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What about Prayer and Fasting?
a sermon based on Matthew 6:1-21
by Rev. Frank Schaefer


Today we celebrate Ash Wednesday--the beginning of the Season of Lent. Ash Wednesday and Lent, as expressed in our scripture texts--is about introspection, repentance, fasting, and prayer.  Today I want to talk about prayer and fasting--two spiritual disciplines, we are called to engage in during the season of Lent.

Concerning prayer, Jesus says in our Gospel lesson that the hypocrites just pray for show; they might not even believe that God really hears us when we pray.  So they do it in front of people.  This way they think they get something out of their prayer duty: recognition by the people.  But Jesus wants us to know:  this kind of prayer is no prayer at all.  God doesn't even listen to this kind of prayer.   The recognition of the people is that's in this kind of prayer.

Jesus is saying: God does hear us when we pray and he answers….if we pray right. If we believe in our heart that God really hears us--even when nobody else is around.  To pray in the closet takes that kind of faith.  And that's when our prayers are being heard and answered by God.

Jesus goes on to say: don't be like the pagans, either, who rattle down prayers mindlessly.  And he gives us an example of how we should pray: the prayer that has become known as "the Lord's Prayer." The ironic thing is that even the Lord's Prayer has been used as a ritual prayer and has sometimes become more of a mindless babbling then a real prayer.  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with praying the Lord's Prayer.  But I think it should be prayed consciously and meditatively.

I knew someone who could rattle down the Lord's Prayer in less than 5 seconds.  When I asked him if he thought that God could understand what he was trying to communicate he said: "what do you mean?"

I truly believe that when Jesus gave us the Lord's Prayer he did not mean to give us a prayer litany.  With the Lord's Prayer, Jesus gave us a theology of prayer.

The bottom line about prayer is that God wants us to know:  if you really pray, God will hear you and answer your prayers.  This is not to say that God will fulfill your every wish, but God will answer your prayer in God's own perfect way and timing.

Right prayer, according to our Scripture reading, is done with the belief that we are actually talking to God when we pray and that we should clearly and intelligently communicate our feelings, our thoughts, our petitions, and our praise to him.

What about fasting? Why do people fast?  It is certainly a hard thing to fast, it goes against one of the most basic human needs, the need for physical nourishment.  In addition, eating is a pleasure, it's fun.  And God made it that way, so that we would get our nutrients.

Yet, fasting is a universal phenomenon which you find in all major religions.   So, there must be something rewarding about it, if people do it.  And that something is not physical.  In fact, in fasting you are afflicting hunger, i.e. physical pain, on yourself--in order to gain something of a spiritual nature.

At least that's the pure idea about fasting.  And that's what Jesus is saying in our Scripture lesson.  He is talking of a reward that lies in fasting--in the right kind of fasting.  But like with everything, fasting too can be done for the wrong reasons. And so Jesus rebukes those who do it "for show."

"When you fast, don't be like the Pharisees, who look disheveled on purpose, so that everybody sees that they are sooooo religious."  That's all they ever get, says Jesus. But then Jesus talks about the hidden power of fasting.  Fasting is something that God rewards if it is done for the right reasons.

The thing is: fasting is an act of faith.  It doesn't make sense from a human perspective.  A person without faith would ask: "why do you do that, starve yourself, and withhold from the pleasure of eating?" That's very odd.

Fasting is one of many faith exercises, spiritual disciplines that have developed in the history of Christianity.  And for the most part they have developed as a response to situations of hardship, persecution, difficulties.

Jesus was once asked by the Pharisees: "how come your disciples don't fast like we do?"  And Jesus answered: "there's no need right now for fasting.  They have me with them.  But, they will fast when I am no longer with them."

Fasting--like other spiritual disciplines--have been developed in our tradition as a response to hardship.  It is a hard response to a harsh hard situation.  Fasting has become a discipline to get into spiritual shape.  Spiritual disciplines can be compared very well with the discipline athletes put on themselves in order to get fit for a sports event.

Just as there is a need for physical conditioning in sports, there is a need for spiritual conditioning to prepare us for the tragedies, adverse circumstances everybody--including Christians--will face in life.

What are the benefits of Fasting?


*We gain a higher perspective--the spiritual discipline of fasting helps us to strip away the external forces at work upon our lives, it removes us from our circumstances, it helps us to take a different, a higher, perspective.

* We gain a better attitude--fasting will quiet us down inside (usually after 3 days into the fast), it makes us open to hear God's voice more clearly.  The voices, the stresses, the "noise" of the world, which we carry around with us subside, and we are able to listen to God, to reason better, and we become more open for inspiration.

* Last, but not least, fasting allows our faith to grow--faith in the invisible power of God.  That faith, in turn, allows us to react differently from the natural human reaction.  When a mature Christian faces hardship he or she will react differently than a person who does not know God.  Fasting can help us "train" and prepare for hardship.

Fasting is not essential for our salvation.  God's salvation is based purely on grace.  Fasting, like other spiritual disciplines, is something to be cautions about.  It is for the more mature Christians.  Just like you don't start in a gym with the heavy weights, you shouldn't do a radical fast for your first time.  Start by doing a partial fast--skip one meal a day or give up one of your favorite foods during Lent, etc.

God is calling us to pray and fast on this Ash Wednesday and during this season of Lent.  Let us follow his call and meet him half-way.  Our heavenly father is already waiting to meet us in our prayers and in our spiritual discipline.  Jesus promises that God will reward us, to bless us as we draw near to God through real prayer and true fasting.  Amen.