Prayer & Fasting | Matthew 6:16-18

Prayer & Fasting | Matthew 6:16-18

I tried fasting for the first time when I worked at the Farm Credit Administration in McLean Virginia. I tried it because my pastor preached a sermon on it. In his sermon he turned to our passage tonight, Matthew 6:16-18, and pointed out something that really convicted me. In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches on prayer and fasting and when he does this he says, “when you fast” notif you fast…” He says it twice (c.f., Matt 9:15). 

Have you ever fasted? Neither had I. So I tried it that week and God did some really neat things. The first day I was fasting I was walking by one of my coworkers whose mother was sick and without thinking (and I think moved by the Holy Spirit) I asked her, “How’s your mom?” Her face melted. She started crying. I barely knew her. She said her mom was dying. I told her I was sorry and asked her mother’s name. 

She told me her name and then asked me to pray for her… which was surprising. She added, “I’m spiritual, and I can tell you’re spiritual too. You asked for my mother’s name. I knew you’d pray for her.” I told her I would and I talked with her a few times after that about church. When her mom died I tried to offer her some encouragement. Now all of that to say I’m not sure it would have happened if I hadn’t been praying and fasting and seeking the Lord. The Holy Spirit moved me in my weakness. 

Today I have three goals for this sermon. I want to define what fasting is. I want to show why it’s important. And I want to explain how to do it.  I hope you’ll give it a shot. I hope my opening story will intrigue you and make wonder, “How might God use me if I seek him through prayer and fasting? What surprises might he have in store for us as a church if we fast together?” So let’s jump in.

What is fasting?

Fasting is when you deny yourself good things, things you enjoy and go to for comfort, for a period of time so that you can use that hunger to intentionally draw near to God. There’s a wide variety of ways to fast:

  • Water fast – You could give up food and only drink water for a meal or several days up to 40 days.

Obviously the longer you go the harder and actually more dangerous it can become. According to the two documentaries I watched on Amazon Prime there are lots’ of potential health benefits to fasting, but I don’t advise anyone walk out of here and only drink water for the next 40 days. Talk to your doctor if you have any medical conditions that might prevent you from fasting safely. Even in the Bible, not many people fasted for 40 days. Moses did it twice, fasting from food and water, which was only possible because God supernaturally sustained him (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 18). The prophet Elijah fasted 40 days when Jezebel tried to kill him (1 Kings 19:7-8). And Jesus fasted for forty days at the beginning of his ministry (Matthew 4:1-4). So only three people, so fasting for 40 days isn’t for everyone. But you could try skipping a meal or not eating a snack. If you didn’t eat snacks during the night and ate “break-fast” than you’ve already done a form of fasting but now be intentional about it or try it for longer. 

  • Juice fast – You could drink fruits and vegetables to keep you energy up but not eat food.

A variation of this is the Daniel Fast where you only eat fruits, vegetables, and water.

  • Foods fast – You could give up certain types of food for your fast, like sugary foods or comfort foods that you go to when you’re stressed. 

Fasting is different from dieting. Dieting is about losing weight or getting physically healthy. Fasting is about drawing near to Christ Jesus and getting spiritually healthy. Fasting is not a rejection of the goodness of food, but an intentional setting aside of it to seek God (1 Tim 4:1-4). Key word “intentional.”

  • Media fast – You could give up watching television, or Netflix, or the news, or surfing Reddit, Facebook, or Youtube.
  • Other fast – You could give up anything that you turn to when life is tough or anything you really love and enjoy, just to make sure it’s not a substitute for God (Luke 14:18-20; 2 Corinthians 7:7). 

In fasting we don’t just skip meals or foods but intentionally turn from what normally satisfies us and intentionally turn to God in our weakness and need. Have you ever gotten bundled up in a bunch of clothes, thick winter jackets and coats and then had your brother or friend hit you in the stomach as hard as they can? Why wouldn’t you do that? You can imagine that it doesn’t hurt that much. You got a cushion. You got padding. You’re good! But what if you take all those outer garments and just stand there in a t-shirt and that same person hits you as hard as they can in your stomach? That will hurt, won’t it? That’s what fasting does. It takes away all of our padding and cushion and it exposes us, who we really are. It makes us vulnerable before the Lord, and weak. It helps me admit I’m not strong and I need God. But…

Why do we fast?

