You heard we have a bake sale today so I guess it is no secret we Lutherans are not so big on fasting. Perhaps we Lutherans might feel more comfortable with the beer fast that monks once used – drinking only a high calorie dark beer during Lent and skipping all other foods. Even Roman Catholics today do not fast like they used to... The Orthodox fast from meat for the forty days of Lent. As much as we don’t like skipping meals, the idea of fasting appeals to us in some way. Besides, who doesn't want to lose a few pounds?
Fasting has a larger history than just Christianity. Gandhi won India's freedom from Britain with a refusal to eat. Hunger strikes still gather media attention. Fasting is not easy. Then again, it is never easy to deny your desires or wants. Some might think that the melodies to Lutheran hymns are the hardest things about worship but the most difficult thing we face on Sunday morning is forgetting ourselves and paying attention to the Word of the Lord. We are so very conscious of our thirst, our hunger, our need to use the rest room, our need to comment on what is going on, our need to express what we are thinking or feeling at the moment...It is a difficult thing to say no to your self. Yet this is the key thing in fasting – not the food but the self-discipline of saying "no" to self and to the things that routinely rule and govern our lives. It is this kind of "no" to self which sees and seeks a higher good than the moment and a higher cause then my momentary happiness and getting what I want.
Lent is a season of self-denial. From the absence of favorite foods or activities given up to the extra devotions, worship services, alms giving, good works for the poor, and coin folders we taken up, it is all about self- denial. Yet this self-denial is focused – it is not aimless. It is focused upon the Lord's own sacrificial gift of His Son to be our flesh and blood Savior. Self-denial without a focus outside ourselves only highlights what we think, feel, want or have done. When we direct the focus to Him who gave up all for us, our self-denial becomes fruitful to our lives of faith.
Our Lord's own self-denial is the focus of fasting or giving up things. We fast, we deny ourselves, and we give to the poor – not because there is something that will benefit us in all of this – but because this is what our Lord did for us upon the Cross. As in the creed: Who for us and for our salvation...
Denying ourselves is not self-improvement – although who would suggest that we do not benefit from it all? Denying ourselves is focusing upon Jesus, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection all for us. We follow Jesus in faith and because He issues the invitation to us to deny our selves, take up the cross and follow Him.
The whole nature of our Christian life of repentance is learning to say "no" to self and "yes" to the cross. We act it out in various ways but the goal and focus is the same – we look to Jesus and we look at the cross. Fasting is the discipline of the body, as Luther says in the catechism. We do not fast because we must or even we need to, we do so as an act of faith and devotion. Our actions in Lent focus upon Jesus actions for us, who denied Himself for us and for our salvation. We train the body in righteousness by this focus upon the righteousness of Jesus.
We do not fast to save money or lose weight. We do not do almsgiving and care for the poor because they need it or we need to do it. We do not read Scripture more or worship more during Lent because there is something in it for us. We do these things as means to lift the focus from ourselves to Jesus, from our lives to His life lived for us – especially on the cross. There is a higher calling than self, than the whims of the moment, that how we feel or what we want. This higher call is the call of the Gospel, speaking through the voice of the Word, in the power of the Spirit.
In this way we begin to internalize Christ's own suffering, learning to appreciate the cost He paid so that our salvation might be free to us. Imagine that. It is like looking up the price of a gift to see what it cost the giver. It may be bad form on birthdays or anniversaries but it is the best form in Lent. We focus upon the high cost Jesus paid for us and that awareness of the cost He paid leads us to appreciate even more His forgiveness, life, and salvation. What kind of love can move our Savior to suffer so for us? That is the question to which our focus on the cross and our actions of self-denial point.
What is Lent? Well, it is not what it used to be. That is not entirely bad. We do not need more rules or regulations. What we need has not changed. We need to clear away some of the distractions in our lives so that we might see the cross even clearer. That is what Lent is... or should be. Fasting, giving of yourself, giving alms, extra prayers and devotions, more worship services.... in these we see ever more clearly the cross and in seeing the cross we grow ever more sure and ever more aware of what this love cost Jesus and what this love won... And in this all we admit that we are mostly our own worst enemies. Our wants, our thoughts, our desires – all of these things have gotten in the way of seeing the cross in our life.
Lent is not only about what you say "no" to but what you say "yes” to – Saying "Yes" to the cross implies and demands that we say "no" to self. There is no way around this. The world wants a God who will say "yes" to us all the time so that we can justify saying "yes" to everything we want or feel or think. That God is not the God of Abraham we heard about in the first lesson this morning. It is not the God whom Paul proclaimed is hidden in suffering. The real God is the one who says "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny Himself, take up his cross, and follow Me..." The real God is the one who reminds us "suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us..."
As parents we know that saying "yes" to our children can be the worst thing we can say to them. Only love says "no" when "no" must be said. Should we expect any different from our heavenly Father? Today we learn from Jesus to deny self, to take up the cross and follow Him... not as some heavy burden we must bear but because it is in the way of the cross that we know most clearly His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. What is it St. Paul told us – we rejoice in suffering... In the lens of self-denial you see the cross of Christ. Today we pray for the Spirit to give us courage and conviction to say “no” to self and “yes” to the cross that shines forth like a beacon of light and hope ever before us. Amen