given on Sunday, February 22, 2009
Did you realize that it is only 49 days until Easter? That is not a very long time to get ready. There are the decorations to put up. There is a huge holiday dinner to prepare. And, has the Easter Bunny talked to you about the supplies you need for the kids and the grandkids? Ladies, have you gone out and bought your Easter bonnet, a new Easter outfit—right down to the shoes?
Maybe you thought you would wait a little longer. After all, Mardi Gras comes first, even St. Patrick’s Day; so why think about Easter Sunday today? This is just the week Lent begins, and I am not ready.
Lent is a season, it is a time to prepare for Easter. As I began researching Lent, I learned that it is 40 days, which does not include Sunday. The 40 days, as we might expect, are to reflect the 40 days that Jesus was in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. The 40 days were filled with challenges from Satan and with fasting. Jesus used the 40 days to reflect on his ministry, on his role to carry God’s message to the people, and probably even on just how he was going to do this.
Review Matthew’s record of Jesus’ days in the wilderness:
1-3 Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”
4Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”
5-6For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”
7Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.”
8-9For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”
10Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”
11The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs. (The Message)
I doubt that any one of us could even survive 40 hours in the wilderness under the conditions Jesus found himself. Consider what would happen if you walked out the church’s doors this morning and the 40 hour countdown began—it should be over by (Norris) 2 a.m. (Chilhowee) 4 a.m. on Tuesday. I doubt you would consider getting up to mark the 40th hour passing, but put yourself in a desert with no food, no water, no other people or means of support. Under those circumstances, I expect you would be awake early in the morning anxiously waiting for a break in the wilderness, food, water, rest, and other human interaction.
Handling the challenges we face on a daily basis takes discipline. Jesus demonstrated how disciplined he was during the 40 days in the wilderness, but the gospels are filled with other examples of his spiritual disciplines. We have often talked about prayer and that is one of the spiritual disciplines John Wesley identified as practices Methodists should make an effort to include in their lives. On the website for the Methodist’s Global Board of Global Ministries:
John Wesley believed that Jesus is God’s means of grace. For him, the “means of grace” were also “works of piety” (spiritual disciplines) and “works of mercy” (doing good to others). He said that means of grace are: “…outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” [http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/wesley/disciple.stm]
The spiritual disciplines Wesley listed as works of piety were prayer, Bible study and fasting. We have often discussed prayer and Bible study, but seldom do we cover fasting. Lent is a time to review just how well we are implementing spiritual discipline and fasting is probably the one discipline I need to understand.
Now don’t panic. I am not going to ask you to commit to fasting for the next 49 days. Today I simply want to reach an understanding of how fasting is considered a spiritual discipline. I grew up thinking fasting meant absolutely no food went into the body. I grew up hearing and reading about Ghandi who went through hunger strikes over and over and over as he tried to bring India into an understanding of independence and discrimination. Then when Martin Luther King began his work to promote civil rights here in the United States, he modeled his non-violent protests after Ghandi, minus the extended hunger strikes. In my teenage mind, fasting seemed almost like punishment, certainly not a spiritual discipline.
This is the mindset I had as I began working through the concept of fasting. Thank goodness I found a much better definition when I located more sources, especially those about Wesley. One website explained fasting and prayer as connected:
Fasting is not a diet; it is a discipline that enables us to focus our attention toward prayer. Fasting can give us a great sensitivity to hear God. When you are hungry …pray…or you may say, “feast on God.”
I assure you that when I miss a meal and my stomach starts growling or I get light-headed, I have not turned to prayer first. I have turned to complaining or searching for anything I can to eat.
Wesley, though, connected the growling pains of hunger with a need to pray. One source said it was like an alarm clock that called you to prayer. Now one other defining source placed a time frame on fasting. When Wesley fasted, he began after lunchtime on Thursday and continued until suppertime on Friday. That time frame is manageable for most of us unless there are medical issues to consider. In fact, when the doctors tell you to fast for blood work, they establish the time frame from 9 p.m. one day to when you get to the office for a blood draw (which I always make sure is as close to 8 a.m. as possible).
