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February 18, 2018 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On the night in which He was betrayed, when the disciples could not watch with Him for weariness, the Lord told them to pray lest they fall into temptation. When they could cast out certain demons, Jesus told them that some demons come out only by fasting and prayer. When Jesus Himself faces our enemy in the wilderness, He prepares for the battle with forty days and forty nights of fasting and prayer.
Martin Luther has rightly taught us in the Small Catechism that fasting and bodily preparation are a fine, outward training in preparation to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. He emphasizes, however, that what is essential is not fasting or prayer, not ceremony or learning, but faith. He who is truly worthy and well-prepared is the one has faith in the Words of Christ: “This is My Body. This is My Blood. Given and shed for you.”
Without faith, inward faith, in the heart, that no man can see, nothing is worth anything. Learning the catechism and knowing everything about God will not make you worthy of communion. The Rite of Confirmation bestows no special grace apart from faith. Doing good works, perfectly loving your neighbor won’t do it either. And no amount of praying, without faith, will do you a bit of good or make you worthy of communion. Neither will Baptism do you any good without faith or reading the Bible or going to church. It isn’t just fasting and bodily preparation that are less essential than faith. Nothing is worth anything without faith. You need faith, inward faith, in the heart where no man can see, or nothing can save you.
But where, O Christian, do you get this inward thing? You get it in outward ways. God works through His Word. His Word is given in His Church. He does more than impart knowledge in the Bible, in preaching, and in the Absolution, which are themselves outward things, but in these things, besides giving knowledge, He also bestows His Holy Spirit. He creates and sustains faith by the forgiveness of sins in these things. He comforts and encourages by His grace. He speaks also through our brothers and sisters. He builds what the worlds calls camaraderie and the Bible calls brotherly love. He pokes and prods and even bribes. So also He uses mothers and fathers to drag their children to church to be baptized and catechized, to curb the flesh and learn to sit and listen and honor what is good. He uses the liturgy and the wisdom of our fathers to rebuke us and inspire us, to correct and encourage us. He uses art and music and people and things to convey His Word to us because His Word is absolutely necessary and essential for faith. Fasting and bodily training are a fine preparation and outward training. So are Baptism and the Holy Communion and the Bible itself. For man lives not by bread, not by smarts, not by works, not by ceremonies, not by good intentions, and certainly not by indulging the flesh or by fasting, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The essential necessity of faith, however, should in no way cause us to despise the Word that comes to us in outward ways. For what faith needs, above all else, is the external Word. That is because faith is not a thing of itself. It is only that which receives and grasps God’s Word and Spirit.
It is as though we were talking about what makes an Olympic figure skater so talented and we said, “It is the electrical charge that carries the message from her limbs to her brain and then back again. Without that electrical charge she’d just be a bag of bones and no skater at all.”
True enough, in a sense, but completely ridiculous and unhelpful if our goal is to follow her example. She herself likely has no awareness of all of the electricity that moves through your neural paths. She been trained and honed by practice, exercise, and sacrifice for the physical tasks of skating. She has not only given up Facebook and Snapchat and Mario Kart, but she gave up even her childhood. Without the electrical charge, she would be nothing but a bag of bones, to be sure, but without her training she’d not be in the Olympics. She has probably never once thought about the electrical charge because it wasn’t the electrical charge that she cared about. She cared instead about lifting her foot at the right time, leaning into the turn, and bending her knees at the landing. She didn’t care directly about the electricity that carried the information. She cared about the information. Without that information, learned over time, through discipline, the electricity was nothing.
It is similar with faith. Faith is nothing of itself. Man lives not by faith in that sense, but by the Word. Faith receives that Word and believes it, loves it, trusts it. When we say that we live by faith we mean that we live by faith in the Word, that we trust God and His goodness, we believe what He says to us about Himself and about us in Him.
Jesus never commands us directly that we must fast. He simply expects us to. That is why He tells us how to do it: Do not do it to be seen by others. He says that if you do it for the sake of faith, to curb the flesh, to discipline the body, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you. That is a promise. Take heart here: God doesn’t command directly that we must fast the way that He directs that we must pray, but He does promise that if we fast, not so that our fasting would be seen by others, but so that it would be seen by Our Father who is in secret then He will reward us.
Jesus teaches us to fast by example. He also tells the disciples that some exorcisms require it. He explains how not to do it and He tells us the promise. Luther is not overstating it when He says that fasting and bodily preparation are a fine outward training. It could have been more emphatic. He could have said, “Fasting and bodily preparation are a wonderful, God-given discipline and gift that are of great benefit to all Christians.” True, they are not as essential as faith, but nothing is. They are however necessary to get rid of some demons as Jesus says and as we see by His example in the wilderness. And that is hardly a trivial matter.
