AGCC Sun. a.m. 11/7/99
"A FAST FOCUS"
TEXT: Isa. 58:1-14 Matt. 6:16-18 Lk. 18:10-14 Jonah 3:5-10 Esther 4:16
INTRO: The discipline of fasting and prayer is not well understood today. The practice of fasting with prayer is found all through the Bible, yet in our modern culture it is not emphasized much. What exactly is a fast? Why is it important? How should one be done? What is the purpose of a fast? These are good questions.
As Christians we should know the proper way of fasting, it is a discipline in the Christian life that can have a great impact.
Have you ever wanted something so bad that all the routine stuff of the day means nothing, only the desire to fulfill that need? As kids we often found this true just before Christmas … the idea of opening those gifts made us ignore our desire for food or anything else, our desire for gifts outweighed any other desire.
In a sense, this is what happens when we fast … our desire for God or a burden becomes so great that nothing else seems to matter. Food, drink, entertainment, and anything else becomes secondary to the burden or desire for God. In this situation our focus is quite single … and nothing else seems quite as important. This is the idea of a Biblical fast.
Fasting should not be done to manipulate God, nor should it be done to impress others. A fast is a private passion, or can be called for a group to refocus attention and desire on something spiritual.
This is where the Pharisees in Jesus' day and Israel in the Old Testament missed the boat, they often saw it as a way to elevate themselves in the eyes of others, or to manipulate God. But a fast must be real to have power, not just the appearance of power.
ILLUS: The Queen Mary was the largest ship to cross the oceans when it was launched in 1936. Through four decades and a world War she served until she was retired, anchored as a floating hotel and museum in Long Beach, California. During the conversion, her three massive smoke-stacks were taken off to be scraped down and repainted. But on the dock they crumbled. Nothing was left of the 3/4-inch steel plate from which the stacks had been formed. All that remained were more than thirty coats of paint that had been applied over the years. The steel had rusted away.
When Jesus called the Pharisees "whitewashed tombs," he meant they had no substance, only an exterior appearance. -- Robert Wenz, Clifton Park, New York. Leadership, Vol. 4, no. 4.
PROP. SENT: The Bible teaches us that a real fast can be a powerful time of refocusing our lives spiritually, it is not a time to force God's hand as much as it is a time to focus our lives.
I. GOING NOWHERE FAST! Isa. 58:1-14 Matt. 6:16-18 Lk. 18:10-14
A. Fraud! Isa. 58:1-5 Matt. 6:16-18 Lk. 18:10-14
1. In Isaiah's day Israel had become perplexed by God's indifference toward them, they had prayed and even fasted and yet God seemed to ignore them.
a. They had continued the practices of fasting and prayer.
b. They even appeared eager to know God and His ways.
2. Everything appeared good on the surface.
a. They attended worship services faithfully. "day after day they seek me out" 58:2a
b. They participated in worship activities. "they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God." 58:2b
c. They have a concern about the direction of society "They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them." 58:2c
d. They fasted and prayed. "Why have we fasted …. Why have we humbled ourselves…" 58:3
3. What was wrong with this picture!?
a. All of this was fraud on their part!
4. While they apparently had all the spiritual practices evident, their personal lives indicated that their concept of spirituality was simply to get from God what they wanted rather than do for God what He wanted!
a. They were using these spiritual disciplines as a way to manipulate God.
b. And God wasn't responding although they went through all the right exercises as far as man was concerned!
5. The appearance of deep religious faith was deceptive!
ILLUS: A brand new lawyer in his brand new office on his first day in practice sees a prospective client walk in the door. He decides he should look busy, so he picks up the phone and starts talking: "Look, Harry, about that amalgamation deal. I think I better run down to the factory and handle it personally. Yes. No. I don't think 3 million will swing it. We better have Rogers from Seattle meet us there. OK. Call you back later." He looks up at the visitor and says, "Good morning, how may I help you?" And the prospective client says, "You can't help me at all. I'm just here to hook up your phone." -- James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 436.
a. On the very day of their fasting they would fight with each other, including fist fights!! 58:4
b. God isn't interested in the appearance of spirituality, He wants the real thing!
(1. "bowing the head like a reed"
(2. "lying on sackcloth and ashes"
c. God was more concerned about the position of their heart than He was the position of their body!
6. The same had been true in Jesus' day with the Pharisees
a. They had learned how to show publicly how much they were hurting while they fasted.
b. They went around with a long disfigured face, hair messed up, ashes poured onto their heads, not so much as an expression of real grief as much as it was to impress the public.
(1. These things were done by others in the Old Testament and it was meaningful because it was the real expression of a broken heart, but the Pharisees did it deliberately to impress people, not God.
(2. Attitude counts!
