I want you to turn with me to Isaiah 58, and then we're going to read a couple of scriptures, very well-known ones, in Matthew chapter 6. Now I'm reading this morning - I don't normally read, when I preach, from the New Living Translation, but that's what I'm going to do today. We're going to read the whole of chapter 58 of Isaiah, and then we're going to go to Matthew chapter 6. Now, I want to stipulate this before I go any further: what I'm going to bring to you now, it's - I believe - a prophetic word. So just keep that in mind as I deliver it to you. I believe that it's prophetic to, it's revelatory to individuals in the gathering, maybe even corporately to the fellowship - but I want you to understand that it is a Bible study, we'll be looking verse to verse, but it's a prophetic word for you as a fellowship as you enter this week, but as individuals - so just keep that in mind.
So let's read together, and if you don't have this particular version, you might want to just listen rather than confuse yourself following your own, but you do whatever you're comfortable with. "Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws. You would almost think this was a righteous nation that would never abandon its God. They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf. 'We have fasted before you!' they say. 'Why aren't you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don't even notice it!' 'I will tell you why! It's because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting. You keep right on oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? No, the kind of fasting I want'", or as other versions say, 'My chosen fast', "'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 poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. If you do these things, your salvation will come like the dawn. Yes, your healing will come quickly. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the LORD will answer. 'Yes, I am here,' he will quickly reply. Stop oppressing the helpless and stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as day. The LORD will guide you continually, watering your life when you are dry and keeping you healthy, too. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Your children will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as the people who rebuild their walls and cities. Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don't pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the LORD's holy day. Honor the LORD in everything you do, and don't follow your own desires or talk idly. If you do this, the LORD will be your delight. I will give you great honor and give you your full share of the inheritance I promised to Jacob, your ancestor. I, the LORD, have spoken!""
Now keep a marker there, will you? I just feel after reading that, I could nearly sit down. Matthew chapter 6, and you're probably more familiar with these verses, verses 16 through to 18: "And when you fast, don't make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I assure you, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will suspect you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in secret. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you". Amen.
So I want to talk about God's chosen fast, or "Fasting God's Way" - fasting God's way, as opposed to fasting our way. Human beings are notoriously religious. I don't know whether you've discovered that or not, but from Cain in the book of Genesis, who offered, you know, the fruit of the ground, the sweat of his brow, as a meritorious offering to God - he thought that that was what it was going to be - right through to the Book of Revelation, the end time experience of some kind of harlot religious system, we know that man's heart is bent towards being religious. The sinful nature that all of us have inherited from Adam loves to be ostentatious in our spirituality. I don't know whether you're aware of this or not, but it's worthy of your study. We often talk about the flesh (in Greek 'sarx'), and we consider it to be always a negative thing. But what I learned many, many years ago as a young man, from a Chinese believer called Watchman Nee, is that there is a 'good' side of the flesh. Now when I say good, I mean in 'inverted commas', a moral side, a desirable - we might say a 'religious' - moral side of the flesh, but it's equally as dangerous.
It has always been a problem, generally speaking. You can see this in the book of Isaiah, if you keep your finger in there at 58, but look at chapter 1. This is very interesting, where God comes to His own people and starts to critique their own religious behaviour. Wow! Verse 10 of chapter 1, we see what He really thinks of some of the stuff that goes on in religious gatherings, or conferences, or worship services: 'Listen to the LORD you leaders', verse 10 of chapter 1. 'Listen to the LORD, you leaders of Israel! Listen to the law of our God, people of Israel. You act just like the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah. 'I am sick of your sacrifices,' says the LORD. 'Don't bring me any more burnt offerings! I don't want the fat from your rams or other animals. I don't want to see the blood from your offerings of bulls and rams and goats. Why do you keep parading through my courts with your worthless sacrifices? The incense you bring me is a stench in my nostrils! Your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath day, and your special days for fasting - even your most pious meetings - are all sinful and false. I want nothing more to do with them. I hate all your festivals and sacrifices. I cannot stand the sight of them! From now on, when you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look. Even though you offer many prayers, I will not listen. For your hands are covered with the blood of your innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Let me no longer see your evil deeds. Give up your wicked ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows''. Hmmm.
