Harrowing Of Hell
February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday: The Why of Fasting

Diane Carlisle, Lay Preacher

To watch the sermon click here.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I have to admit that Lent is my favorite season of the liturgical year. It is a time to reflect, repent, and return to God, to really lean into life as a Christian in secular Seattle. It can be a season of deep introspection and spiritual transformation. I have experienced some truly holy Lents, but it has been awhile. This year, I wonder if I and you, if you will join me, can experience Lent in a new way, a way that will lead to reflection, repentance, and returning to God? More on that in a bit.

Traditionally people like to give something up for Lent. Sometimes it’s food, sometimes it is something else. Lent is seen by some as time to reset those New Year’s Resolutions that have already been broken. A two-fer, if you will. Not only do I observe Lent, but I get healthier in the process or I give up a bad habit that my spouse has been nagging me about. 

Other times people commit to take on a spiritual discipline such as almsgiving (tithing or giving their money to charity), or service to those less fortunate. All of these are good and well, but I think sometimes we as Christians may forget the why of what we do or don’t do and focus on the how or the when. We forget that Lent is a time to reflect, repent, and to return to the Lord. We forget that our relationship with God, our love of God and of neighbor is paramount to our existence. We forget that relationship is primary.

Our culture makes it easy to forget this. I didn’t grow up in a very religious family. We went to church on Easter and sometimes on Christmas (when it fit our family’s schedule). And because I went to church on Easter I knew a little about the time leading up to Easter, and my mother always encouraged me to give something up so I could really enjoy Easter, my new dress, and all of the candy and eggs and bunnies that naturally came with Easter. 

When I was much younger I used to give up watermelon. Now two things you need to know about this Lenten discipline of mine. One is I lived here in Washington State, and back then watermelon was not available during the winter months, and the other thing is I really didn’t like watermelon. Not much of a sacrifice! I was 100% successful in keeping this abstention from watermelon up!

Fast forward to adulthood when I gave up things like alcohol, shopping, sugar, and other things that perhaps weren’t very good for me. I took on daily prayer, and I volunteered at shelters and food banks. Sometimes I was able to keep the practice up for all of Lent, and sometimes I was not. I wasn’t sure why I adopted these disciplines, or what difference they would make, how they might lead to wholeness and a closer relationship with God. How could adopting a Whole-30 diet for the 40 days of Lent help to lead to a deeper relationship with God and neighbor? That wasn’t a question I asked.

As I have continued on my spiritual journey, I have been yearning for a Lent that was truly a time set aside for cultivating a deeper connection with God; a time of reflection,repentance, and reconnection—a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So reflecting on my past Lents, what I found was… prayer – check, almsgiving and service – check. Fasting….uh, maybe not. I know what happens when I deprive my body of food. My brain ceases to think clearly, and while I sometimes turn my attention to God when my stomach gurgles and rumbles, my thoughts are not always very prayerful or full of repentance. So instead I have leaned into prayer and worship, because those are two disciplines I know and love.  

It’s easy to coast along doing what is comfortable, but for growth to actually take place there needs to be a shift, perhaps even some discomfort. I have been drawn back to fasting, something I have avoided, didn’t understand, and frankly didn’t want to Definitely  some discomfort here.

Often we turn to the Bible to help guide us. Did you know fasting is mentioned over 70 times in the Bible. Jesus fasted, Paul fasted, Moses fasted, Hannah fasted, Elijah fasted, Anna fasted, the people of Israel fasted. Even the Pharisee who boasted that he was better than the tax collector because he followed the law, which included fasting, fasted twice a week. 

Fasting was a common practice among the Hebrew people. But why? Except for perhaps some (for whom it was a law they followed) people fasted in response to a turning away from God. They didn’t fast because they wanted something, but in response to something that had happened. Let me say that again. People fasted not because they wanted something like forgiveness, reconciliation, or a community that is faithful to God, but in response to a turning away from God, either by themselves or by a group of people with whom they were in relationship with. 

In the lesson we heard from the Prophet Isaiah he is chastising the people of Israel for what was happening when they fasted. He says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”  Sounds like me when I have fasted before! 

What he goes on to say is, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah is saying that the people of Israel should be fasting because of the injustice and oppression of its own people. That is the turning away from God. 

Isaiah is not saying that God will forgive the people of Israel if they fast, but that they must fast in response to what they have done. The reason for fasting is not so that God will find favor with Israel again (although that is the hope) but in repentance for turning away from God.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching his followers about practicing their faith. He admonishes them by saying “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”  (Mark 6:1) In other words what you do, or don’t do, is not what is important. Following the rule and then letting everyone know you are following the rule is not important. 

Fasting or almsgiving or abstaining from Social media or praying or being silent is not what is important to God. What is important is that we turn our focus back to God through turning our focus away from something that may be getting in our way of our relationship with God. We need to reflect, repent, and return to God. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other practices, such as silence or abstaining from a bad habit may help us to reflect, repent, and return to wholeness.

I want to talk just a little bit about the “why.” Why has the focus of Lent traditionally been on the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Prayer is the response to the tyranny of time in our lives given to doing what we want to do when we want to do it, rather than taking care of our neighbor as God cares for us. Almsgiving is the response to the tyranny of the over accumulation of things, buying what we want when we want them, rather than feeding, clothing, and caring for all of the beloved children of God and the earth which we inhabit. And fasting is the response to tyranny of the body, consuming whatever we desire whenever we desire it rather than eating just what we need for sustenance and health, so that we may better serve our God and our neighbor.

I encourage you to look at what has tyranny over you. I believe that each of us is challenged to look at what is getting in the way of our own full, total, and loving relationship with our God and our neighbor and to take Lent as a time to reflect on why we have turned our focus away from God, to repent by taking on prayer, fasting, almsgiving, or another spiritual practice with a new intention. Can you alter your life these 40 days of Lent to overcome the tyranny?

For me, the tyranny of the body is what I will be turning away from this Lent. The Hebrew law sets aside two days a week for fasting. The law is that people must fast from sunset to sunset on these days. That seems reasonable to me (and a bit uncomfortable), and it is what I choose to do, not because it is the law, not because I need to do something for Lent, but because I believe that it will help me repent from the tyranny of the body, which is one thing that is keeping me from a full, loving relationship with God and my neighbor.

As we begin the sacred season of Lent today, as you come forward to be marked with the sign of the cross, as you remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, I hope that you will contemplate a truly Holy Lent, and consider how you may have turned away from God. Is seeking noise in the world through social media, television, mindless partying or other activities taking time and focus away from God? You may want to take on the discipline of a holy silence. Maybe you have neglected your relationship with God in the busy-ness of everyday life. A deeper prayer life can be the response. If your focus has been on material consumption, take on the practice of almsgiving or service to others. Or if tyranny of the body is impeding your ability to focus on God and others, join me in fasting, one that is safe for you. I pray that whatever practice you choose to engage in that you are transformed.

As we look forward to where Lent leads us, and as we anticipate the day of resurrection, God’s victory over death, the response to humanity’s most recognizable turning away from God, may your Lent be most holy and sacred.