B. Foundational Isa. 58:6-14
1. God elaborates on His concept of a proper fast!
a. It INCLUDES practical help to the poor and oppressed. 58:6
b. Sharing God's blessings with others. 58:7a
c. Giving shelter to the homeless 58:7b
d. Clothing the naked. 58:7c
e. Ministry to your own family that is in need! 58:7d
2. Our prayer and fasting is only as good as our compassion for others!
ILLUS: One day a student asked anthropologist Margaret Mead for the earliest sign of civilization in a given culture. He expected the answer to be a clay pot or perhaps a fish hook or grinding stone. Her answer was "a healed femur." Mead explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, reigns. A healed femur shows that someone cared. Someone had to do that injured person's hunting and gathering until the leg healed. The evidence of compassion is the first sign of civilization. -- R. Wayne Willis, Louisville, Kentucky. Leadership, Vol. 16, no. 4.
3. They ignored those around them, and so God had ignored them - He cannot respond favorably to the hard heart.
4. God challenges them in 58:8-14 to discover just how FAST He will respond if they begin to address not only what they want, but what others need.
a. God wants to answer their prayers, and acknowledge their fasts - but they must discover the true essence of spirituality, the giving of self for others.
b. Sometimes unanswered prayers are the result of improper behavior!
c. There is a right way to fast and pray, and a wrong way!
II. GREAT NEED FOCUSED! Jonah 3:5-10 Esther 4:16
A. Faith Jonah 3:5-9 Esther 4:16
1. It is quite important that faith is a part of any fasting and prayer!
a. Faith in God's Word!
b. "The Ninevites BELIEVED GOD. They declared a fast…" 3:5a
c. If a fast starts with anything less than faith in God's Word it won't accomplish God's purposes.
2. The fast they held was acceptable before God because it was:
a. preceded by faith in God's Word
ILLUS: The ancient Etruscans foretold the future by looking at sheep livers. They divided the liver into sixteen parts just as they had divided the heavens into sixteen parts. Certain gods ruled various parts of the heavens and would get into corresponding parts of the liver and give signs that provided guidance for people. How far removed that is from the guidance David wrote about: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" Psalm 119:105 -- Robert C. Shannon, 1000 Windows, (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1997).
b. Their faith would be demonstrated by proper actions according to God's Word - this is a crucial step.
c. practiced with genuine humility and passion to do what is right. "…all of them, from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth." 3:5b
d. The same thing is seen in Esther 4:16 - Esther joins her people in fasting and prayer - and in faith in God.
3. The call by the king of Nineveh is urgent (3:7-9) and demonstrates that he believed God would be full of compassion if they were full of genuine repentance.
a. God never turns away from a true heart of repentance.
b. God however will resist the proud!
4. Had the Ninevites only appeared to be sorry for their sins and not repentant for their wrongdoing God would not have spared the city or the people.
a. If we fast and pray only to get God to do what we want Him to do He will not hear us.
b. If we cry out to Him because we are burdened and mean business with our lives God will respond.
5. Faith is demonstrated by our changed lives, not just our words!
B. Favor Jonah 3:10
1. It is interesting to note that this verse doesn't say God's response came as a result of their prayer, but because of their turn from evil ways! "When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened."
a. God does not separate our prayer life from our practiced life!
b. The Jews in Isaiah's day didn't mind all the religious services and practices … but they didn't live those godly principles out in their everyday life, hence no response from all their fasting and prayer.
c. The Pharisees looked spiritual too, but they had the same problem … didn't practice what they preached. All the fasting in the world wouldn't help them.
2. God's favor falls on the broken, on the repentant, on the humble, on the one so burdened that food or other things take a back seat to their passion for God and His commandments.
a. The Ninevites found favor in God's eyes, and He spared them destruction.
ILLUS: I have never met a soul who has set out to satisfy the Lord and has not been satisfied himself. -- Watchman Nee, Leadership, Vol. 9, no. 3.
b. They had genuinely fasted and prayed, with humility and a change of lifestyle … a desire to really change their hearts and lives.
c. Have you experienced the power of God in a biblical fast?
3. God said through Isaiah, "Then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say, 'Here am I'." Isa. 58:9
a. A true fast gets "fast" results!
b. God's heart and ears are open to the godly, He will hear and answer the cry of the humble broken heart.
c. A fast will focus our heart and mind on God, and off of the stuff of this world. Things like food, drink, and other things will melt into the backdrop of what's important when we come before God with a burden on our heart.
4. When was the last time you wanted to touch God so badly that food and other things were unimportant? - When only the touch of God counted!
CONCLUSION: Have you ever wanted something so badly that you couldn't sleep or eat until the moment came to get it? The idea of fasting is NOT to manipulate God, it is to refocus us! It starts with a desire so great that everything else is secondary in importance - food, drink, entertainment, etc. God is moved by such focused burdens that He graciously responds. Such a powerful burden is a "fast" way to God.