JOEL 2:12–15 NIV
“Even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast,
call a sacred assembly.
We tend to think of fasting as something we do (if we do it) during Lent. But did you ever notice that the liturgical colors of both Lent and Advent are purple? That’s because Advent traditionally was also a season for repentance (which we’ve talked about) and fasting.
But it’s hard to find a rhythm of fasting when all we do is feast. Let’s look at the story of my calendar, starting in a strange place: September.
School has just started back, football season is kicking off, and the Halloween costumes and candy are on the store shelves. The increased candy eating begins, weeks before the little ones come knocking on the door.
Then, on the first day of November, the Christmas candy and decorations invade everything. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll keep eating Halloween candy, and then I’ll take the third Thursday in November to eat my weight in turkey, sides, and pies. A few days later, just as the leftovers are finally drying up, the Christmas parties, baked goods, chocolate-covered cherries, and candy gift bags will begin to flow.
The eating continues long after the big present day, culminating with a New Year’s Eve party and all its excess. By now, much of my diet has consisted of candy, cookies, and rich banquet foods for three solid months. So on that first January morning, I’m going to change everything: time to be a better person. Lose some weight. Live better.
Then the first sabotage. My birthday is in January. Cake. Fancy dinner. I’ll restart after . . . the Super Bowl party the next week.
By now the Valentine’s candy is on the shelves, and the girls are bringing home gift bags full of chocolate and candy, with all those heart-shaped boxes of chocolate beating for my affection from the checkout line.
And just when I think there’s a break—even though the day after Valentine’s the Cadbury Cream Eggs show up next to the register—it’s all a setup. Like sirens, they call from outside the door to Walmart. They call and I cannot resist. Soon I am crashing into the rocks of Girl Scout cookies. Throw in an obligatory St. Patrick’s Day green beer and all the Easter candy, and whatever goals I set in January are dead in the spring, even as the flowers are coming to life.
Memorial Day kicks off the cook-out season, with the Fourth of July being the biggest blast of them all. And so, by late summer, just as the tomatoes and cucumbers we planted in the backyard in the hopes of eating healthy and homegrown are fully ripening, the cycle is ready to start again. Back to school, and back to the Halloween candy on the shelves.
It makes sense that we are trapped in rabid consumption. After all, our mission failure began when someone ate something. A moment of instant gratification that broke humanity and all of creation.
Jesus didn’t say, “if you fast” but “when you fast” (see Matthew 6:16). We’re called to it. But we don’t fast to earn our salvation, prove our faithfulness, or manipulate God into answering our prayers. We fast to make a spiritual declaration that instant gratification will not control us, and to awaken us to our dependence on God.
Fasting during Advent is hard because everything around us this time of year is about eating more than ever. But Advent reorients us to God’s rescue mission, which is grounded in self-giving instead of self-gratifying.
No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome the wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (Isa. 58:6–7 NLT 1996)
It’s not easy to do in an all-you-can-eat culture. Fasting for a lot of us is like New Year’s resolutions. We fail once and call it quits. So try fasting for one day a week . . . maybe just one meal during that one day and take the time you’d eat to pray and read Scripture. After all, people don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
One day Jesus will return, and we will all feast at his heavenly banquet table. Until then, let’s prepare by calling a fast.
Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!
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