Saturday, January 18, 2020

200119 Why Fast and Pray? (3)

In the Bible, fasting often accompanies prayer for the purpose of intensive intercession, repentance, worship, or the need for direction.
Daniel demonstrates an example of intensive intercession that involves repentance when he was in captivity. He…  turned (his) face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. (Daniel 9:3-5). That certainly was a desperate situation. Daniel could see that their captivity was a result of their sin and separation from God.
Later Daniel was faced with a need to understand the vision.  In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” (Daniel 10:2-3). At the end of Daniel’s fasting and praying he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a terrifying Angel. I would encourage you, later, to return to Daniel 10 and read the description. Right now we want to see why Daniel didn’t get an answer since he clearly met the conditions of fasting. He fell on his knees and the angel comforted him. “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” (Daniel 10:11). The angel then explained that the first day Daniel prayed for understanding the angel was dispatched to give him the answer but, ”the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia” (Daniel 10:13). Even God’s most powerful angels may be limited in their ability because of demonic activity. The fasting and praying of Daniel, a human, helped this angel breakthrough with the message. When we are called on to pray with fasting we must never give up until we have an answer. If our need for God and if the answer to our problem is strong enough for us to seriously fast along with prayer God will answer! I don’t mean by this that God will do what we want them to. However, the answer may not be what we desire or expect. We must always remember that God is God!
I am reminded of the explanation of C. S.  Lewis, in his book, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”. In the words of Mr. Beaver, when Susan asked him about Aslan. “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr. Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
Aslan is the central figure in the book and is an illustration of God in Christ. And we need to remember that God is not “safe”! He’s the King!
When we fast and pray we are calling on God! We are not asking him to serve us! Yahweh God is the creator of the universe, the King of Kings and Lord of lords! Be careful what you ask for.
Isaiah tells us about Israel’s religious rituals. In chapter 58 of Isaiah’s prophecy, he spoke of people going through the motions but having no change of heart. They pretended they wanted to know and follow God’s will. They even fasted expecting God to do something for them. They claimed to have denied themselves but God did not respond. God did respond to their accusations. Their fasting did not affect him because it was superficial and not real! Instead, God told them “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6).
When the people fast properly their fasting will be connected to behavior that helps set the captives free. Our fasting should result in helping others in true obedience to God.
In the New Testament, we find Anna, the prophetess, in the temple every day. She was worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day in anticipation of the coming Messiah.  Luke tells us that she greeted the baby Jesus with thanksgiving that was quickly turned into a gospel witness. (Luke 2:36-38).
When the church in Antioch was “worshiping the Lord and fasting” the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I called them” (Acts 13:2). Immediately the church entered into a time of continued fasting and prayer and when they sent Saul and Barnabas out on their first missionary journey they fasted and prayed and laid hands on them before sending them off.
Even though the New Testament does not specifically require fasting Jesus certainly assumed we will fast.
In Matthew chapter 9 beginning with verse 14 “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
 In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave specific direction on the subject, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18).
I will close my part of the message today with a quote from, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 391.“Most Western Christians do not fast, but, if we were willing to fast more regularly — even for one or two meals — we might be surprised how much more spiritual power and strength we would have in our lives and in our churches.”

Saturday, January 11, 2020

200112 Why Fast and Pray? (2)

There are several ways to answer the question, “Why should we fast?” In our culture fasting is probably connected with health and weight loss much more than it would be connected to prayer. In the Old Testament fasting is usually connected to repentance. For example, Joel called upon the people, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;” (Joel 2:12). God was speaking through his prophet because of the spiritual condition of his people. God goes on to say that their outward condition did not match their spiritual condition. Since God is slow to anger and abundant in steadfast love if the people would repent perhaps God would relent and turn aside from his anger toward them.
We are not sure when Joel proclaimed God’s judgment. We do know approximately when Isaiah spoke similar words. Isaiah operated about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Isaiah was a priest and a prophet! In chapter 58 of the written prophecy, we find this question coming from the people: “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3a) then God answered them. By the way, when we ask God for an answer to our questions and concerns we should be prepared for an honest answer. God is not in the business of making people feel comfortable.
God’s reply? “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:3b-5).
They fasted all right but their heart was never right. They thought they had humbled themselves and God had ignored them. God had not ignored them. He had observed them and saw that they accompanied the fasting and praying with business as usual. The kind of fasting they were doing did not cause God to listen to them when they prayed.
Instead, God asked the question, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).
The fast that God wanted would feed the hungry. I assume that would be to share the meals that you’re not going to eat with someone who has no food. The fasting God would choose would provide clothing for the poor.
When that kind of fasting occurred God gives a promise! The darkness of the world would be broken and flooded with light! Healing would come to the sick and the righteousness of the people would go before them. God would guide them constantly. Their desires would be satisfied. The spiritual drought would be ended and they would become a well-watered garden.
You see, the God they served was not like the gods of the people around them. Yahweh had pointed this out to them earlier in Isaiah’s prophecy. Let’s look at chapter 44 verses 6-8: Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”
The true King of Israel had revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush hundreds of years before. Yahweh spoke to Moses and gave him direction. In Isaiah’s day, it was important to bring the people back to recognize that there is only one God. He clearly describes himself as being the only God that exists.
Now, what does this have to do with fasting and prayer?
When we look through the Bible we find many instances of prayer being accompanied by fasting. As we saw last week, Ezra and Nehemiah engaged in fasting along with prayer. King Jehoshaphat called on the nation to fast and pray when they were confronted with overwhelming military force.
Looking at the word of God there are other examples. Jonah resisted going to Nineveh because he wanted the city to be destroyed! When he got to Nineveh his message was simple “Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4b) He offered no way out. He did not call on them to repent! He simply announced God’s coming judgment on the city. This pagan city, Nineveh, was about to get what it deserved. However: the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. (Jonah 3:5)
And, When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:10) If any city deserved to be destroyed Nineveh would be it. When they understood the danger of their situation they humbled themselves and fasted and prayed.
We believe that God since he knows all things does not change his mind. Yet, in this situation, and a couple of others in the Bible, God appears to repent! God does not change but in many cases the people God is dealing with change. God knows they will because he knows the end from the beginning.
Each instance, where God appears to have changed his mind, is an illustration of the situation changing. If the situation changes, then, of course, God’s attitude or intention will also change.
When Jonah preached in Nineveh he was confronting an evil city! Nineveh was the center of the Assyrian Empire. The Empire was known as very brutal. Yet, when they were confronted by a true prophet they repented. God did not repent the people he was dealing with repented! Once they repented the situation changed and God responded to the changed situation. Yes, God knew the future! Yet, the future changed as the people changed. They put away their fancy clothes and wore sackcloth! They fasted as a nation and their hearts were changed.
What happens when we fast? What are the benefits of fasting? First, fasting increases our sense of humility and dependence on the Lord. Second fasting allows us to give more attention to prayer. Third fasting is a continual reminder that, just as we sacrifice some personal comfort to the Lord by not eating, or whatever we give up for communion with God, so we must continually sacrifice all of ourselves to him. Fourth, fasting is a good exercise in self-discipline, as we refrain from eating food, which we would ordinarily desire, strengthens our ability to refrain from sin. If we train ourselves to accept the small suffering of fasting we will be better able to accept other sufferings for the sake of righteousness. Fifth, fasting also heightens spiritual and mental alertness and a sense of God’s presence as we focus less on the material things of this world. Finally, fasting expresses earnestness and urgency in our prayers. Fasting says to God we are prepared to lay down our lives that the situation be changed.

 All scriptures quotes are from: The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001. Wheaton, Ill, Standard Bible Society.