“The Means of Grace”, Sermon 11/25/2018

THE MEANS OF GRACE (Fasting) #5

Ps. 92:12-15;  Luke 4:1-13

The Scripture said, “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, He shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing, to declare that the Lord is upright; He is my rock and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (Ps. 92:12-15).

Most species of palm trees grow in desert climates. They become firmly rooted even in shifting sand, by design. They tolerate high temperatures, little rainfall, and high winds. And palm trees produce better fruit in their old age. Palms can flourish where other trees would wither and die, and God promises that the righteous, those in right standing with Him, will flourish where others would wither. God designed the root system of palms differently than that of most other trees. Instead of the roots tapering and becoming smaller the farther away they get from the trunk, they stay about the same size., So these big, thick roots make their way far below the hot, dry shifting sands and lock into the nutrient-providing solid foundation below. Not only that but unlike most trees that have a woody-dead outer layer, the entire trunk of a palm is alive, allowing it to be very flexible, bending with even hurricane-force winds.

Fasting is necessary to help us sink our roots ever deeper into the solid foundation of God’s promises so that we can withstand the storms as they come and continue to be fruitful. As the apostle Paul wrote, “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7).

Apostle Paul used the illustration of our being rooted in or connected to Christ. As plants draw nourishment from the soil through their roots, so we draw our life-giving strength from Christ.

As we consider why John Wesley included fasting as means of grace for all time and all people, it is prudent to remember his closing comments in the sermon “The Means of Grace.” None of the five means, including fasting, has spiritual merit in and of itself. Each means of grace is but a channel through which God might move. Without a God ward heart, fasting is only a “poor, dead, empty thing: separate from God, it is a dry leaf, a shadow.” As we take up the spiritual discipline of fasting in the way of Wesley, then, the appropriate posture is one of humility and openness to God, both to present ourselves vulnerably to God and to open ourselves to receive direction and blessing from God.

Fasting literally empties us so that we can be filled with God’s Spirit of discernment and authority. The story of Jesus’ temptation found in Luke 4:1-13 illustrates how fasting prepared him for the launch of his public ministry. As the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, we reluctantly follow our Lord. We don’t wish to suffer privation in the wilderness, nor do we wish to learn the true meaning of blessing. We want to name abundance as blessing. Being without need. But Jesus takes us into the wilderness of extremity, which becomes the wilderness school of blessing and discernment. After many days of hunger, while denied the essential building blocks of life, Jesus’ body and mind begin to wither from duress. He is weak, hungry, exhausted, and alone. In this state of extreme privation Satan comes to tempt Jesus.

If Jesus is to carry out the mission, he must be clear about his identity and able to stand in his authority over and over during opposition from his critics. He must be strong when his disciples are weak. Jesus must be able to discern quickly, from one situation to the next, what is required and what he must do or not do. The temptations in the wilderness prepare him for these challenges.

Life is fragile, not to be taken for granted.  Fasting is the primary spiritual discipline that brings us back to our vulnerability.  Fasting returns us to our deepest dependency upon God, which is the fundamental posture of prayer.  We are brought into an experience in which we must remember that we, like Jesus, are God’s dearly loved sons and daughters.  As we bring into prayer the suffering of those for whom we fast, we simultaneously feel our own weakness.  We must keep remembering our identity as God’s beloved, keep remembering the promises of God, and keep surrendering ourselves to God’s care.

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster observes, “More  than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.”

John Wesley taught us that spiritual transformation or growth in holiness not only empowers us for a more meaningful life individually, it also fills us with the Holy Spirit so that we can more fully engage in God’s work of making all things new in the world.

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