As I read through this sermon from week to week, I keep asking myself what would the people on that mountainside on that day have thought about what they heard? They were obviously drawn to this radical rabbi and willing to sit or stand as he shared, but oh, how hard his words were to apply.
Can I live out my faith in Christ through secret acts of obedience and kindness?
The religious leaders certainly had not exemplified such a life in their obedience to God. They made sure people saw their spirituality, displaying it openly at every opportunity. Yet, this is not what Jesus asks of us, knowing it is not what God requires. Let’s start with his words for us today:
Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.Matthew 6:16-18 CSB
I won’t ask if you’ve ever fasted. Even in asking, I defeat the purpose of reflecting on the words of Jesus. As a person who’s lived and served over thirty years among peoples of the Islamic faith, fasting is a big deal. Not only is it a requirement for Islam, but it is done in very specific ways during the month of Ramadan. I cannot count how many times people have asked me if I was fasting, but they also ask each other. I learned a great truth from my years among Muslims.
Fasting on display is a selfish act—Fasting in private is an act of worship and devotion.
I also found out something else when fasting is expected and made public—People lie. What’s supposedly done in strict observance to the letter of the law is broken in the secret places. When it’s done in private, only you and God know the state of your heart and level of obedience.
Jesus is not saying anything new to these people on the mountain that day but reminding them of what they’d forgotten. The prophet Isaiah had warned the people long ago of the dangers of letting fasting get out of hand by public demonstrations of spirituality. It’s a long, but beautiful passage, and one that’s worth repeating here:
“Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high. Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood? Then your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.Isaiah 58:3-8 CSB
We draw near to God through the act of fasting of self.
Jesus doesn’t define fast on that day, but I think he would point his followers to the words of his Father through the prophet. True fasting is self-denial in service to others. Yes, we might need to go without food, but only to be able to give more to those in need. Fasting from food and drink is still valid, but it is not the central thing God requires from us. Denial of self in service to others brings glory to God alone, because we do it in secret, without thought of recognition or reward. We do it that our right standing with God, our righteousness, will be what others see before they see us. And who is our righteousness?
What part of self needs to be set aside today to bring glory to God tomorrow? Maybe it’s time to fast and pray for the answer.
Grace and Peace