Want to look like Beyonce? Jennifer Aniston? Gwyneth Paltrow? Jennifer Lopez? Phillip Schofield? It’s time to do a 5:2, a diet made popular by Dr. Michael Mosey’s “The Fast Diet” book, the latest craze in Britain, now invading the bestselling lists here in the states – with its own PBS special in April. The catch is the diet is based on eating pattern of medieval monks and nuns when food was often scarce. They ate simple meals five days a week – fasting (in most cases eating one basic meal of no more than 500 calories) twice a week: on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Who would believe that fasting has become fashionable? In the endless pursuit of the elusive size 0, people are paying thousands of dollars a week to visit health spas where they go without food. One spa in California, is booked months in advance with a clientele that includes celebrities Ben Affleck and Courtney Love. A Venezuelan beauty queen has had plastic mesh sewn to her tongue in her to stay thin. Fashion designers and mortgage brokers have joined the fasting trend - subsisting on apple-celery cocktails, herbal teas, laxatives, bee pollen, blended soups, and water mixed with squeezed lemons, Celtic Sea salt, and honey. Yummy.
One nutritional consultant organizes four-day fasting weekends for women that include motivational trips to a fashionable department store, to "remind them what it's all for."
Let’s get it straight: Fasting is not about fashion. It was about repentance, purification, preparing for rebirth, or a new stage in life. Jesus fasted before beginning his public ministry. Moses fasted before he received the 10 commandments. Daniel fasted and was blessed with wisdom. Esther called for a 3 day fast for all the Jews in her city, who were spared annihilation. Hannah could not bear a child and she fasted. God heard her plea and the prophet Samuel was born. God called Paul and shared the assignment for his life during a strict fast. Peter was fasting when God gave him a new revelation and called him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. King Solomon fasted and God greatly increased his wealth and wisdom (Kings 3:10-13). After hearing Jonah’s dire predictions, the King of Nineveh declared a fast, even unto the animals, and God diverted the punishment. People may fast for fashion, but fasting is a key tool to spiritual growth and transformation.
Last week, we heard Jesus most famous teaching, the beatitudes – teachings that turn blessing on its head, teaching that causes us to pause, wonder what it means to be blessed in this world of ours. For the next several weeks, we will hear Jesus expand on his teachings, teachings based in the law expressed in the beatitudes. Teachings that make us reach deep into ourselves, throw some conventional religious concepts on their head -- teachings to wake us up – and understand what it means to follow Jesus. To be light. To be salt. To be righteous.
Jesus builds on Isaiah’s bold teachings. Fasting was part of Jewish life and Isaiah spells out what is acceptable fasting. What does fasting do for us that is so important? There’s a story about a wealthy businessman who went to a monastery for a retreat. He wanted to get closer to God. He was brought before the abbot of the monastery to seek spiritual direction. The abbot asked the man if he would like a glass of water. When the man responded with a “yes”, the abbot began to pour him some water. The abbot poured and poured until the water reached the very tip of the glass; but he didn't stop! Instead, he kept pouring and pouring so that the water overflowed ran onto the table; and drenched the expensive suit which the man was wearing.
Jumping up angry, the man yelled at the abbot, “What are you doing? Look at what you did to my suit!” Turning to the man, the abbot said, “You are like this glass of water. You are so full of yourself and of concerns for riches and other anxieties of the world. You are completely full. There is no space for you to hold anything else inside. There is no room for God to come in. Before God can come in, you must empty yourself and make room for Him to enter.”
That is the key. Fasting, followed correctly, is a tool that we use to detach ourselves from the cares and concerns of this world; and from our own ego and selfish desires. It’s not about how long we fast, how we fast, but that we fast. Fasting isn’t just for lent, Ash Wednesday, or Good Friday. Fasting is part of our regular living. Through fasting, we encounter all the reasons we use food as a way to distance ourselves from our sacred souls – how we hide behind that mars bars and bag of chips to avoid encountering people and encountering God. True fasting involves abstinence from everything that distances us from God. By emptying ourselves of sin, of gossip, of hate, vanity -- we are cleaned, healed to our right minds. Fasting in this manner, makes us light in the world and salt of the earth – an earth that has lost its flavor through gluttony of attachments to money, power, a false sense of beauty and life purpose.
