Monthly Archives: November 2015

Fasting

There are many references to fasting in scripture including in the New Testament to suggest that this isn’t something that is obsolete or passé.  The first of them is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:16 where Jesus says, “When you fast…”, and I’d like to point out that he didn’t say “If you fast…”, “do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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.” Acts 2:2,3 also mentions prayer and fasting.

Fasting has a long and honorable tradition behind it.  The Israelites did it. And it is not limited, as we shall see, to God’s people, but they fasted in connection to their faith, and Jesus did it as we all know.  Throughout the history of the church there have been days of fasting.  The pilgrims had more than one.  We like to remember their day of Thanksgiving.  “Oh, great, it’s a wonderful tradition.  We ought to perpetuate that.”  And we do, but we sort of soft-pedal and neglect, ignore the fact that periodically they had days of fasting.  Our forebears did in the Netherlands, and our church, when we fast, is not doing something novel by saying “we ought to have a day of fasting.”  Abraham Kuyper pleads for it in his writings and John Calvin practiced it as well as taught it.  In times when there was unrest on campuses and race riots, one of the churches in our denomination proposed that we have a day of fasting with regards to that.  I mention that on the score that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with hunger.  It can be done not only for physical need but also for spiritual need, or political injustices, freedom, personal rights, tyranny, etc.  It’s all connected.  So this isn’t just the matter of “well, we’ll go without food and then we’ll think more about those hungry people,” and that it is a crash program in which we give some sort of relief.  No, it isn’t a charity thing at all as indicated by the fact that a number of years ago, in connection with a world situation that didn’t involve hunger particularly, we had a fast.  Now you may say, “I don’t remember that very well,” and the fact is that it was so poorly observed, which is a shame.  It is not intended to be a “one shot” deal.  A flash in the pan.  We are so given to that as Americans.  This is supposed to be, not fasting necessarily, a whole soul searching program of planning and thinking and reflection on how we can change political structures and economic distribution, etc.

So, what are the purposes or reasons for fasting?  Well, the first one is as an expression of sorrow.  Fasting can be both voluntary and involuntary.  Deliberate and in-deliberate.  When a person is sick, he fasts.  He has a physical infliction and he fasts.  He has no appetite and that may be natures way of healing that particular case.  Paul in II Cor. 12 talks about all the troubles he underwent.  He mentions both kinds of fasting.  Sometimes he just didn’t have food, he had to go without.  Other times he deliberately fasted.  But it was always associated with sorrow.  All of us have had bereavement.  You go without food naturally.  In those days with the tiredness of a funeral…and that accounts, by the way, for the fact of a feast after a funeral.  Not only because people may have come from a long distance away and you don’t want to send them away hungry any more than Jesus did with the 5000 after their long trip, but most of those people have been going without food in normal quantities.  David is a classic example with the death of his baby, the child of Bathsheba.  Just could not eat while the child’s life was at stake.  And when the child died he said to set out food, let’s eat.  Well, when food is available and you feel like eating but you deliberately don’t, it’s to show sorrow and contrition in the same fashion that sorrow and contrition motivate fasting. There are numerous instances of that.  Nineveh is a case in point.  They had plenty to eat, they were hungry enough and had plenty of appetite and here comes Jonah and says that they were going to be destroyed in 40 days, and they had 3 days of fasting.  The king and servants didn’t eat, animals weren’t fed, all because of contrition and sorrow.  There is something rotten in Denmark, there’s something wrong with the world.  We all know that.  We wring our hands, we’re supposed to lament the thing and now we are supposed to show our concern about it by fasting.  Inequities that have to do with food are only incidental.  The big idea of fasting when it comes to world hunger is not that we do without so that we have more to share.  It’s to show sorrow that we haven’t shared sooner and more, and it’s regret that we are part of this global or corporate sin.

