Sunday, 10 June 2018

Lifegroup Notes - Followers who Fast - Luke 5:33-35

In the Bible, fasting is always tied to prayer. Just as a Christian understanding of sex is meaningless without marriage, so a Christian understanding of fasting is meaningless without prayer.

Yet, how many Christians do you know who regularly fast and pray?  It has become the deserted discipline of our age. We have sleepwalked into depending on ourselves more than God and into the love of this life more than the eternal life and love of God. When we combine prayer with fasting we become aware of just how much we love the idols of consumption, convenience, comfort, control, conformity, compartmentalisation and compromise among others.

So what is fasting? It’s a mini death and resurrection.  It's emptying ourselves of the temporary life this world offers so that we can be filled with the eternal life that God offers. It’s not abstention, but replacement, not a formula for twisting God’s arm but an orientation of humbling ourselves before God and saying “Your will be done.”

Whilst we might say that many things “give us life” and that we can fast from TV, social media etc. the bible focuses on the kind of fasting that literally gives us life (namely food and drink). Fasting from leisure pursuits so you can pray is good.  Fasting from food and drink so you can pray is better.

In Luke 5:33-35, Jesus says the reason his people will fast is because they long for him. We have great joy in the Gospel, great power in the life of the Spirit, but there is also an unfulfilled longing. Christian fasting is not primarily about mission objectives, but about longing for Jesus. Even if this world was perfect, Christians would still fast because Jesus isn’t here, he hasn’t returned yet.

Whilst there are similarities in the Old and New Testaments, in the Old Testament fasting was shaped by the commands of the law and was for the preservation of the nation.  So in most recorded examples, they would fast when they had to repent of their sin or when they were threatened with annihilation from their enemies. However, in the New Testament, (especially Acts) fasting is powered by the Holy Spirit and becomes more about expansion of the kingdom of God and preparing the earth for Christ’s return.  Prayer and fasting stir up the Spirit in us.  See Luke 4:1 and 4:14.  What difference did prayer and fasting make to Jesus?  See also 2 Tim. 1:6-7.

Some pointers for getting going:
  • Pursue the love of God, not your health goals.
  • Fasting feels pointless, because we like to be in control, but that's the point.  Fasting is about giving control to God and waiting for him to come through.
  • The reason we fast is to make time to pray, so when you fast, change your routine to maximise prayer. But if you can’t change your routine, don’t worry, just pray when you can.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff – if you feel the need to take a fruit juice to help combat dizziness or mental fog, then do it.  Or if your child wants to feed you a bit of their dinner, that doesn’t invalidate your fast. One cornflake won’t kill your hunger and it won't invalidate your fast.
  • Where you can, fast with others so you can encourage each other.
  • Start small and grow in the discipline e.g. "Fast" the first half of your lunch break and go and pray.  It may only be a 30min fast, but it's a start and you can grow from there.
  • Exemptions:
    • Pregnancy and some medical conditions – seek medical advice.
    • Eating disorders, chronic anxiety, insomnia – if you suffer from these or have had a history of them – seek advice before fasting. The problem isn’t the fasting, but the mind games you can play around the fast can quickly become destructive, so be wise.
Some other resources:
  1. What stops you from fasting in order to pray?  Which idols above are you quietly / secretly bowing to?
  2. Jesus says that his people will fast because they long for his return, what does that statement provoke in you?
  3. How can you get going in fasting and prayer and what help/support do you need from others in order to do so?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sermon Notes for Confident Adventure #4 :: "Remembering" :: Genesis 17:1-23

Because we can read Abraham’s story in about 25 minutes, it’s easy to miss the weight of the 25 year wait he had to see the promises of God fulfilled to him. Abraham’s faith was best expressed through patience. When you are waiting for something you need to remember why you are doing it otherwise you will lose heart and wander off.

In the Bible remembering isn’t merely the factual recall of trivia like sporting results, it has a moral quality, such as when parking your car on a hill, you must remember to apply the handbrake. Forgetting to do so could have disastrous consequences. If we don’t make it a priority to remember who God is and what he has asked of us, then we will not only harm ourselves, but spread chaos and destruction in his world as well.

