Sermon delivered March 29, 2009.
Have you ever felt like you have a problem that never goes away? Or you feel like you have one problem after the next? They just relentlessly keep coming and coming. Most of us do, if you do not, you are blessed. Most of us are fighting against problems in our life. And these problems can be brought about in many different ways. Often, they are brought about by the demons. The demons are trying to attack us and to throw us off the path of salvation. We hear in this morning's gospel (Mark 9:17-31) reading about the boy who had the deaf and dumb spirit and how he was convulsed terribly. It threw him into the fire and water, trying to kill him. His father begged Jesus to heal his son. Of course, Jesus did heal the boy. This was after the disciples of Jesus were not able to heal the young boy of his demon. Afterwards the disciples asked Jesus, why couldn't we cast the demons out of this young man? Of course, Jesus response was that this kind (of demon) could only be driven out by prayer and fasting.
It's probably not a surprise that this particular gospel reading is chosen for the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It's one of a series of readings over the past several weeks that are highlighting the theme of fasting because we are in the period of the Great Fast—Megali Tessarakosti. Fasting is an important tool to overcoming our problems in our life, especially with the problems caused in the battle against the attack of the demons. Now some of us may say, "I don't feel like I have demons around me." However, that is an illusion. The reality is that the devil exists and the demons are legion that follow him. Their job, their duty, their commitment is to pull as many people away from God as possible. That's the reality.
So fasting is to help us become aware of the spiritual warfare (of course there are many wars on earth that we are well aware of but often we discount or we are oblivious to the spiritual warfare that is constantly going on), and it is to be used as a weapon in the spiritual warfare. Fasting is also an expression of mourning. When we look back into the history of Israel, the people often fasted after a calamity struck such as being conquered by a neighboring country/people or a natural disaster fell upon them. They saw fasting as a way to express their mourning in contrition to God. Ultimately, they understood that some way, some how, whether directly or indirectly, their sin (their falling away from God) was connected to the calamity or disaster.
I want to share three passages from the Old Testament that give us a glimpse into the reality, the nature of fasting as it is connected with prayer because we cannot conceive of fasting without prayer. They go hand in hand. Fasting without prayer is just a diet. The first passage is from Ezra 9:5-15.
At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God. And I said: "O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day. And now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and give us a measure of revival in our bondage. For we were slaves. Yet our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.
And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, 'The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity. Now therefore, do not give your daughters as wives for their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons; and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your children forever.' And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this, should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor? O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!"
Hopefully, we can see in this passage that the situation for us today has not changed significantly from the time of Ezra many centuries ago. We are still surrounded by people, lands, territories, situations, demons, that are wanting, seeking to pull us away from God, away from His commandments.
The next passage is from Nehemiah 1:4-11
So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said: "I pray, LORD God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, please let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel which we have sinned against You. Both my father's house and I have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.' Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man."
So our prayer and fasting is an expression of return to the Lord. We must ask, are we availing ourselves of these two essential tools of prayer and fasting, especially during this time of Great and Holy Lent? Or are we letting the time pass us by?
Finally, we have the passage from Isaiah 58:1-14 which talks about the essential spirit and nature of fasting.
"Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, And delight to know My ways, As a nation that did righteousness, And did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; They take delight in approaching God. 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?' "In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD? "Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.' "If you take away the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you Shall build the old waste places; You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. "If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the LORD honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken."
So, the true nature and essential spirit of fasting is to do all the things Isaiah is talking about-to become righteous, to become holy, to help the poor, afflicted and hungry. But, in our world today, the message is that you don't need to fast in order to do these things. You can just keep eating and consuming and taking in as much as possible and you can still do all those "righteous" things.
However, the reality is that it does not work this way. We cannot keep consuming and expect at the same time to give. Fasting is not the goal, fasting is not God but fasting along with prayer are essential, indispensible tools for us to express mourning for our sins, to attempt to return to the Lord God, to cleanse our souls and bodies, so that God will hear our prayer and that He will act upon it, that He will help us, that He will protect us, especially from the demons who are constantly and incessantly attacking us.
We have a couple more weeks before Holy Week begins and after that, the Resurrection of our Lord. So, let us in these final weeks, afflict ourselves with fasting. Let us crucify our passions and die to sin, so that we may be raised up with our Lord Jesus Christ to be resurrected to new life. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.