So here's God's people, and there is a kind of revival going on here of religious activity, of an interest in the law of God, and here's God giving His take on it all. Not too pretty is it? Then we come specifically to fasting - and I know it was mentioned there in Isaiah 1 - but when we come into the New Testament, the Lord Jesus, God has not changed His tune on this. He's saying: 'You ought not to be fasting for other people to see you; looking pale and putting on sackcloth, and letting everybody know what you're doing'. So, when you kind of put all this together and summarize God's chosen fast, or fasting God's way as opposed to fasting our way; false fasting is when we try to impress. I could think of three directions we try to impress. Obviously we try to impress God, we can try to impress one another, or we can try to impress ourselves. Think about that one. You know we pat ourselves on the back: 'What a good boy am I. I fasted my tea break' - that's about as far as I get at times. Do you understand? We can be building ourself up inside, in the flesh. Isaiah 58, look at it, and verse 3 in this version: 'We have fasted before you', the people say, 'why aren't you impressed? God, I mean, what more do You want? I'm killing myself here! I've gone off this, that, or the other'. We need to come to a place - and this is where true fasting happens, by the way - we come to a place (and, I must add, this is where true Christianity happens) where we stop trying to impress God.
Is that where you're at, as a Christian? Where you have given up on trying to impress God, or impress yourself, or impress other people? Verse 5 talks here about going through the motions, we can do that in so many areas of our Christianity. But it's not just trying to impress others, it actually says here, verse 3, look at verse 3b: 'We've done much penance and you don't even notice'. We're actually trying to get God's attention. I want to bring you a word of the Lord today: you have got God's attention! You don't need to try and get His attention. In many of the parables, by the way, in the gospels - it's just coming to me, I didn't prepare to say this - but you know, where it talks about persevering in prayer, and importunity in prayer, and persistence in prayer; you know, people waking up their friend in the middle of the night to get bread and all that kind of stuff, and begging kings, you know, and all that. That is an exaggerated opposite, those parables are exaggerated opposites. What Jesus is teaching in those is not 'This is how you pray to wrest from God's hand the blessings that He doesn't really want to give you, but you need the secret of how to get it out of His hand' - it's actually the opposite. This is what God is not like. This is what God is not like, He's the opposite. He's a good Friend. He's a good Father. He's a good King. So we don't have to get His attention.
But here, ultimately, in verse 3, is the reason why God's not looking and He's not listening. Look at it: 'I will tell you why' - why I'm not impressed, why I am not paying attention - 'It is because you are living for yourselves, even while you are fasting'. You're living for yourselves, even while you're fasting. In other words, what the Lord is saying: 'The reason why I'm not getting this is, your hearts are not right'. By the way, that's what the Sermon on the Mount is all about, it's all about the heart, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. In Isaiah 29, of course, Jesus lifts it up and uses it again in Matthew 15, Isaiah is quoted that 'these people draw near to Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me'. So what we're saying here is that we can be very pious, we can do all the right things and our heart not be right. If you will allow me to equate heart in equivalence with motive, that is what God is saying here: 'What I am interested in is in your heart or in your motive'.
Let me really bring this down to ground level here. What does that look like? When your heart is not right in religious activities, or in fasting? When your motive is skewed? Well, here it is: when you're trying to get God to do what you want, when you're not prepared to do what God wants - that basically sums it up. Trying to get God to do what you want, when you're not prepared to do what God wants. There's a word for that. In fact, there's quite a few, but one of them is 'hypocrisy'; another is 'duplicity'. In James 1 verse 8, James says that a double-minded person is unstable in all their ways, and that's another description of this problematic motive or this divided heart - and that's why you might be unstable even in your Christianity. James, previous to that verse in James 1 verse 7, says that's why people don't get what they ask from God, why God doesn't answer our prayers, and why God doesn't answer our fasting - because of this double-mindedness or this wrong motive. Then he says later in chapter 4 and verse 3: 'You ask, but you do not receive because you ask amiss, that you might spend it on your pleasures'. In other words, the motivation is selfish. You're just in this for what you want, rather than what God wants from you. In James 4 verse 8, the apostle exhorts those believers to 'Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you double-minded' - because double-mindedness is an issue of the heart that needs purified.
So double-mindedness is a heart problem, and double-mindedness will result in two-faced living, duplicitous actions, living double lives. I want to announce to you (and I know this is not very motivational for getting everybody to fast this week), but if that's where you are right now, fasting is a waste of time - because the pious act of fasting is cancelled out by your double standards. Do you get it?