The context of Genesis 17 is God restoring Abram after a “fall.” Similarly to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, God seemed not to be acting on his promise to give Abram and Sarai a son, so they took matters into their own hands and got a son (an heir) for Abram via Sarai’s slave woman.

By the time Genesis 17 happens, we’re 13 years on. Ishmael, the son born to Abram via the slave woman is hitting puberty, and therefore manhood and starting to take his place as Abram’s heir apparent. But God turns up and says NO! Abram will have a son via Sarai. Initially, Abram doesn’t want to accept this word from God (not least because it means having to have a really awkward conversation with Ishmael). He wants Ishmael to be accepted by God and doesn’t want to have to start all over again after waiting 24 years to get to this point!

God promises to bless Ishmael. In his mercy, he won’t let Ishmael take the hit for the mistakes of his father and his mother’s mistress, but neither will he let Abram and Sarai’s mistake dictate the course of salvation history – he will do things as he planned them.

To help remind them of his promise, he gives them new names – Abraham and Sarah, a new instruction: Walk before me blamelessly and a new initiation – circumcision. Circumcision was a “sign” which reminded them of God’s promise to Eve (that she would bring forth a son/a “seed”) and also pointed forward to the coming of that seed – the Christ. The cutting away of the foreskin was also symbolic of God’s refusal to allow the potency of man specifically, and the human race generally, to do God’s work for him. We cannot save ourselves, only a miracle of God can do it.

To his credit, Abraham doesn’t sulk under a tree when he realizes God is yanking him back onto the right track, rather he humbles himself, immediately obeying what God has said.

Today, we are not circumcised, because the promised coming of the “seed” (Gen 3:15) has been fulfilled in Christ. Our sign of being God’s covenant people is baptism. Just as what happened to Abraham (circumcision) had to happen to his household, so too, what happened to Christ has to happen to us otherwise we do not belong to him. If we believe in Christ we must be baptized in water and the Spirit like he was (Matt.3). Baptism is symbolic of a past “dying” to our old way of life in rebellion to God and being raised up to live for God by the power of the Spirit. It’s also a reminder that one day, when Christ comes again, he will raise us from the dead, the work of the Spirit will be perfected in us and we will live with God forever in the new creation.

To that end, we must cultivate regular, routine remembrance of God, for this gives life our souls.
  • Confession: declaring to our hearts and to God who God is and who we are as a result of all his goodness to us. Thanksgiving and praise: the things that should flow from confession.
  • Bible reading: this is the main and plain, bread and butter way God speaks to us. Fasting: humbling ourselves, emptying ourselves and recognizing that all our power to do what pleases God comes from him not us. Prayer: talking to God, reflecting on all that we are learning from him.
  • Simplicity: renouncing the lie, that the joy of our life comes from the glitzy abundance of possessions, accolades and entertainment and embracing a kind of Celebration that takes the greatest joy from seeing God do amazing and deep things in the hearts of people – including us.
  • Solitude: being one to one with God and shutting out the clamour of both the outside world and our anxious hearts so that we can wholly be with him and Gathering with the people of God so that they can help keep us on the straight and narrow path, as well as encourage us to keep going on it when times are tough.
  • Serving one another: sharing the load of all that God has asked us to do so that no one person or group of people burn out and… Being served. We all love being served, when the service makes much of us, but we don't like being served if it means we must admit weakness. At times like these, it is hard for us to accept help, but don’t let pride rob you of an opportunity to receive God’s grace in this form.
As we do these things regularly, little by little, we will build a massive reservoir of testimony and legacy that will be remembered before the throne of God, with praise, forever.