Now I’ve already said fasting is an intentional time of hungering or seeking God (Luke 2:37). When Jesus was fasting and being tempted by the devil in the wilderness he hungered for God and his word, so should we (Matt 4:1-4) We fast because we want to know God more. That’s the big picture, but why do we do it more specifically? There’s several reasons why:

We fast as an act of repentance and confession.

We fast because of our sin. Throughout the Old Testament we find examples of Israel coming together to pray and fast as they confessed their wrongdoing before God. In the book of Nehemiah, which takes places after the people have returned back to Israel from exile and have just read God’s word, we find this:

Nehemiah 9:1-2 On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. 2 Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. (NIV®) (c.f., 1 Samuel 7:6; Daniel 9:3-11; Jonah 3:5)

Fasting can be something I do individually before the Lord, but also something we do corporately together as a church. We can use fasting to confess our sins together, the ways we as a church have fallen short of God’s glory and will. He promises to make us new again.

But we can’t go through the motions and expect God to do what we want. Fasting and repentance have to come from a place of authenticity. It has to come from a place of genuine remorse before God for the wickedness we have committed against his holiness. From the prophet Joel:

Joel 2:12-13
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
     “return to me with all your heart,
     with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
     and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
     for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
      and he relents from sending calamity. (NIV®) (c.f., Joel 1:13-14)

We believe in a God who doesn’t want our religion but our repentance. He wants our whole hearts. Have you ever felt so bad about something it made you sick and you couldn’t eat? Have you ever felt that way about your own sins? Rarely, right? Fasting is an opportunity to express how serious our sins are but how great God’s grace is and that he loves us and forgives us. We fast as an act of repentance and confession.

We fast for God’s deliverance and direction.

When the people of Judah faced a foreign invasion they cried out to God for deliverance through fasting.

2 Chronicles 20:2-4 Some people came and told Jehoshaphat, “A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Dead Sea. It is already in Hazezon Tamar” (that is, En Gedi). 3 Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. 4 The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him. (NIV®) (c.f., Judges 20:20-26; 2 Samuel 12:16; Ezra 8:21-23; Esther 4:16)

God causes the armies coming against Jehoshaphat to ambush each other and completely wipe themselves out. Judah gets to go in and take their plunder (2 Chronicles 20:22-25). What might God deliver you from if you spent time seeking him in prayer and fasting? A sin habit that you just can’t seem to shake? Maybe illness, or problems at work, an issue in your family? Why not dedicate time to prayer and fasting? What about us as a church community? We also need God’s deliverance from the troubles we face and direction for our future. Pastor John Piper tells this powerful story in his book, A Hunger for God: 

My own serious consideration of fasting as a spiritual discipline began as a result of visiting Dr. Joon Gon Kim in Seoul, Korea. “Is it true,” I asked him, “that you spent 40 days in fasting prior to the evangelism crusade in 1980?” “Yes,” he responded, “it is true.” Dr. Kim was chairman of the crusade expected to bring a million people to Yoido Plaza. But six months before the meeting the police informed him they were revoking their permission for the crusade. Korea at that time was in political turmoil and Seoul was under martial law. The officers decided they could not take the risk of having so many people together in one place. So Dr. Kim and some associates went to a prayer mountain and there spent 40 days before God in prayer and fasting for the crusade. Then they returned and made their way to the police station. “Oh,” said the officer when he saw Dr. Kim, “we have changed our mind and you can have your meeting!” (Page 65) (By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source: desiringGod.org)

Fasting works. Fasting doesn’t entitle us to what we want but God does embrace our weakness (Psalm 109:24). We fast for God’s deliverance and direction.