Now Isaiah is very specific and very practical about how this can happen, where your pious act can be cancelled out by your double standard. Let me give you these examples. First of all, verse 3, you might say verse 3d, the fourth part, he says: 'You keep right on oppressing your workers'. So basically, here's the revelation, don't bother fasting if you're oppressing your employees, exploiting your employees. Don't bother fasting, or to generalize it more: if your work ethic is dubious in your business, or your career, forget about fasting. You can fast 40 days, 80 days like Moses, forget about it, you're wasting your time, you're killing yourself. Ephesians 6, this is New Testament, is very specific about the responsibilities we have in relationships: husbands to wives, fathers to children, employers to employees, employees to employers. We could broaden that out, practically speaking, in our own environments: maybe teachers to pupils, and you fill in the gaps. But it's important, the ethics that we have in our workplaces, how we relate to our bosses, how we relate to the responsibilities we have, God is interested in that! There is no division between spiritual and secular. It's all kingdom, and God sees it all.
What about your taxes? Let's have a bit of fun. What about your taxes? Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. It's easy rendering to God what's God's when nobody sees it - but what about your taxes? Some of you have heard of W.P. Nicholson. He was a revivalist years ago in the 1920s. He came back to Ulster, of course, in the 40s or 50s again, but God really mightily used him roundabout the 20s. In fact, people would say, historically, that Civil War was quashed here because of many who came to faith, particularly around the shipyard and in Belfast during those years through his meetings. But there was a problem they had during one of his campaigns, he couldn't get ordinary working-class unsaved people along to the gatherings. He was talking to some of them, and he inquired why this was. They said: 'Well, here's the reason: some of these Christians that are going to your meetings owe us money'. So he got up at the meeting - some of you might know this story - he got up at the next meeting, and he said, he fained - he didn't lie but, you know, he was pretending that he had a list of the names of the people in the gathering that owed money, and he said that if they didn't pay up the next night, he would read out the names. He hadn't a list at all, but the offering was substantial that particular night, and all the debts were paid, and the people who needed to hear the gospel came.
I know we laugh at that, but this is a huge problem: how Christians do their business is an issue. I'm not wanting to heap shame on you here, or guilt, I'm just saying: this is the way it is, this is scripture, how is it with you? You can do all the fasting this week that you like, but don't bother if you're oppressing your employees. Don't bother fasting if you're fighting and quarrelling. Look at verse 4: 'What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarrelling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me'. Christians would never fight or quarrel, would they? We're experts at it! Even over doctrine! James again, James 4 verse 1: 'Where do wars and fights come among you? Do they not come from your desires that pleasure and war in your members? You lust and do not have, you murder and covet, and cannot obtain. You fight and war, yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you spend it on your pleasures' - your lust, again selfishness. The flesh is what causes this quarrelling among us.
In Galatians 5:15, Paul had to warn them: 'You're biting and devouring one another, and you're going to actually consume each other'. This is ironic because the Galatian controversy, the problem in the church of Galatia was that these Judaizers came in who were saying: 'Look, it's good that you're Christians and all, and you believe and have faith in the grace of Jesus, that He died for your sins - but that's not enough! You have to become pseudo-Jews. You have to get circumcised, follow the cleanliness laws, rituals of Judaism'. So it's Christ plus your good works, classic legalism. Paul has to come in and teach them: 'Look, what legalism does - that is, empty religious ritual - is, it actually multiplies the influence of the flesh'. It amplifies it to the point that he starts to list for them the works of the flesh - and it's not all fornication and drunkenness - it is that, but there is the 'good' side of the flesh, the religious side of the flesh; and out of that can come things like idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, Galatians 5:20.
Isaiah says don't bother fasting if you're fighting and quarrelling, 'This type of fasting will never get you anywhere with Me', God is saying. So if you've fallen out with somebody, and you're fighting with somebody - two of you here could be fighting with each other: you need to sort it out. I don't know anything that's going on here, but I know churches and I know people; and I also know that many revivals took place when believers - even in gatherings like this - one believer got up and apologized to another and embraced them - that's the thing in revival. Oh, but we can sing, and we can break bread, and we can fast and prophesy - but we can't apologize.
So, to continue: God's chosen fast, verse 6, brings justice. Verse 6, God's chosen fast: 'No, the kind of fasting I want' - fasting My way - '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 poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help'. Traditionally, Christians have been at the forefront of campaigns against injustice. You go right back to William Wilberforce and the slave trade and so on, and it's the same today - the pro-life movement, what Elizabeth's doing with Iris, and various other organizations around the world - but are we still known for that here? What about here? Are we people who are getting rid of injustice, or - wait for it - are we actually perpetrators of the injustice? I'm thinking specifically of the issue of sectarianism and religious bigotry - just in case you didn't know what I'm getting at.
