daily biblical sermons


A Christian should fast in a new way, different from the Jews of the Old Testament
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, Second Week of the Year, January 20, 2020
1 Samuel 15:16-23, Psalm 49, Mark 2:18-22


Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

“Now John’s [the Baptist] disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him [Jesus], ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day’” (Mark 2:18-20).

 

 

Jesus himself was a great faster. Before beginning his public ministry, he “was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry” (Luke 4:1-2). He also envisioned that his disciples would also fast after his physical departure from them, as he says today, “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:20).

 

 

So Jesus gives them instructions on how they are to fast, “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

 

 

But during Jesus earthly ministry, while he, the bridegroom, was with his disciples, neither he nor his disciples fasted, for this was a special and unique time in salvation history.

 

 

Also we must recall that his disciples were workingmen, most of them fishermen, or a tax collector. They were not monks, they were not Essenes, they were not members of the Qumran community, they were not Nazarites, or members of other groups of Jews at that time that practiced fasting from their youth, as did John the Baptist. Jesus’ disciples are rather grown men who had no experience of strict fasting, and so Jesus took a gradual approach to their training and did not begin with all the hardest things first, but rather with the most important things, the kingdom of God and salvation in him. Then the more difficult aspects of the spiritual life such as fasting could gradually be introduced at a later time (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714).

 

 

Sometimes we think that Protestants despise practices like fasting and count them as having no worth or meaning for a Christian, but Martin Luther thought differently, for he greatly regarded the importance of fasting. He said, “Of fasting I say this: it is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, or studying, or for doing anything else that is good. Under such circumstances God’s word cannot remain” (quoted by Pastor John Piper in a sermon on fasting, January 8, 1995).

 

 

But then Jesus says something else quite important, indicating that his followers were to fast in a new way, quite different from the way the Jews fasted, for he says that Judaism is like an old garment or an old wineskin, and Jesus’ teaching is new like a new patch or like new wine. Just as a new patch will not serve to patch an old garment, for the new patch has not yet shrunk and when you wash the patched garment, the new patch will shrink and pull and make the hole worse; and old wineskins cannot hold new wine that is still fermenting and expanding with gas that will burst the rigid unbending old skins. New wine needs new skins that are still flexible and can expand with the gas produced by the continuing fermentation of the new wine; and an old garment is to be patched with an old patch that will not shrink.

 

 

In the same way you can’t mix New Testament fasting with Old Testament fasting, because the motives are not the same. So when Jesus’ disciples will eventually fast, it will be for different motives than the Old Testament Jews fasted. Pastor John Piper says, “The new fasting is based on the mystery that the Bridegroom has come, not just will come. The new wine of his presence calls for new fasting” (Pastor John Piper’s sermon on fasting of January 8, 1995, emphasis in the original).

 

 

Pastor Piper goes on to say, “The yearning and longing and ache of the old fasting was not based on the glorious truth that the Messiah had come. The mourning over sin and the yearning in danger was not based on the great finished work of the Redeemer and the great revelation of himself and his grace in history. But now the Bridegroom has come. In coming he struck the decisive blow against sin and against Satan and against death.

 

 

“The great, central, decisive act of salvation for us today is past, not future. And on the basis of that past work of the Bridegroom, nothing can ever be the same again. The wine is new. The blood is shed. The Lamb is slain. The punishment of our sins is executed. Death is defeated. The Bridegroom is risen. The Spirit is sent. The wine is new. And the old fasting mindset is simply not adequate” (Ibid.).

 

 

This is our situation now. Jesus Christ is no longer physically present among us in his physical human body as he was during his public ministry. Therefore this is the time when “the bridegroom is taken away from them [the disciples], and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:20).

 

 

What are our motives for fasting as New Testament Christians who live in the new age, the age of fulfillment, the age of salvation? Our primary motive is that we have the bridegroom with us. He is Emmanuel, God with us, the center and whole focus of our life that has been redeemed by him, pronounced and thereby made righteous, with God’s own splendid righteousness reckoned to us,  through our faith in Christ, because of his atoning, reparation-making death on the cross for our sins.

 

 

When we put our faith in him, we have all of this, and so we want all our joy to be in him, and therefore we deny ourselves many unnecessary worldly pleasures that are distractions to us, pleasures without any real meaning, such as eating comfort foods, luxurious gastronomic concoctions, fancy desserts with added refined sugar, white flour, and all sorts of other unhealthy things. Such comfort foods are not helpful for health or nutrition, and they do not meet any useful bodily need, but are eaten simply to give us carnal, physical, bodily pleasure. This pleasure divides our heart and distracts us from the one love of our life so that it is more difficult for us to focus and concentrate on Jesus Christ as the bridegroom and love of our life. Our love is divided and dissipated in many unnecessary, frivolous, and superficial directions by eating these comfort foods, with the result that we too become frivolous and superficial.

 

 

To counter this bad effect we fast and live a simple life, a life of evangelical poverty, that is, choosing a simple, poor, self-denying way of life for the sake of more richly enjoying the love of God and his heavenly peace in our heart. When we are all distracted by loud, garish, worldly music, gastronomic concoctions, and unhelpful sights, we cannot focus on the Lord, nor can we concentrate on him, nor enjoy his heavenly peace and joy in our hearts. Under such circumstances, we find it difficult to rejoice in the Lord always. So Jesus tells us, “Take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day [of his return] come upon you suddenly like a snare” (Luke 21:34).

 

 

But if we deny ourselves these unnecessary worldly pleasures and if we fast, then we can follow St. Paul’s advice, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5).

 

 

If we avoid worldly, unhealthy comfort foods for spiritual reasons, we are fasting in a very new way, in a New Testament Way. We are fasting as “new men,” as a new creation and new creatures in Jesus Christ, for “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

 

 

Fasting can take many forms. Older people perhaps should not fast in the sense of skipping meals, which might compromise their health, but they can fast by avoiding pleasure foods, comfort foods, worldly foods that have nothing to do with health or nutrition, in fact they are normally quite harmful to one’s health. So instead of eating “worldly food,” they can eat simple, plain, healthy food, avoiding things that are fried, made with sugar and white flour, all of which are unhealthy and also harmful spiritually, in that they unnecessarily distract us from the one love of our life that gives us his heavenly peace in our hearts.

 

 

Thus in fasting in this new way, we will be serving one master only, the Lord; not also worldly comfort foods that are harmful to both our body and spirit (Matthew 6:24). In this way we will more effectively be able to love God with all our heart and soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30).

 

 

We should live no longer for ourselves and our worldly appetites that are harmful to us both physically and spiritually, but rather we should live for Christ, for “he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

 

 

We should leave all worldly things for love of him if we want him to be the focus and center of our love. Therefore we should be able to say with St. Peter, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” (Matthew 19:27). We should live a life of self-denial if we want to have heavenly peace in our heart and rejoice always in the Lord. This peace and joy will be the hundredfold reward for those who do not fill themselves with superficial, distracting, heart-dividing worldly pleasures, for “Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).

 

 

Therefore we must be people who deny ourselves unnecessary and physically and spiritually harmful worldly pleasures, for “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). We must lose our life to save it; not save our life in a worldly way, only to lose it with God, for “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35 NKJV).

 

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