mp3 Audio: 2015_02_25-Fr Joseph-When_You_Fast.mp3
This sermon was preached by Fr. Joseph Gleason on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:16-21
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
The first three words of our Gospel reading today are “when you fast,” not “if you fast” but “when you fast.” It is a given. If you are a follower of Christ, then you will have times of fasting. If you do not have times of fasting, then you are not a follower of Christ. The very fact that He assumes it, “when you fast,” signals to us that this is something right at the center of what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Christ and a part of His Church.
When you fast, do not do it like the hypocrites. They disfigure their faces, and they look all sad because want other people to see what they are doing. These are the people who are blogging every day on their blogs and on Facebook [saying], “Oh! It’s been so much time without meat. I don’t know how I’m going to survive.” Or, if you’re doing a full fast, “Oh! I’ve gone all day with just water and no food at all. I’m starving!” [They are] looking for sympathy, looking for other people to say, “Oh, how spiritual you are!”
Jesus said, “Don’t fast like this.”
You will fast if you are a follower of Christ, but not like that.
Jesus said, “Wash your face. Anoint your head. Smile! Don’t let people know that you’re fasting” [c.f. Matthew 6:17].
This isn’t something that we do for everybody else to see. This is something that we do for God to see, and it’s something that we do specifically for the case of spiritual warfare. Think of the people in Scripture who have fasted and prayed, and God heard their prayers.
Esther, before risking her life by going in to the king in an attempt to save her people: For three days, she fasted. From my understanding of that particular situation, that didn’t just mean that she laid off Big Macs for three days. That was three days of just water, three days of nothing. Every time her body said, “Man, I really want to eat something,” she just kept praying.
There are a lot of us who would be impressed with somebody who just prays for three days about something. “Man, you’re spending hours a day on your hands and knees, pouring your heart out to God in prayer. Isn’t that enough?” Esther did pray, but she also fasted.
Look at Nineveh. This wasn’t even Israel! This wasn’t even the people of God. It was just a pagan city that worshiped a pagan fish god. The Prophet Jonah came and prophesied destruction upon them for their wickedness and their idolatry. From the king down to the lowest servant, this entire city repented!
Can you imagine if [President Barack] Obama came on TV and said, “I have sinned against the Lord. We have earned great judgment from on high for our many wickednesses, but I call upon everybody in this nation to fast, to pray, to put on sack cloth and ashes, and to call out for mercy before the Most High.”? Across this nation, if hundreds of millions of people were to bow the knee to Christ, and to fast, and to pray, what a revival that would be!
That’s what happened in the city of Nineveh. They prayed. They fasted, and God heard them, and no disaster came to their city. God had mercy on them, because they humbled themselves before Him.
ONLY BY PRAYER AND FASTING
Is there something in your life – whether it’s freedom from a particular sin that has beset you, whether it is a particular relationship that you have struggled with so hard, whether it’s’ something with your spouse or something with your children? You have already tried praying, and praying, and praying. Have you tried fasting and praying? Have you tried a period of time where you go without food entirely and have nothing but water, and pour your heart out to God in prayer?
There are times that when you fast and pray that God hears from heaven.
Think about the disciples to whom Jesus gave the power to perform miracles and cast out demons. Yet, there was one particular child who had been tormented by this demon from early youth. The disciples, the Apostles themselves could do nothing about it. They couldn’t fix it. They couldn’t cast that demon out. Then Jesus easily cast the demon out of the boy.
The Apostles asked Him, “Why couldn’t we do it?” Jesus said, “This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
There are some works of the devil, according to Christ, which you can combat not by prayer alone. It’s not enough. You can pray, and pray, and pray, and even you are an apostle, that demon will not let go. But if you fast and pray, you do warfare on a spiritual level, and you defeat the enemy. Then the devil flees.
There is a joke going around on the internet. That jokes says that Orthodoxy is just Christianity only harder. I used to think it was really funny, but I don’t really think it’s accurate the more I think about it. It’s just Christianity.
