Friday, December 5, 2014

“What Do You Hope to Accomplish by Fasting?”

            It is late afternoon on Friday and my day-long fast is almost completed.  I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I can tell it.  For the last several hours, my stomach has growled and turned and growled some more.  I feel slightly light headed.  I am really hungry.  Just a few more minutes and I can end my fast, with dinner.

            Earlier today I told someone that I was fasting all day.  The response was incredulous:  “Why on earth are you doing that?”  “What do you hope to accomplish?” 

            This all began last Sunday on the “First Sunday of Advent.”  In my sermon, I described the season of Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth at Christmas. I explained that historically in the Church this Advent preparation included fasting, confession of our sins, and penance. 

Then, at the end of my message, I committed to fasting during the day on the three Friday’s of Advent, December 5th, 12th, and 19th.  Then, I challenged my congregation to join me in fasting—or, if they didn’t feel as though they could fast, to give up something else which they really enjoy or depend on for Advent.  Of those who have shared with me, most are giving up something instead of actually fasting—and, that’s ok.  I’ve been interested to hear what people are giving up.  The things sacrificed vary from that Southern delight “Moon pies” and RC colas to staying up really late.

But, the question remains: Why fast or give up something?  What do we hope to accomplish? 

As I explained last week, “I like to think about our time of preparation during Advent as a journey that ultimately leads to the manger and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  It is a journey of preparation—spiritual preparation—before celebrating Christmas and the birth of the Messiah.  For Christians, Christmas marks that tipping point in the history of humanity and, indeed, the history of the cosmos.  It is the tipping point when absolutely everything changed.  It was that moment of transformation, when God became incarnated in a particular person, the baby Jesus.  Nothing has been the same, ever since.  The entire world has been transformed by the awesome, incomprehensible love of God.

Traditionally, this spiritual journey of preparation for Christmas has been characterized by three words:  confession, lamentation, and penance. 

Of course, there is a second preparation for Christmas going on all around us in secular culture.  We live in a popular culture that takes the Christmas season very seriously.  For retailers, the Christmas season is the single most important time of the year.  So, all around us, popular culture is preparing for and celebrating a different type of Christmas.  This secular Christmas can also be characterized by three words:  partying, feasting, and shopping.

There’s quite a dramatic difference between the two preparations and observations of Christmas. 

As a Christian, I perceive a fatal danger with the way popular society observes Christmas.  The danger is that we can become so caught up partying, feasting, and shopping that we lose all perspective on why there is a Christmas in the first place.  We can forget or overlook or fail to appreciate this radical transformation of humanity and the world by the awesome, incredible love of God for each of us. 

The example I used last week went like this:

“Think about it this way:  Have you ever been in a thunderstorm or a snow storm that knocked out the electricity in your house.  If you are like me, there comes a point where you start to realize just how much you take electricity for granted.  The power goes out and it’s dark, so you stand up and walk over to switch on the light, only to remember the power is out.  So, frustrated, you turn on the television to get a report on how long you will be without power, only to realize the television won’t work because the power is out.  Then, you decide to make a cup of coffee, only to realize that the coffee maker won’t work because there’s no electricity.  Perhaps, you decide to find someplace that still has electricity.  So, you go out to the garage, only to realize the garage opener is powered by electricity.” 

If we only follow the path of popular culture, then we will, indeed, forget or overlook or fail to appreciate the significance of that first Christmas.

Now, we cannot escape the popular culture which dominates and defines contemporary life.  To switch metaphors, American popular culture is the ocean and we are all mere fishes swimming and living in that ocean.  We have no better chance of living independently of American popular culture than the chances of a fish living out of the ocean. 

In reality, each Christian takes two journeys of preparation during the four-week Advent period.  On the one hand, we must participate in the Christmas of popular culture.  On the other hand, as persons of faith, we must participate in the historical spiritual preparation of Advent.  As Americans living in contemporary society, we take these two journeys simultaneously.  On the one hand, we cannot escape joining in the partying, feasting, and shopping of popular culture.  On the other hand, we must also engage the spiritual preparation of confession, lamentation, and penance.  It is a both/and.  This is good.

So, what do I hope to accomplish by fasting?  I hope to be spiritually prepared to celebrate the birth of the Messiah and to appreciate it as the tipping point it really was, when everything about the cosmos changed, including my puny little life.

The pain from the emptiness of my stomach is miniscule when compared to the sharp hunger pains of children and their families around the world.

The faint headache and light-headedness brought on by my fasting is miniscule when compared to the suffering of my Savior on the Cross, or the suffering that occurs in the world, including the damage that we wreak upon Creation.

Yet, even though the suffering and inconvenience of fasting for a few hours is miniscule, I believe that it will help me spiritually prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the transformation of the world. 

What do I hope to accomplish by fasting?  I hope to gain perspective and appreciation.

If you live in our area and do not have a church that is your home, come and join us at Meriden United Methodist Church.  Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas.  Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.