In the face of the onslaught of the “fast food” of the mind, body and soul we feed upon daily: Jesus awakens us, tells us that our true purpose is that we are salt and light in the world, and that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were good people. They studied the scriptures and tried to follow them with dedication and zeal. Yet they failed. The words of the prophet Isaiah are blunt. They, like their ancestors, comrades of Isaiah, observed the fasts. They didn’t cheat with extra cookie or slice of bread. They made their offerings at the temple as prescribed. By Jesus’ day, the Pharisees fasted up to twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, (Luke 18: 9-14). Jesus condemned the Pharisees for disfiguring their faces – with ash and dirt -- to alert the rest of the world that they were fasting (Matt 6:16-18). So, we can fast, and fast well, for all the wrong reasons: like to show off our will power or our slimmer body. If that’s the goal, then the true fast has failed.
It’s time we regained fasting, and took it seriously. It is good to fast, even a basic fast. As a people used to getting what we want, when we want it, both Jesus and Isaiah make it clear that a good fast, an acceptable fast, brings healing, and restoration within ourselves even into our community.
Isaiah raises the following questions: is a fast a true fast if one continues to oppress their workers while abstaining from food or drink? Or if we quarrel? Or fight? Isaiah says, and Jesus also teaches, that being able to control the hunger sensations of the body means nothing if we are unable to control the desire to be #1, to be in control, to lord over others, to turn away and ignore the hungry, the homeless, the poor – even to avoid our family in need. What does throwing ash on our heads and wearing sackcloth prove, if we continue to speak evil, gossip, falsely accusing others?
A Godly fast is a fast from greediness. A fast that curbs our tongue from slanderous speech. A fast from the gluttony of gadgets we indulge ourselves. Maybe instead of food, we need to fast from pride. Maybe instead of food, we need to fast from TV, the radio, the computer, the smart phone: and spend that time with someone who is lonely. Maybe instead of food, we can fast from eating out, and give that money to a charity. God’s acceptable fast asks us to stop feeding our own wants and desires and redirect our energies to feeding the hungry and helping the afflicted. That is how our light shines in the world. Some college girls have put forth the “7 or Less” challenge, to convince their dorm sisters to select on 7 items in their closet to wear for a month. That’s the idea. We fast for compassion and connection -- for a world for whom fasting is not an option, but an imposed, inescapable reality.
We need to empty the glass so we can fill it with God. We get plugged in. Our light shines. We act like salt – an essential ingredient, a preserving agent, adding flavor and variety to life on earth. Those dry and barren aspects of our souls? They become watered by God’s spirit. Our bones become strong – the frame upon which we build a life -- becomes steady and firm. A Godly fast fixes those broken places, areas in our psyche that are breached by sin and bad habits. Through us God can rebuild the world around us. We create a foundation for others to build on for generations beyond us. Now that’s a fast.
It doesn’t matter how each of us fasts. But fast we should. Whether it is abstaining from meat, from coffee, sugar – a water fast, a juice fast, a fast from electronics, a fast that returns resources to the hungry, needy, holds back smart-alecky responses. Fast – in way that is acceptable between you and God. If only Beyonce, Jennifer Aniston - Gwyneth Paltrow - Phillip Schofield knew the power of the true fast. We can seek that size 0 – but a size 0 in gossip, envy, hoarding, ignoring the plight of the poor. Fast – and let our glass be filled with the Holy Spirit – creating a space for light and salt -- to bring healing through your righteousness to restore and repair, and fulfill God’s word in our midst. Amen.
http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustration Peter Larson, "Fashionable Fastingthe PRISM E-pistle (9-3-03); submitted by Marshall Shelley, Wheaton, Illinoiss/2003/september/14600.html