Anything easier than Orthodoxy is not Christianity. But it is inaccurate for another reason: Fasting wasn’t given to us just so God could cross his arms, frown, and say, “Ha! See what I am going to force you to go through, peons? You’re going to do it just because I said so, that’s why,” like God is up there trying to be hard on us. That is so far from the truth!
Yes, God requires it of us, but why? Is it just to be hard on us? Is it just to mess with us? Is it just to give us some tough rules so that we have to sweat through life and have difficulty?
God wants you to be free.
He wants you to be from every wile of the devil. He wants you to be free from every demon. If there are some demons that will only let go of you through fasting and prayer, then it is not the hardness of God, but it is the mercy of God, it is the goodness of God, it is the love of God that requires you, at least one time out of the year, to focus on doing the very thing that makes the demons let go.
If there is such incredible power in fasting and prayer that it can make demons let go in cases where even the apostles, without fasting, couldn’t make the demons let go, then isn’t it good of God to require of us that there are at least some times in our lives when we fast and pray?
That’s not hardness. That’s not meanness. That’s saying we are in battle against an enemy that is not merely trying to kill our bodies. We’re not talking about a little, tiny, temporary thing like World War I or World War II. If you get involved in World War I or World War II, you might get your body killed.
No, we’re talking about much higher stakes. We are talking about a battle in which the enemy wants nothing less than your eternal damnation, and the eternal damnation of your spouse, and the eternal damnation of each and every one of your children. Those are the stakes. What kind of a general would send his warriors into battle having never practiced shooting a gun?
[Matushka] Amy, you got to see some of how the United States Army works overseas. When they are about to send thousands of people into combat, is it standard practice to, the day before combat, bring them all into a room, hand each one of them a gun, and say, “All right. You’re going to get to try it out for the first time tomorrow. Good luck!”?
Is that how they do it? When do they give a soldier a gun? When you’re still in basic training and you haven’t been deployed to the combat zone yet. Before you actually go into combat, are you likely to end up receiving weeks or even months of practice in taking the [gun] apart, putting it back together, and firing it?
So it is with spiritual warfare! God is a good general, and He wants you to be well-prepared. So, he assigns times of fasting and prayer. You can add to those.
It can be June. You don’t have to be anywhere near Lent. It can be the middle of June, and you can have something major going on, and you can fast and pray. You don’t have to just do it when the whole Church is doing it. You can fast and pray on your own just like Queen Esther did.
But throughout the year, you get your practice. God assigns times for you to put food off to the side and make it secondary, put your physical and bodily needs off to the side and make them secondary, and first focus on the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Learn through doing that the power of your prayers during that time of your life. Learn what it means to do spiritual warfare. Part of the point of it is not just for you to practice but for you to be reminded that you are in a war. The demons are invisible to us. The angels are invisible to us.
No matter how long we’ve been a Christian, we far too easily fall asleep and fall into the dream land of this world around us. [We] think that life is for nothing than to eat, and drink, and be merry, and have nice grilled hamburgers, and video games, and TV, and just enjoy life. You only live once! It’s true, you only live once, and then you go to the judgment seat. From that point on you spend eternity in either heaven or hell. So, because you only live once, you need to spend every moment of that life preparing yourself to be able to go to heaven and making sure that hell is not where you end up or you’ll be beating yourself up for all eternity saying, “Why didn’t I repent? I only live once.”
The fact that you only live once is not proof that you need all the pleasure you can get. No. St. Isaac the Syrian said, “This life has been given to you for the sake of repentance. Do not waste it on vain pursuits.”
ADAM AND EVE
God has told us that in fasting and prayer he hears us. He has told us that in fasting and prayer we have a power over the demons that we do not have otherwise. We also know from the teaching of Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers that, when sin first entered the human race, it was through sinning in food that we first fell. They could eat everything in the whole garden, but God told Adam and Eve: “this one tree right here – do not eat that. Just one thing. Just fast from that one thing.”