The people didn’t just fast for physical deliverance from their enemies, they fasted for spiritual deliverance. There was only one holy day in the Old Testament when the people of Israel were supposed to fast—the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27-32). Each year on the Day of Atonement the priests made sacrifices for the sins of the people so that they could be cleansed from their year (Lev 16:34).

What do you need to be cleansed of? Do you have guilt or shame you need to deal with? On the Day of Atonement the High Priest sacrificed a goat for the sins of the people (Lev 16:15, 32), but it wasn’t enough. A goat can’t take away our sins. That’s why Jesus came. John 1:29b calls Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus made atonement for our sins by becoming an innocent lamb sacrificed on the cross. If you’ll repent and put your faith in him he becomes your substitute. He dies for your sins so that you might live. We fast today as a way to remember our lamb. 

We fast because we long for Christ and his return. 

In the Old Testament the people fasted as acts of repentance and deliverance but we do so differently because we have already received forgiveness and spiritual deliverance through Jesus. Jesus changes what fasting is about.   

Matthew 9:14-16
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. (NIV®)

If we’ve already received forgiveness and spiritual deliverance, why do we fast? Because we haven’t yet received complete deliverance, which will only come through Christ Jesus. We fast for him. We deny ourselves food because we miss him and look forward to his return. Do you ever miss a friend so bad it hurts? That’s what we’re doing in fasting. We’re aching for Jesus. Yes he’s here through his Spirit, but he’s not yet here in flesh and blood.

Fun fact—did you know that Emperor penguins spend about 4 months fasting as they watch over, care for, and incubate their eggs? That is a 100 to a 115 days. If a penguin can spend 100 days not eating because it instinctually loves and is waiting for its baby penguin, we can spend a day or a week fasting out of our love for Jesus. Don’t let the penguins beat us! We fast because we long for Christ and his return. Finally…

How should we fast?

I want us to give us three brief guidelines for fasting.

  1. Fast justly

Just like we finished studying in our series in Micah, God doesn’t want our religious acts apart from loving our neighbor. In Isaiah 58:3-7 the people are fasting and putting on sackcloth and ashes but they’re also exploiting their workers, and quarreling, and fighting, and oppressing the poor and at the same time they’re being very religious and pious. God isn’t interested in our religion if it doesn’t come with our compassion. James says pure religion takes care of the poor and widows (James 1:27). God wants us to love him but also love our neighbor. I learned this week the Mormons (at least some of them) take the money they save and give it to the poor. Mormons are missing the whole truth but they got this right. Fast justly. 

  1. Fast humbly

When Jesus told us to fast he also told us to not disfigure our faces or make a scene so that others will see we are fasting (Matt 6:16-18). So that means we shouldn’t moan and tell others how hungry we are, but should keep it a secret. Now that doesn’t mean others won’t notice you’re fasting. I read the story of one man who fasted for 40 days and people asked him why he lost 30 pounds and so he told them about praying and fasting. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we shouldn’t fast so that others see us because that is pride. Fast humbly (1 Kings 21:27-29). 

  1. Fast purposefully

This is my closing point that Piper pointed out to me. I want to read one last passage because it shows what God can do through fasting.

Acts 13:2-3 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (NIV®)

This right here is the start of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys. Right here is the moment that launched a worldwide movement of church plants and believers. Without this moment you and I might not know Jesus. And how does it start? With prayer and fasting! 

Do you want to see what God can do in and through Cornerstone? I invite you to a time of prayer and fasting together as a church where we ask God what his plans are for us, where we humble ourselves and truly seek him. Sometime this week I am going to email out a 40 Days of Prayer & Fasting guide so that together we can seek God and his will leading up to Easter. What we’re doing doesn’t exactly line up with lent, but in future years that’s also a great time to fast. Would you commit to praying and fasting for our 40 days? Maybe you fast one day a week but pray every day. Let’s commit to coming before God and genuinely asking what he has in store for us. Let’s seek Christ through fasting.

Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes further endnotes and references. Click to listen to sermons or to read our story.

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