Suggested questions:
  • What is the thing you have had to wait longest on God for? Are you still waiting for it? Would you have the patience to wait 25 years for God to fulfil a promise to you like Abraham and Sarah did?
  • When we have invested much time, money and effort into something and God says no to it, it is a hard word to receive. Has this ever happened to you, what was it and how did you respond – with obedience or denial? Or are you going through it now? God is asking you to revoke a mistake you have invested in for years, and you are finding it hard to renounce. What help do you need to go God’s way?
  • Have you been baptized in water and the Spirit, if not what is stopping you from obeying God’s command on this and following in the footsteps of the Master?
  • Of the “routines of remembrance” that give life to the soul which ones do you find easy, which ones do you find hard? What’s the next step you need to take in order to allow God to breathe life into your soul? How can we help each other cultivate these?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The What and the Why of Biblical Fasting

A quick search on the internet will give you all kinds of ways and tips on how to fast. My aim is not to repeat all that good advice, rather it’s to give you a few biblical encouragements as to the what and why of fasting.

Firstly, fasting is not a uniquely Christian activity, nor does it have in and of itself of any spiritual value. It’s like money, its value comes in how you use it. When done well, fasting increases our appetite for God, brings our hearts in line with his, enables us to feel the kinds of deep longings that we know we should feel for him and makes us sensitive to the Spirit’s voice in our hearts. However, when it’s done badly, it makes us grumpy, self-obsessed, proud and entitled. Bad fasting makes God the servant of our agenda, rather than making us the servants of his.

Secondly, fasting without praying is like turning up to the cinema, but not going in to watch the film. There’s no point to it. That statement has to come with caveats, of course. We must avoid the fallacy of suggesting that a certain amount of prayer will obtain a certain amount of blessing. Nothing in the Bible makes such a crude formulaic connection. For example, a single person who can spend an extra hour a day praying when they fast, does not automatically, receive more blessing than the parent who can only spend an extra ten minutes praying in the day because they have to prepare meals for their kids and put them to bed etc. And there are always unforeseen things that call us away at certain times from the praying we set out to do. We don’t need to feel guilty about that. But all that said, fasting without making some conscious decision and effort to seek God in prayer either on our own or with others is pointless. God is our heavenly father, not our heavenly formula. He knows our hearts and the constraints on our time and energy. He sees the steps we make towards him (as well as the excuses) and is more than able to show us how to use what we have to honour him and bless the world. He is the multiplier of our efforts, not us.

Thirdly, by not eating, we remind ourselves that the body, as important as it is, is not the ultimate reality of our lives, our souls are. And when we use our time fast and seek God, we give a nourishing boost and “growth spurt” to our souls, (which by the way, will continue to grow in God forever when they get new bodies, after the death of these ones). Fasting is the deliberate humbling of these bodies of ours with all their desires, reminding them of their proper place in the order of the universe as servants of our souls, not masters of them, helping us to submit to God. It is the opportunity to remind our hearts of what is truly real and what will last forever, not just what will last for this lifetime.

Fourthly, fasting is not limited to food, you can fast from leisure activities too. But food and drink fasting and fasting from sleep are the only kinds done in the Bible and the benefit of fasting from food or sleep is that every time you have a rumble in your stomach or feel weary, it reminds you to lift your eyes to heaven and say “Jesus our eyes are upon you to do all that you have promised. Thank you for calling me into your amazing adventure. Help me to be obedient and effective in all that you desire!”

So why not fast? If you have fasted a meal before, why not fast a whole day? If you have fasted a whole day, why not fast a few days etc. What have you got to lose?

If you have never done it before, then try skipping a meal. For example, skip the evening meal and go to your bedroom, read the bible and then pray. Or skip lunch and go for a walk in a local park and pray as you walk. If you have a small child who is no longer breastfeeding, why not fast lunch and then pray when your child is napping? There are endless possibilities, we just need a little imagination and encouragement from others who have done it before.

Nothing truly great comes easy and yes, it is hard at times, but the benefits always outweigh the costs because, as we often say, you can never out give God. He will always give us more than we give to him.

Whatever you decide. be accountable to someone and remember, the main thing is to pray like Jesus prayed – that God’s kingdom becomes a reality on the earth like it already is in Heaven.