It would be like if God told you that you could have every hamburger at McDonald’s except for the double quarter pounder. Any of the other ones are fine, just not that one. You can go to Baskin Robbins, and you can have any flavor of ice cream except pistachio. That doesn’t even seem much like fasting, does it? You can have anything you want except for this one thing. That’s how easy God made it! Because they wouldn’t keep that fast, here we are.
That’s why we have a cemetery across the street full of dead bodies. That’s why all of our families in this church, over and over and over for the past several weeks, keep getting sick.
So how do we get out of this?
We die through food, and we gain eternal life through food. God gives us the Eucharist – holy food to eat to restore us to life. He also gives us the chance to be obedient in regard to food and to fast like our forefathers Adam and Eve did not.
They refused to fast from even one food in the Garden. Now that we are following Christ, now that we are seeking to be obedient to Him through food, through obedience to God in regard to food, we say, “You know what? My belly is not my god. I am not going to be enslaved by my stomach and eat just because my stomach says I am hungry.”
You see, before the fall, Adam and Eve’s spirit and soul were in charge, and their fleshly body was a servant to their spirit. With their spirit, they communed with God and performed righteousness, and their fleshly body was merely a servant.
But today, [for] people who don’t know Christ, it’s flipped upside down. The fleshly body is in charge, and their soul and their spirit have become slaves. They call it freedom. “I have freedom to do whatever I want. I can eat whatever I want. I can sleep with whoever I want. I can watch TV and watch any show that I want. I can play all the video games I want. I can play whatever I want. I can sleep whenever I want.” They call it freedom. That’s not freedom; that’s slavery!
Do you realize what slavery is? For your spirit, for your soul, for your mind to be enslaved to the desires of your flesh so that whenever some chemicals rumble around in your stomach you stop whatever you’re doing and [think], “I’ve got to eat, and I’ve got to eat now;” you’re enslaved to your flesh.
“Oh, I’m bored, and I’m too lazy to do anything useful. I don’t want to be bored anymore, so I’ve got to watch the TV; I’ve got to play the video games.” You’re a slave to your flesh.
“Oh, these chemicals are running through my bloodstream, and that girl looks really pretty.” So you drop everything and pursue unclean activities. You’re a slave to your flesh.
You’re not in control. Your entire life is being run by your fleshly body and its passions. That’s not freedom. That’s slavery.
Through Lent, through fasting, through prayer, we remind our bodies that our bodies are not in charge.
Our stomach is not here to control our mind and our thoughts. Our mind, our thoughts, and our spirit is here to control our body. So as we go through this, it very important that we do not complain, that we do not grumble against God, that we do not mope around and say, “Man, I wonder why God makes us do this stuff.”
We need to trust Him as a loving Father. We need to recognize that He does this because He loves us, and He’s trying to heal us. Through doing this, He puts us in a position that our prayers have greater power, and this is something to thank Him for.
I am going to end the homily at this point, and before we continue Mass, I would like us to take three or five minutes. We have all, children and adults, been fasting from meat all day. Those of us who are adults have been fasting from all food today – nothing but water.
Christ has promised us that there is a special power that comes in fasting and prayer. What I’d like for us to do at this time – you can either come to these rails, or you can stay where you are and pull out the kneeler. We’ve already had many corporate prayers by the Church, and we will have many more. I’d like us to take three to five minutes and offer up some personal prayers – not just things that you’ve prayed about before at some point, but today, while you are fasting and praying, I want you to get on your knees, and I want you to personally pray before God believing that when you are fasting and praying,
He hears you.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
 Matthew 6:16, NKJV/OSB: Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.
 Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Faber & Faber 1954; The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery 1984; and On Ascetical Life, SVS Press 1990.
This sermon was preached by Fr. Joseph Gleason on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcription by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services provides full-service secretarial support (including homily and presentation transcription, editing services, and publishing assistance) to Orthodox Clergy and parish communities.