We are meant to be the reconcilers - us - because we've got the answer. God's chosen fast brings justice. It stops oppression in the workplace, treating people fairly giving them what they earn. Have we treated people fairly over the years? Has the church treated people fairly over the years? Also look, it brings compassion: share your food with the hungry. Isn't it interesting that we are a more affluent society than there has been for many, many generations; and yet food banks are springing up all over the place. I know you can say: 'Oh, these people need to get rid of their Sky TV, and stop their smoking and stop their drinking'. God does not ask us to judge people, He asks us to have compassion on people.
Welcome the lonely and the lost into our home. Do you know that loneliness is at epidemic proportions in our society? Tracey Crouch was announced as the new Minister for Loneliness on January 17th 2018. Two years ago, a minister for loneliness was appointed in the United Kingdom Government. Who would ever thought that was going to happen? But loneliness is at epidemic proportions - and do you know what I'm going to say? Hospitality is almost extinct in the church. It's interesting that, isn't it? Everybody wants to be the big prophet at the front - maybe they don't - or an evangelist, or someone with powers and stuff. What about inviting somebody round for Sunday lunch? That's one of the things that's most needed, you know. I'm not making a pitch here for myself, I am going home, and I was offered lunch, and I'm not fasting yet. But do you understand what I'm saying? This is one of the greatest needs: people feel lonely in the church, really lonely.
So the type of fast God likes, is when we bring justice and we show compassion; when we clothe those who are in need - and verse 7, God's chosen fast brings healing, brings healing. Do you need healing? I know there's healing in the mind, healing in the body, healing of the soul. We could go into all that, but this, specifically I think, is talking about healing of relationships. If you look at verse 7, it says at the very end: 'Do not hide from relatives who need your help'. Wow! I don't like that one! It's easy being compassionate towards strangers, isn't it? What about the pain in the neck in your family? What about that person that does your head in, that you just grate with on a constant basis? How are things in your family? How are things in your family? Now, don't misunderstand me, all of us have got stuff in our families, all of us have got problems. I'm not saying that, you know, we should be living in some kind of utopia, or romantic vision where there's never any issues. But what I am saying is: we ought not to be the issue. There will be issues, some of them are irreconcilable, but you're not meant to be the issue. If you are an issue, forget about fasting. Is there a family feud? Brother against brother? Can you do something about it? First John 4 verse 20 says: 'Whoever claims to love God, yet hates a brother or sister, is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen'. Do what you like with that scripture, that's what it says.
Now let me summarize this by saying, what the Lord is saying in Isaiah 58, what Jesus says in Matthew 6 and right throughout the New Testament, is: sort all this stuff out first, before you start all your fasting. The principle is: first things first. Did Jesus not say: 'When you bring your gift to the altar, and you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there - forget the spiritual exercise, and go and sort the other thing out first. Be reconciled with your brother and then come with your gift'. That's why, even on the way down in the car, there was a brother who I haven't heard from in a while. I thought I had offended him - it's very possible - I thought I had offended him, I wasn't conscious of doing anything. But I thought, 'I haven't heard from him in a while, and we used to keep more in touch and stuff like that', so I just rung him on the way down. Now I like to spend the time in the car praying, and I had this toss-up between: 'I really need to pray, I really need to pray, I need to pray up here'. But in that moment, if there was an issue, what's more important? Sorting the thing out, that's what's more important.
Here's the promise. Let me give you this quickly, verses 8 through 9, there's great promises associated with this. If you do these things - now, do you notice it says that in verse 8: 'If you do these things', it doesn't say 'if you fast'. This is fasting God's way, it is not fasting 'Is it Daniel fast? Is it a partial fast? Is it a water fast? Is it a juice fast?'. That's not the issue with God, the issue is: do you do these things, as well as fasting? If you do these things, salvation and deliverance will come quickly like the dawn. Who's looking salvation for loved ones? Who's looking deliverance and freedom in their life? It will come like the dawn. If you do these things, healing will come quickly. I think that's a word for someone here. You need to sort some of these things out. When you do - it's not for everybody, I'm saying this - but some people, when you put these things in place, your healing will come immediately, because that's what it's waiting on.
You will be led forward by God. Do you need guidance? If you're in the dark, you don't know what's happening - well, do what needs to be done and the Lord will show you, the Lord will protect your back. Your rear guard, He will cover your back and you'll get answers quickly and know His companionship and presence, verse 9 says. Isn't that marvellous? Quick answers to prayer and His presence.
