Jonah 3 & Luke 2:36-40

Lockdown as Fasting

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, the time of year when we spend some time reflecting on our lives, and inviting the Holy Spirit to convict us and to form us in the image of Jesus more clearly. Through this Lent we’re going to be looking at some Spiritual practices and disciplines that can help us to do this. And this morning we’re thinking about fasting.

So, at a time when we have all had things that have been taken away from us, that we’ve had to give up, why are we starting with fasting? Why are we talking about giving more things up? Life’s tough enough as it is. So I wondered if we might come at this from a different direction this morning, take a slightly different perspective.

Let’s start with Nineveh. Jonah has just arrived after his adventures in the storm and in the great fish, and announced that a great disaster was about to come on the city. In response to this warning, all the people, from the King down, proclaim a fast, and mourn in rough clothing and ashes.

They stopped their normal business, and rearranged all their lives to tackle an existential threat, something that would destroy them and their society if they didn’t so something about it. They did this to call upon God and to plead with God to turn away the disaster.

I wonder if there are elements of that story that sound familiar. A coming disaster and a corporate response of self denial? What do we see if we look at lock down as a call to a national fast? It seems to me that there is a sense in which much of the country has been fasting for the last twelve months. It could be argued that it’s not a “proper” fast because it’s been imposed by law and there are fines for non-compliance, but if there had been mass civil disobedience, it would have collapsed. I think that most people have fasted from seeing the people they would like to see, doing the things they would like to do, going out as they wished, because they are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the vulnerable and society as a whole.

Of course, there has been an element of self-interest in this, people don’t want to get sick themselves, but that was the case in Nineveh as well. The people of Nineveh fasted and mourned because they didn’t want to get destroyed. And there have also been those who haven’t complied. I wonder how universal the fasting was in Nineveh – if there might not have been those who broke the rules.

The biggest difference, though, between our situation and that of Nineveh is that of prayerful intent. In Nineveh the people fasted as part of the prayer of turning to God. In the UK, the country is fasting until the vaccines are ready. There has been little sense from the government of this country of a call to prayer, as there was from the King of Nineveh.

However, that doesn’t stop us choosing to offer this imposed fast to God in prayer, and even as prayer. I wonder if that helps us view it in a different perspective. You may never have thought about fasting very much.
You may have just assumed that it wasn’t for you, not a spiritual discipline that you felt called to. There may be very good health reasons why fasting from food isn’t safe for you. But you have almost certainly been fasting for the last twelve months. You have given up something that is important to you for the sake of others.

If this is true, if we are currently fasting, what might we learn from the Scriptures and Christian reflection on fasting over the years, that might deepen our understanding of this fast, that might give us new ways of offering it to God. We don’t have time to explore all of these this morning, but I do have some starters for ten to offer, and I’d invite you during Lent to reflect on this some more. Not to start a new fast, but to offer the fast you are currently experiencing to God.

In our reading from Jonah we heard about one reason for fasting – to show our sorrow to God. In this case, it was the people of Nineveh showing their sorrow for the sins of their society.

On Ash Wednesday we explored the idea of lament, of crying out before God – sometimes this is over our sin, and sometimes it’s over the circumstances we find ourselves in. We might bring the pain of our fast to God as an expression of our grief over our losses and pain at the injustices that we see in the world, thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic.

It may be that our fast is bringing to light things in our life that we aren’t very proud of. This may be the Holy Spirit using these circumstances to convict us of something in our character that God wants us to turn away from, to change.

For instance I tend to get grumpy and impatient when I’m hungry. This is not to say that fasting from food makes me grumpy and impatient. It means that fasting reveals that I am grumpy and impatient and that I need to confess that I am grumpy and impatient, and ask God, by the Holy Spirit, to grow patience and gentleness in me.

As another for instance, fasting can bring to light where we turn to for comfort and sustenance when things are difficult. For me, yesterday evening, that was comfort eating, TV box sets, and half a bottle of wine. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those things, but if they are the first place I turn, or if any of them become out of control, then that is a problem, because they are not God. Only God is the sure and certain refuge, the everlasting arms, the true source of comfort and hope. God is our anchor and foundation. Sometimes fasting can show us where we are not depending on God, and as we see those areas of our lives, so we can turn from them and turn to God.

People often find that fasting helps strengthen our prayer lives. If we think about it, this makes a lot of sense. We stop looking for strength in places that are temporary, and depend more fully on God. Is it any wonder that we hear what God is saying more clearly, and that our prayers are more in line with God’s will and so more effective?
Many of us, I know, have found new ways of praying in lock down. Some of us have used things like the Lectio365 App. I wonder if next time you feel sad about missing a particular person or activity, what it would mean to use that sadness as a prompt to pray for that person, or the people you would see doing that thing.

This is surely what Anna, the hero of our second reading found. She had been praying, fasting, and worshipping for decades. These three things, woven together, formed a solid core to her life.

And that brings us to what is widely understood in the Christian tradition as the primary focus for fasting, which is to centre in worship on God. Whatever other good things come our way as a side effect of fasting, our primary reason for letting go of other sources of strength is to help us to appreciate our ultimate source of strength all the more, and to know the wonder of the glory of God.

The heroes of the Bible, those who were most in touch with God, and knew that all they did and could do, grew from God’s strength, worshipped God in fasting. Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul, Jesus.

In our lock down fast, we have been forced to experience new ways of worship. We have had to give up our gathered in person, singing together, worship. We are scattered in our worship, worshipping in new places, at new times, and in new ways. Worship is so important, in fact, that it is in itself a spiritual discipline that we’re going to spend a whole service looking at it, next week. So, I’m not going to steal the All In team’s thunder, but I am going to encourage you, in preparation for that, to be conscious this week of how the lock down fast you are experiencing is affecting your worship of God.

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