Focus on Christ’s Unselfish Sacrifice

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  Matthew 6:17-18

Thoughts of fasting and Christmas don’t seem to go together. From the world’s perspective, the thought of fasting during the holiday season almost seems sacrilegious. However, the purple paraments that adorn the pulpits and altars of many Lutheran churches during both Advent and Lent were originally meant to teach the penitential nature of both seasons. Whether it is Advent, Lent or any other time of year, when teaching youth what it means to be servants, we do well to FOCUS: Focus On Christ’s Unselfish Sacrifice. Christ’s unselfish sacrifice included a great deal of fasting, so perhaps fasting is not such a strange topic for Christmas after all.

In John Grisham’s comical novella Skipping Christmas, characters Luther and Nora Krank decide to fast for the Christmas season. However, the Kranks’ reason for fasting during Christmas was a selfish one. The Kranks figured they could save over $6,000 by foregoing the Christmas frenzy and reward themselves with a Caribbean cruise on Christmas Day. They tried not to be obvious about it, but soon found that clandestine fasting was impossible. Once the other characters in the book found out that the Kranks were not sending cards, buying a tree, decorating their roof, giving gifts and attending or hosting any parties, their decision to fast quickly became everybody’s business. This sort of fasting is not easily hidden.

But the Kranks’ reason for fasting is clearly not the kind of fasting Jesus referred to in His Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus was talking about the Old Testament rituals of abstaining from food and drink during certain festivals like the Jewish New Year, or for grieving personal or national tragedies, and He was speaking about an act of giving something up for God. He warned against trying to draw attention by religious acts; fasting is not to be an outward display of piety. Furthermore, even though Jesus speaks about a reward in heaven from the Father, what we receive is not the reason we give or fast.

From the cradle to the grave, Jesus lived a life of fasting and service. He gave up all the riches of heaven when He became human in Mary’s womb.  Once born, He suffered hardships while serving others throughout His life and ministry.  Finally, He suffered unbearable torture and died on a cross, unselfishly and sacrificially, for the sake of our salvation.  We are called to follow His stead, taking up our crosses and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, giving unselfishly and sacrificially for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Whether we are giving to someone or giving up something, our purpose should not be to focus other people’s attention on ourselves. It should be to focus our attention on God. This is a point that is lost on many Christians, including Lutherans, who are not known for fasting in the first place. Our acts of Christian service should serve in the same manner as fasting, focusing our hearts on God’s love, not drawing the world’s attention to our grand deed.

Serving is a form of fasting. When we give of our time and effort unselfishly and sacrificially for the sake of the Good News of God’s love for us in Christ, we are participating in a sort of fast. When the world preaches “indulge,” perhaps it would be good for us to focus our hearts through sacrificial fasting on something real: Christ Jesus, and the fact that He is coming back to take His children home.