The second reason for fasting is in order to think.  Now I know that you have to eat to think, if you don’t eat at all you’ll stop thinking.  But it is in order to give yourself to intense reflection.  Not just about one’s faults, now, in the sense of “Oh, what have I done wrong,” but in the sense of trying to arrive at God’s solutions.  And here two factors are involved in connection with fasting in order to think and the first is the matter of time.  Few of us realize how much time is spent in this matter of food.  Not just the consumption of it, but the preparation and the planning and the purchase and procurement of it.  If we had a stop watch and timed it, we would be amazed at just how much time goes into this business of food.  And the less we eat the less time goes into that.  We have all done something when we are so fixated on whatever it is that we are doing that we forget to eat.  Thomas Edison was known to go all day without eating because he was so intrigued by his experiments.  Well that should characterize us, that we are so concerned with other things that we don’t take time to eat.  The second factor is that fasting is conducive to clear thinking.  Most of us could think a lot better if we didn’t eat so much.  You don’t exercise vigorously after a full meal.  That would be bad, and we shouldn’t think that we should think clearly either, on any level, if we overeat.  Studies have been done with students on fasting vs. overeating and how it can affect grades.

A third reason is for self-discipline.  Self-preservation is the first law of life and a man will do anything to keep himself alive.  And that is why it is so hard to fast, even in a mild form.  We feel our life is threatened.  It’s unpleasant.  We enjoy eating.  This ties in with all self-gratification.  If you give a child a bottle which he doesn’t need if he is crying for a different reason than hunger, he learns that you eat to take care of any kind of need, it is self-gratification.  That is especially true of us as Americans, we are self-indulgent.  We say “no” to very little.  We want instant answers to our “wants”.  And it all starts here, that we can’t say “no” to our drive of self-preservation.  The Bible speaks of “lust” and we instantly conjure sex in connection with lust.  Lust means simply the desire for instant gratification, that you can’t defer it at all.  In the case of sex, it means wanting now what you can’t wait for, for marriage and so on.  But it can apply to an automobile that you don’t need and go into debt for. That’s lust, and that characterizes us.  The ability to say “no” to an extra hamburger is good training in the matter of self-control and pre-marital sex.  It is more than coincidence that Jesus fasted for 40 days before or while it was going on with regards to his temptations.  He was practicing saying “no”.  Saying “no” to the devil no matter what he came along with, because he had first said “no” to himself.  And it is more than coincidence that the first temptation had to do with food.  Satan wanted him to turn the stones into bread and he said “no” because he had been saying “no” for 40 days.

The corollary of all this is to learn the art of implicit obedience.  Eating isn’t bad, it is one of God’s best gifts.  He has given us freely all things to enjoy, it is something good and necessary.  But that is why the first temptation in the Garden of Eden was couched in the form of eating.  God didn’t say, “Now, Adam, I don’t want you to go around cursing in the garden”, or “I don’t want you to get drunk,” but he says, “Leave that tree alone.  Show that you are my child by saying ‘no’ to something that is intrinsically good.”  Here is the practical reason to why there is so little fasting.  It’s one thing to say “no” to alcoholic beverages or drugs, you feel so virtuous, but to say “no” to something that gives you satisfaction, pleasure and even strength is something else.  So we say, “What for? What is the sense of all this?”, like we have to have reasons when God say’s “Do it, and then you’ll find out.”  George Bernard Shaw, the Irish critic and playwright said, “Christianity has been tried and found wanting.”  That was his dictum way back in the British Isles a generation or two ago.  His contemporary, G.K. Chesterton said that it “has been tried and found difficult”.  That’s the trouble, and I’m not sure we have even tried it.  Like many things we criticize it and refuse it without even trying it.  Like many other aspects of the Christian life like prayer and tithing, we have to do it in order to understand its blessing.

Fasting is also to empathize with others.  Sympathy and empathy are two different things.  We sympathize with people that are starving.  We are moved by pictures of kids with their ribs sticking out and we sympathize with them, but we don’t empathize with them.  Of course you don’t, until you fast and then your stomach begins to growl and then you have just a little taste – if you’ll pardon the bad pun – of what these people go through.  Then you begin to empathize.  During the few years we were in Africa we saw first hand some of these people as they came to our door, and it just breaks you heart.  To think that you never miss a meal and they have to go weeks sometimes between two harvests.  Before the other comes in they have run out of the last.  Then this thing of half the world goes to bed hungry every night, then it becomes very real, and all we did was see it.  We weren’t doing much fasting then, I must confess, to my chagrin.  But we saw it first hand and that is what you experience when you fast.  What is it…a thousand people die every hour of every day of every week or every month of every year…from hunger.

