Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What Jesus said about...........Prayer and fasting

Exeter Temple Message notes: Sunday 8th March 2015
Bible Reading: Matthew 6:5-18
 The public expression of prayer was dominant in Jesus day to the point where people often prayed by proxy rather than personally. Limiting prayer to a public act raised the danger of it becoming an empty show.
So Jesus warned, Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”  (v 5)
A hypocrite referred originally to an actor who changed roles by changing masks. Prayer must not be an act or a show.  
V 9-13 reveal the content of prayer. The other verses cover the context in which we pray.
1. Solitude
 “But when you pray go into your room close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” v 6
Our true spiritual condition is reflected in what I do when nobody is looking. 
 “Jesus is not saying that prayer should never be a public or corporate act but he is saying that the engine room of prayer, the wellsprings of spirituality lie in the private relationship with God. Think of a deeply rooted tree. There is growth above ground level but the life is drawn from the roots.”  Gerard Kelly
Solitude was a vital and frequent part of Jesus’ spiritual discipline.
Look up:
Mark 1:35
Luke 6:12
Matthew 14:13
Luke 5:16
Matthew 17:1-9
Solitude is often avoided because it is associated with loneliness and the  fear that if we withdraw from constant visibility we will be forgotten.
Introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. 
Both need solitude. The introvert needs to understand that solitude is a discipline that is about seeking God rather an about personal introspection. The extrovert needs the reassurance that they can gain what they need from God himself rather than through what they see or hear, from the people around them.
Solitude can help to cure us of the addictive need for constant company to give reassurance that we are loved, wanted and accepted. This puts people in the place of God. It is God who supplies all our needs according to his riches in glory.
There is a fear of being alone with God because we don’t like our own company. On our own with God, the masks are obsolete and he might insist that we take our defences down.    
If we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone but neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. Alone or in company we can always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.  However most of us still need to develop a heart and mind that can find God in the midst of the crowd. We need to train ourselves in solitude.  A sprinter can ignore the shouts of the crowd and concentrate on the finishing line, but he has developed that skill by practising instant reaction to the starter gun, in the early mornings before the crowds get up.
2. Silence
 “And when you pray do not keep on babbling like the pagans for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”  (v7)
We use words to defend ourselves in some situations, especially those that attack our reputation or our faith. If we are silent, who will be in control? One reason we feel we can hardly remain silent or have time in solitude is that we feel helpless and out of control.
 “Silence is abstaining from sound in order to open our spiritual ears and listen more closely to the voice of God”   Keith Drury
Silence helps us gain appreciation for the worth and importance of words. Silence is not to be shunned as empty space, but to be befriended as fertile ground for intimacy with God and to hear his words. The world’s words are often louder but are not of as much worth.
God often speaks in whispers. See I Kings 19:11- t12
Read Ecclesiastes 5:1-2

3. Sacrifice
The particular sacrifice Jesus was talking about was fasting.
Jesus addresses abuses and the wrong motives attached to prayer and fasting but never suggests that they should be abandoned because we don’t always get them right.
Jesus himself went on a 40 day fast and Paul went on a 3 day fast after his Damascus road experience.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees about their attitude to fasting but he actually endorsed the practice for his disciples when he said to them, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites.” Fasting was a normal part of Christian life for centuries. It is only in modern times that we have neglected it.  Part of the reason for that is that the modern western church has become so focussed on the intellectual and upon the verbal that we have often failed to bring our physical and material lives under the umbrella of our faith life. 
 “The constant propaganda fed us today convinces us that if we do not have three large meals each day, with several snacks in between we are on the verge of starvation. This coupled with the fact that it is a positive virtue to satisfy every human appetite, has made fasting seem obsolete.”
Richard Foster
Most of us in the western evangelical church need to discover fasting as a tool through which we can get close to God and grow in our faith.
Whilst it is recognised that we don’t just have to fast from food but other things like the internet or TV or watching sport fasting in Jesus day did mean abstinence from food and that has been its primary meaning for centuries.  This is because of all the human appetites the appetite for food is central.  You only discover how central it is when you first attempt to fast.
There are physical benefits to fasting and practical ones. The SA has utilised fasting is to annually ask Salvationists to give up something and then give the money that they have saved through their denial to support the Army’s work.
However if you want a spiritual benefit fasting must begin with the focus on God. The very first statement Jesus made about fasting was about the motives that some people had for practising it.  If our fasting is not to God we have failed.  “Le
Let our fasting be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on him. Let our intention herein be this and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” John Wesley
Fasting in the Bible is always accompanied by fervent prayer. There is no spiritual value in hunger alone.  Dieting is not fasting!
When we fast with a desire to know God and  our spiritual senses are heightened. Fasting makes us dependent and most of us hate to feel dependant!
Fasting involves self-denial. We deny the physical appetites of our body for a time, to humble ourselves before God who has all the answers for our lives. Fasting is a sign that seeking God is more important to us than the daily routine of finding food for ourselves. We have a passion for God that supersedes everything else. Fasting will often reveal the things that control us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things but in fasting, these things surface.   
Solitude requires we strip away pretence, superficiality, the need to be seen, attention seeking, the stimulation of human company. 
Silence requires we are stripped of our words and our noise.
Sacrifice in this context, strips away our self-indulgences our addiction to food and to things.
But Jesus will not have it that practising spiritual disciplines in the right way is joyless.  
When you fast do not look sombre as the hypocrites do for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”  v16                             
In fact there is reward. Jesus says it twice, “Your father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  (v6&v18)
 Jesus would agree that we don’t pray and fast in order to get an OBE or a golden globe but what he is saying is that prayer and fasting done in the right way has to have a positive outcome or it is futile. The reward is the company of the divine presence and that is more than enough for anyone.  

God bless

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