Perhaps, if you are struggling with pornography or alcoholism or even appreciating your wife and holding old grudges, you would benefit from fasting. Some demons and some temptations are only overcome by prayer and fasting. It is no small thing that when Jesus went to face Satan Himself, He prepared by fasting for forty days. You are not more spiritually sophisticated than Jesus. You do not have a better understanding of the Gospel and its freedom. I don’t care if you’re proud of being Lutheran and think that means we don’t do these things. If being Lutheran means not following Jesus’ example, I don’t want to be Lutheran. If you cannot overcome certain pet sins, if you’ve struggled for years with the same things, pray and fast. Embark on a journey of submission that puts bodily needs second and spiritual needs first.
Don’t do it to earn God’s favor or impress men. Do it for the promise of reward. There is no guarantee that such a discipline will free you from the things that haunt and bother you. St. Paul prayed three times that his thorn be removed and it wasn’t. But in that prayer Paul learned to live with his weakness and trust God’s grace. His prayer was not in vain. If you fast and pray about what is troubling you, in faith, it will not be in vain. God will reward you.
Fasting is especially useful for helping us see our situation and need more clearly because fasting reveals the body’s weaknesses. It teaches us something of our limitations and our need. We cannot take care of ourselves. We are too weak. We are desperate to avoid not merely pain but also discomfort. Olympic athletes learn to play and live with pain for the sake of their sport. We can learn to do the same thing for the sake of God’s promises. Pain and suffering are unpleasant and we don’t seek them out. Fasting should not become a self-imposed cross. It should not be done to the body’s actual harm. The point is to taste it and prepare for crosses not to create them. No one should endanger his health in the name of spiritual gain. Nursing mothers, children, the elderly and the sick should be particularly careful. What Christian fasting is after is simply a heightened awareness of our weakness that would drive us to God and His promises. Fasting is not, in itself, meritorious and breaking a fast is not a sin.
The goodness of fasting isn’t automatic. Again: we need faith. We need to belief that we don’t live by bread alone, that God provides for us and loves us in Christ Jesus and has reconciled Himself to us, defeated the devil in our place, and calls us His own. Without faith, nothing is anything. But faith lives by the Word, not some abstract word of our imagination but the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, the external Word, and that Word comes to us in myriad ways and works against our fallen flesh and demons.
When we do come, in faith, to a heightened awareness and recognize our dependence upon God, we seek our care and consolation from Him, rather than from our own devices or, worst of all, from illicit pleasures and self-medication. This is why it is training to face temptation. All temptations appeal to the flesh. Those who have fasted and taken on outward disciplines have practiced resisting. It is best if the first time an Olympic skater attempts to land a triple isn’t at the Olympics.
The flesh is weak. There is no magic program to overcome it. The Bible isn’t a self-help book in the way that we think of self-help books. At the same time, Jesus does show us how He faces temptation. He also instructs us as to how to face demons and temptation: by prayer and fasting. We should never denigrate or count as optional things that Jesus expects us to do and to which He has attached a promise. We shouldn’t do that with prayer or the Absolution or the Holy Communion. We shouldn’t do it with fasting either.
I hope you’re intrigued and will use Lent as a time to do it, but I am not going to tell you how to do it. Take the term “fasting” as broadly as you want. We aren’t legalists trying to force God into blessing us by following His Word to the letter. You can call quitting Facebook for a time or giving up chocolate or even going on a diet a fast if you want. If there are some side benefits to it, such as losing weight, great. If you quit or break the fast, it is no sin. This is something you are doing for yourself, not for God or me or your neighbor directly. Do it to be seen by your Father who sees in secret. Trust that if you do that, if you fast to be seen not by men but by your Father than He will reward you. We don’t know what that reward will be. It might be relief from some of the particularly shameful and dangerous temptations that have haunted you for years. It might be strengthened faith or the ability to reconcile with estranged family members. Or it might come years later when you are forced to face real persecution and have tasted, in a small way, some suffering and learned to put spiritual concerns before bodily wants so that the persecution is slightly less painful. We don’t know. We only know that He doesn’t lie and that He didn’t fast in the desert for forty days to show off or because He was into empty ceremonies or because He wasn’t a real Lutheran.
Jesus fasted in the desert as a foretaste of the cross. He did it for us, as He did all things. When Satan came, He was ready. He had gotten ready by fasting and prayer. He was able to resist a temptation to food, to glory, and to power. He showed us what faith does and looks to. He didn’t point to His faith. He pointed to and trusted in God’s Word. And it worked. The devil went away. The holy angels came. Our salvation was and is won. His Word is trustworthy, the source and the sustainment of our life. God be praised.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.