved and repented over their own personal sin, or the sin of their nation. Fasting was a response taken up by people as they grieved over the illness of a friend or the death of a loved one. Fasting was a response taken up because of grief over a national calamity, like a devastating earthquake, or a tragic defeat in battle. Fasting was a response taken up as people became aware of their deep neediness before God. Fasting is a human response to feeling weak, vulnerable, convicted, incredibly mournful, broken or utterly dependent on the mercy of God.

Fasting is a response. If you remember one thing from what I’m saying, remember that — fasting is a response. Fasting is a whole person response to an experience of grief. When we encounter tragedy, when a friend shares that he has a serious illness, when we say goodbye to a loved one in death, when we are overcome with grief through the conviction of sin in our lives, when we are devastated at news of a national tragedy, such as the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. All these things disturb us deeply in our mind and heart. Our mind and heart become filled with anguish. Fasting becomes a way of bringing our whole body into line with our heart and mind. Depriving the body of food and/or drink causes the body distress. This distress in our body then parallels the distress in our mind and our heart. Fasting brings mind, heart and body into a harmonious experience of grief. Some may not feel the need to bring their whole self into this experience of grief. But others will desire a way to bring their body into harmony with the deep, deep grief in their mind and heart. Fasting is a whole person response to our experience of grief.

Fasting begins as a response, and it is a directed response. This directed response is not primarily intended to be noticed by the community around you — that was the problem with the play-actors that Jesus was talking about. Their response was intended to be noticed by others. Fasting is a response of grief and heartache, and it is to be directed towards God our Father, not at those around us. Because fasting is directed towards God, fasting is a type of prayer that incorporates body, heart and mind. Bringing all three of them together is a way of coming before God in prayer.

As this harmonious prayer comes before God, as we bring our grief before God, the first thing we should become aware of is that our own experience of grief is participating with God’s own grief. Even though God has all things in His hands, even though God knows how all things work for His glory and our redemption — God is broken and aches with the brokenness in this world. So, as we fast and bring our grief before God, we must be aware that we are, in some way, participating in God’s own grief.

The most clear picture I have of God grieving for this broken world is found in the story of Lazarus in John 11. This dear friend of Jesus was taken by illness and then died. When Jesus came, Lazarus’s family was in deep grief. Jesus knew what he was about to do. He would soon shout, “Lazarus, come out!” - and that his body would rise up and step out of the tomb. Jesus knew all this. Yet when Jesus arrived at the tomb, Jesus wept. Jesus wept at the brokenness. Jesus wept at the agony of untimely death which afflicts the children of God. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, who were weeping that such a thing should happen to their brother. God’s heart breaks over the brokenness of this world. So, as we fast in response to grief, tragedy, despair, sinfulness, neediness, — as we fast and express our grief through our body, mind and heart, we must know that we are experiencing the heart of the Father, who is the first to grieve over the brokenness of this world.

Fasting not only is an experience of the Father’s grief, it is an expression of our own unique grief. As we fast, we bring our heart, mind and body into concert with one another. Fasting is a way of laying our whole being before our Father in heaven, saying to God: “This is who I am. See the grief in my body. See the grief in my mind. See the grief in my soul. See the grief in my heart.” Perhaps we don’t have words to speak. Perhaps this body, heart and mind groan is all the heartache prayer that we have in us, yet with it we can trust the Holy Spirit will come alongside us. As Paul says in Romans 8:26, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.” As we fast, we bring our body into groaning along with our mind and heart, trusting that this groaning will be taken into the bosom of the Holy Spirit, who will carry it, who will cherish it, and who will bring it before God our Father. Fasting is a way of saying deeply to God, “Look at me — this is who I am. This is where I am.”

And of course when we are grieving, we want God to respond. After all, the experience of grief, and neediness, and conviction of sin, and lament is all directional. It's a recognition that things are not as they should be, and we deeply desire that our Father, in His goodness, should make things right. We desire from the depth of our soul that our Father should come to offer forgiveness, to dispel our heartbreak with comfort, to mend a broken nation, to heal our land, to heal our bodies with health, to restore our soul. We desire that God respond to the cry of our heart, mind and body and all this comes forward in prayer and fasting.

As Jesus says again and again and again throughout the Sermon on the Mount, our Heavenly Father sees us and He hears our prayers. Our Heavenly Father will hear and respond to the cries of our body, heart and mind. So Jesus says in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” Similarly with fasting, Jesus says, “And your Father, who sees you fasting in secret, will reward you.” Your Father, sees your prayer of body, mind and heart, and He responds. Jesus’ promise is sure. He will offer us passage in our grief, yet we must bear in mind the type of passage Jesus promises.

We get a glimpse of this type of passage in Matthew 5: 3-12 which we call the Beatitudes — there Jesus is speaking of people who have good reason to fast. He’s speaking of people who are poor in spirit, who are in deep mourning, who hunger for God’s justice, of people who are slandered and persecuted. These are people who have cause for grief and reason to fast. To them Jesus says there will be passage; there will be response; there will be blessing. Listen:

Blessings on the poor in spirit! The Kingdom of heaven is yours.

Blessings on the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.

Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.

Blessings on people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.

Blessings on the merciful! You will receive mercy yourselves.

Blessings on the pure in heart! You will see God.

Blessings on the peacemakers! You will be called God’s children.

Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.

Blessings on you when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me. Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.”

As you pray with body, with mind, and with heart — may you find your way through grief, carried forward by the blessings that our Lord promises.


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