Five Novel Ways To Preach the Great Fast of Lent

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"'If the body goes without food and drink for even one day, immediately weeps and let's [sic] out a roar, and there is a great rush to bring it help. But the soul fasts for whole weeks from its food, or languishes under wounds received, or even lies dead, and no one takes care of it or shows it pity. Therefore, visit your soul more and more often.'"*

—Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621)

We fast in order to feel uncomfortable. We fast in order to miss things that matter to us.

In fact, fasting is such an important spiritual discipline that every major religion has a season of fasting as well as rituals to promote abstinence.

In Christianity, fasting traces its roots to the forty days and nights when Jesus fasted in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. Just as we are tempted to break our fast, Jesus was, too. 

Often, when we feel the discomfort of craving or longing, that feeling often comes out "sideways."

  • We snap at a loved one.
  • We spend valuable time thinking about the object of our desire instead of the task at hand.
  • We complain about the Church that "imposes" disciplines.
  • We grumble that we can't be happy or content until our time of fasting is over
  • And if the discomfort gets too intense, we might even quit early.

Our reactions to fasting reflect what is in our souls: that other things are more important to us than God.

Fasting helps us discover what we believe we can't live without...all of which we can live without because God alone is the source of our life and breath, our contentment and joy.

In the truth of the resurrection, we can even live without our very lives.

Types of Fasting for Lent

Abstaining from food is the most common form of fasting and I commend it.

In addition, however, based on the first five Sundays of Lent I want to offer other forms of fasting for our personal disciplines and sermon messages.

Fast from Privilege

Jesus—the Son of God, God Incarnate—yielded to John to be baptized (Mark 1:9-15).

On the First Sunday of Lent, Jesus—the Maker of all that is seen and unseen, known and unknown, the Crafter of the cells that generate our bodies and every living thing—submitted himself in obedience to God to water and ritual and another's guiding hands.

The opening act of Lent is to see Jesus forgo his privilege.

What might happen if we did the same?

What might happen if we imagined our unearned advantages being washed away in the waters of baptism?

I heard the Rev'd Sarah Hollar preach a sermon in which she described a lecture where the all-white audience was asked, "Please stand up if you would like to trade places with a black person in this country." After a very long pause, the audience remained seated.

The question could be asked about many.

Stand up if you would like to trade places with:

  • a Latina in this country who doesn't speak English
  • a child in a school where the teachers spend more time on discipline than education
  • a person whose only access to groceries is a convenience store
  • a citizen whose name is Muhammad

While we can't "give up" privilege as easily as we can give up chocolate, we can imagine trading places—and thus build empathy for those who don't share in the same privileges.

When we do, we begin to appreciate what we might have to learn to live without if our circumstances were different: respect, dignity, and choices.

We begin to appreciate what we enjoy as a "given," and what we earned as a result of childhood circumstances that were also "givens," like decent educations and good nutrition.

Jesus gave up infinite privileges to be one of us.

He gave up the respect of those in authority and the masses when he carried a cross on his back. He gave up his dignity when he was mocked on his way to the cross. He gave up his choices to call down legions of angels to save him.

Jesus fasted from privilege to be with us.

Fast from Being Right

Peter took Jesus aside "and began to rebuke him" (Mark 8:31-38).

That didn't go over well with Jesus.

I would like to think Peter rebuked Jesus with the good intention of having a better idea, but I think it's more likely Peter acted out of fear: Peter was afraid of the implications for himself if Jesus went through with his plan.

So often we insist we are right, believing we're well-intentioned, when really we're reacting to our fear.

Fear holds us in thrall. As a result, we do our best to manage, minimize, or scramble for damage control.

There's something we're afraid to lose.

Let our insistence that we're right serve as a clue.

What is our soul insisting we need instead of relying only on God? What are we afraid we might learn?

Fast from Words

"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"  (I Cor. 1:18-25).


Be quiet.

Refrain from speech.

We are not as wise as we think we are. There is much wisdom to be found when we listen with open minds and hearts.

What if our nemesis is right?

Listen and fast from offering unnecessary words. Refrain from saying harsh words, righteous words, names, assumptions, and ugly words.

If words do not build one another up or build the body of Christ, then fast from those words. Do not say them, write them, or indicate them with actions.

Listen to one's soul in silence. For what does it truly long?

What does each longing to spew our words suggest? What do we need from God and people? How might we ask for it?

Fast from Complaining

"The people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?'" (Numbers 21:4-9).

How is complaining helpful? How does it solve the problems at hand? Where does one's own responsibility lie?

Complaining avoids truth.

What would happen if we stopped complaining? Perhaps we would have more energy for a response that's constructive, productive.

I don't mean to suggest we shouldn't bring attention to mistakes made. But whining? bitterness? Scapegoating? They only harm, never help.

Instead of complaining, let's dig into the root of a problem and pour our effort into trying to fix it. 

If that is not possible, then at the very least, we can fast from speaking words that defile.

We can ask God's repentance and healing for what we hold in our hearts, and pray for those who are doing their best to fix our problems.

Fast from Comfort

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour" (John 12:12-16).

Jesus faces a grim conclusion to the time he spent in a world he once called "very good."

He never lived a life of ease or luxury, but a peaceful death from old age surrounded by his disciples and loved ones would seem a more fitting end for a man who gave so much to the world.

A comfortable life and death was not Jesus' path.

Jesus shunned most comforts during his life, and his death was no different. He refused to be rescued from pain and humiliation by angels.

What might Jesus' example call us to consider?

What comforts do we feel we can't live without?

  • How about the comforts of the body? Like a full belly and slated tongue?
  • Or soft clothes and shoes that fit?
  • What about the comforts of feeling good in a well-appointed car and working on computers with all the latest gadgets?

That's the body.

What about the comforts of the mind?

  • Many of us demand constant entertainment. Boredom, even briefly, is anathema.
  • Many of us can't sit through a stop light anymore without checking for a new message or notification on our phones.
  • And what about the comforts of getting one's way with traffic or the weather?

When we lack the comforts we take for granted and perhaps even think we deserve, we discover we depend on them more than we depend on God.

That's never a pleasant discovery, and yet, how necessary to find something better: forgiveness, metanoia, and freedom in Christ!

Prayer and Preaching on "The Great Fast"

1) Take on each of these fasts for your own spiritual practice during Lent. Keep a journal. Talk through your experience with a friend or spiritual director. Tend your soul and discover how you have starved it from the sustenance it truly needs.

2) Use these suggestions to preach each Sunday of Lent prior to Palm Sunday.

Although I don't suggest using the same template every Sunday, here's one possible format for a sermon.

  • Tell a story to show the results of practicing privilege, complaining, etc. (In other words, describe the beautiful idol we like to carry.)
  • Take listeners on a journey to show how that practice developed and to illuminate what it "does" for us (Where did the idol come from? Why do we like it so much?)
  • Show us why we don't want to fast (Why don't we want to give up the idol?)
  • Tell a new story to show the results of fasting (What's better when we give up the idol and choose God instead?)
  • Teach a practice of fasting

What will be your practice this Lent?

*Mogabgab, J. (2004, Sept/Oct). "Editor's Introduction." Weavings, xix, (5), p. 2.

With Lent upon us, Holy Week and Easter are right around the corner. 


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