Look at verses 9 and 10 quickly. He just reiterates it in case we didn't get it: 'Your descendants will be known and honoured among the nations. If you do these things, your light will come out of darkness'. What darkness are you in right now? Your light will overcome the darkness. Isn't that what it says, when Jesus came into the world, the light overcame the darkness, and the darkness could not comprehend. The darkness got a wobble in the head, it didn't know what was going on when Jesus came into the world. That's what will happen you! Psalm 139 says: 'Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me' - even the darkness will not be dark to you. The night will shine like the light, for darkness is as light to you. Do you see the darkness you're in - Elizabeth, the darkness you're in in Cambodia - God will make it light. He can do that for you in your situation. Whatever darkness you're in, you will be guided continually - look at verse 11. 'The Lord will guide you continually, watering your life when you are dry and keeping you healthy too. You'll be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring'. Do you know what that is? You'll never grow dry, and you'll never burn out - and that's somebody speaking who has burnt out and gone dry. But if you do these things...
My time is up, I could say more - but what's the response here today? It's this: before you enter this week of fasting, or if you already have begun to fast, your first and foremost duty before God is heart repentance. Heart repentance. If you want your fast to be more than an empty, pointless, religious ritual, put first things first. Do these things. Don't go away saying: 'Oh, that was challenging. Wasn't that interesting?' - maybe you'll not even say that - but go away and do nothing. Please don't do that. Will you agree with me now to do something with what you've heard today, to do something more than fasting?
Let's pray. Let's just bow our heads, close our eyes, just to respect people's space with God in this moment. Where you're at right now, has God spoken to you this morning, specifically about something that you need to sort out? I'm not asking if you're fasting, or if you're not fasting - because really, the bottom line is: it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you do these things. Is there anybody, and you realize there's something, as the old liturgy puts it, undone that you need to do, or there's something done that you ought not to have done, and you need to repent, and you need to confess, and you need to deal with something? That may not just mean some kind of spiritual transaction between you and God in the quietness of your heart, but it actually might mean you sorting a situation out and facing a person and eyeballing them, apologising, paying debts, doing right by your workers or the taxman, or whatever. Just while your head is bowed, would you be willing to actually acknowledge that by raising your hand where you are? Just to say: 'I'm going to do something'. God bless you. God bless you. You don't have to keep it up in the air. God bless you. You're just saying: 'I'm going to do something'. God bless you. Praise God. Praise God. Praise God. Thank you, Jesus. That's wonderful.
Now, you've got to do something. You've said, in the presence of God, that you're going to do something about it - you've got to do something about it. But you're taking it seriously, and I'll be straight with you - I don't think I'm 100% out-and-out for the Lord the way I could be and should be. I just acknowledge that, and I have struggles, and I have temptations, and I've all those types of things that everybody has - but I want to be, I want to be, the Lord knows that I want to be. So I just confess to Him this morning: 'Lord, I'm sorry for my double-mindedness and my duplicitous, hypocritical heart'. I can stand up here - I think - and half preach; but I know what I struggle with, and I know how hypocritical I can be, and I know when I walk past people who have needs, and my heart does not break for what breaks Father's heart. So I'm just being straight with you, I'm not standing up here saying I've all this sorted - I have not.
So Lord, would You please have mercy? We just want to say, Lord, we know that You're not up there with a big stick. We know that You're a good, good Father. We know all that, but we feel the weight of conviction upon us when we read these words about how we can be so self-deceived and intoxicated by our songs, and our prayers, and our programs, and even our intensity when we when we get to that point where we can fast. Wow! How great are we? Super-Christians - and yet we can be in the midst of that and be the biggest hypocrites going! Lord, forgive me. Forgive me for the times I fast to lose a bit of weight; forgive me for the times I fast to secretly pat myself on the back, and notch up a score. Lord, deliver us from all religion, empty religion and dead legalism, and give us Your Spirit-life, give us Your heart. Take out these double, divided hearts and give us that heart of flesh that beats in Your bosom, Lord Jesus; that heart that was rent for us, that bled for us, that rose again for us. Holy Spirit give us Jesus' heart of obedience that says 'Yes' with a jump of joy and exuberance and fullness. We give You thanks that we can do this through Christ. In this week, I bless these dear folk in their spiritual exercise, those who will fast, Lord, that they may fast Your way, and be done once and for all with the flesh. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at Connect Christian Fellowship in Ballymoney, N. Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording titled "Fasting God's Way" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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