When I read Harold Knight’s book, Eight Life-Enriching Practices of United Methodists, I finally found the understanding of fasting which made since for my life. He explains that it is so easy to place our personal, worldly desires as a priority over God. His definition of fasting does not focus on no food, rather he defines fasting as
“the practice of intentionally abstaining from some or all food for a period of time…(and) another type of fasting is abstinence, which is ‘eating little; the abstaining in part; the taking of a smaller quantity of food than usual.’ …The mildest form of fasting was ‘abstaining from pleasant food.’”
Knight emphasizes that fasting is not dieting and that the focus is on re-centering our lives around God. Lent is a season in which we are to re-center our lives and to check ourselves on how well we are living out our faith and using spiritual disciplines.
Now I still struggle with the idea of asking each of you to join in a fast for Lent, and I am sure some of you have developed a private practice at some time in your lives of giving up something for Lent. The question we have today is whether we are ready for digging down into our souls and really prepare for Easter as God’s gift or whether we will just sigh a bit and move through the days in our usual routines.
Knight’s book also refers to another practice as a form of fasting and that is simply abstinence in other areas of our lives. He states that Marjorie Thompson suggests we abstain from things that are:
“…continual stimulation by the media, shopping sprees, even our heavy schedules and tendency to judge others or ourselves too harshly. The point is to abstain from or reduce whatever stands between us and God.”
With that suggestion about fasting, I finally have come to a better understanding of spiritual discipline.
Now I feel I can use Lent as a season of devotion. I finally have come to grips with the value of the season and try to implement some form of abstinence, which works for me. One thing I have used is simply setting a time limit on snacking after supper. I have taken the 7 p.m. hour and made a decision not to eat anything after that—no deserts, no candy, no popcorn, nothing. I do allow myself to drink water or maybe some hot tea or cocoa, but no goodies. This has been a small decision, but it is the first step I have consciously made to establish the spiritual discipline of fasting. I guess now I am going to have to modify it again and really focus on the “alarm clock to prayer.”
Jesus had 40 days in the wilderness to pray and to focus on his ministry. We have a few days to prepare for Lent in which we, too, need to pray and refocus on God. We may think about how Lent brings Spring. We may decide to open up the house on bright sunny days. We will all be looking for the jonquils to pop up and burst into the bright yellows that delight us. We will listen for the robins and count them as they land in the yards for those early worms (even if we do not get 55 in the yard like Cena did a couple of weeks ago). We will thrill to the smell of rain as the thunder rumbles off in the distance.
Yet, will we think about God and his glory each time our stomach growls or we start to turn on the TV or we feel like going shopping? I suspect we won’t, but I certainly am going to try a little more to use Lent as a personal time to review how I am doing as a Christian. I probably will use my 7 p.m. cut off time again, but maybe I need to add another element to my abstaining from nighttime snacks. Maybe I need to try keeping a spiritual diary for Lent. Maybe I need to turn off the TV a little bit earlier or during a certain 30-60 minutes each day. I have a few days to make a decision, what do you think you need to do?
Yes, I could give you more suggestions, but each one of you knows what is your distraction from God. If I had a piano, I could use 15-30 minutes a day to open the hymnal and try playing one hymn. Hymns are prayers and that would be another way to discipline myself to focus on God. Maybe it is adding a daily walk, which I certainly am not doing right now. Maybe I could set one day a week to eat only salads for supper. We all grew up with the Friday fish meals at school. We all know that fish will be a big seller during Lent so maybe we make a commitment to eat fish once, twice or three times each week.
The decision is yours. Are you ready for Easter? Are you ready for Lent? We have a few days left and Mardi Gras is underway. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Lent begins. The next 49 days are yours to prepare yourself for another year of following Christ. The next 49 days are yours to review and recommit yourself to living out your faith. The next 49 days can make a difference in your life. I challenge you to join me as I work to do better. I will probably be harder on myself than you would be, I might slip once or twice during the next few weeks, but I am ready to try the challenge. Thank goodness God does forgive, but I certainly want to be ready for Easter.
We may just be a few of the many children you watch over, but we ask for your help as Lent begins. We have a challenge ahead for us, but we know you will be there with us. Help us to be honest with ourselves as we evaluate our lives. Help us to have the strength to add this new element of discipline into our daily routine. Help us to hear that mental alarm clock calling us to prayer. As we pray, let us hear your words. As we work through the days, let us hear your words of encouragement. Thank you for guiding us in our work so that we can be strong. –Amen