The “desert fathers” were a medieval group of men who forsook their homes to live alone in desert solitude. Someone asked one of them why he had made such a drastic change in his life. The father poured water and some sand into a jar. As he shook the jar, the water became clouded and murky. But as he allowed the jar to rest, the sand settled to the bottom and the water became clear again.
How clear is your soul this morning? How clear would you like it to be?
Your soul and mine need the spiritual discipline of solitude. But most of us are uncomfortable with silence. We can’t imagine spending significant time “doing nothing.” What would we do with a period of spiritual solitude? How would we best spend our time?
Let’s learn from Jesus’ example. When he faced Satan at the end of his 40 day period of solitude in the desert, he responded to his temptations in ways which are very instructive for our souls today. Remember his first temptation: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread’ (Luke 4:1-3). And our Lord’s response: “Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone”” (v. 4).
Here we encounter the most frightening of all spiritual disciplines: fasting.
Every day we Americans eat 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 75 acres of pizza. It seems that fasting is the most un-American of all the spiritual disciplines. We seldom talk about it in our churches; in fact, most Baptists have never really studied this subject at all. Catholics and others observing Lent this year are very familiar with the concept, but the rest of us know little about it.
Here’s my definition: fasting is abstaining from the physical for the sake of the spiritual. This discipline usually involves food, but it speaks to the much larger context of our lives and daily circumstances. Such a retreat from our material lives is vital to our spiritual health.
Let’s ask three questions about fasting. First, should we fast? Or is this an outdated practice from biblical times, like eating kosher food?
Our text says that Jesus fasted for 40 days. When the tempter showed him a rock–round, white, sun-bleached, looking very much like the loaves they baked in those days–Jesus refused to turn it into bread. He refused to break his fast, choosing not to live “by bread alone.” In Matthew 6:16 he says, “When you fast….” Not “if” but “when.” He assumes that his hearers will fast.