Finally, fasting is to learn gratitude.  Today is Thanksgiving.  Now ideally a big feast should instill thankfulness.  We look over that big table laden with food and say “All this and heaven too,” in the fashion of Matthew Henry.  But there is precious little thankfulness on such an occasion as that.  We have our appreciation dinners, our testimonial banquets and we  all feel very grateful, presumably, that’s how we show gratitude toward one another.  But does it?  You know the answer to that.  What thankfulness is there for the vast majority of Americans on Thanksgiving Day when they gorge themselves and stumble to the “boob-tube” to watch football all afternoon, what gratitude is there in that?  It’s when we go hungry that we learn a little appreciation, don’t we?  Just experience a few hunger pains and it drives you to your knees in appreciation.  That’s the irony of life.

So Great A Salvation (Part III/conclusion)

Heaven is here and now!  I have a friend who has since gone to glory who used to teach across the hallway from me in the school where I was a volunteer librarian.  This dear soul had a very optimistic if not conventional or orthodox outlook on life, and she said, “If death were the end… Christianity, our salvation, our faith,  would still be worth it.”  Instead of this lugubrious, doleful “It will be worth it all when we get there.  Someday we’ll understand.”  Escapism if ever I heard it.  We are already in heaven.  Francis Schaffer says that we are in the same situation as members of Jesus’ body as Christ himself who ate with his disciples in that 40 day period after Easter.  Not because he had to.  He was above all that as we will be in glory, but because he chose to, to show that he was real.  It was the same Lord Jesus.  But it is just as we have gone to heaven and now for the sake of God’s purposes and other people, to show them and help them and pray for them and so on, we are back for “40 days”, more or less.   Ephesians 2 tells us “that when Christ arose, we arose and when he ascended, we ascended.”  And that is why our Ascension Day services are so poorly attended because we think that that is something that happened way back there which we have very little to do, and forget that it is our glory day, our coronation day!  It should be the climax of the Christian calendar!

Well, if that is true, then this also is true and that is that we don’t have to die.  That is a subject all in itself.  But we are in the same class as Enoch.  My father, who became 97 before he went to glory used to talk to his great-grandchildren who were asking him about death because he wouldn’t hesitate to talk about it himself, and he would say, “It’s just like my going for a walk and I get so far away from home that God says, ‘You just stay with me now.  Don’t go back.'”  And friends, it works.  I’m not talking theory.  At least 4 or 5 times in our married life, either I, my wife or a son has stared death in the face, and there was such a serenity about it.  We could talk about it together when it was just inches away.  We can say with Paul, “Death, where is your sting.”

And that means if we have already died, we don’t have to worry about the judgement.  I used to get nightmares as a child particularly after school began, even in college where you are just hoping that the professor wouldn’t say, “Mr. Veenstra”, asking to address some difficult problem.  And similarly I had visions of the Judgement Day where the recording angel, getting down to the “V’s” would say, “Rolf Veenstra,” and then all my life would go before me like an open book or a movie.  Well there is a big difference between “facing one’s maker” and looking our savior in the face.  The Bible says categorically that we will not be judged…we have been judged.  That’s past, along with our death.  You often read in the newspaper that a person received a million dollar judgement.  Does he go home crying, “I’ve been judged.  You should have heard what the judge said?”  No, he skips all the way home.  He received a million dollar judgement!  That’s what the judgement is for us!  Honor’s Day, recognition assembly.  An award gathering.  “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You get 10 talents and you get five”, and so on.  Just handing out the prizes.  That’s judgement.

And best of all, we have right here and now the ability and power not to sin.  I know I did not always preach that.  I think for most my life I preached to the contrary, “You just have to sin, you can’t keep sinning.  Before you get out of bed you sin, in thought, word and deed.”  Oh I had such cliches.  “The good that I would, I do not.  And the evil that I would not, that I do.”  But that is not talking about us as Christians.  You know what reformed theologians in various seminaries say about that passage in Romans 7?  This, “I just can’t help sinning?”  That is a cop-out, they say.  It is just a lame excuse, an alibi.  “Well God, you know about total depravity, it is built into my genes.”  But God says, “You don’t have to.”  Let me quote just a few verses.  The Bible says that “we are more than conquerers.”  “He always leads us in triumph.”  “He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world.” “I write to you young men because you have overcome the evil one.”  That’s what total forgiveness is all about.  We don’t believe that you can fall away and be restored.  We believe in the persevering saints.  So let’s practice it and cling to it, and treasure it.  There is a writer by the name of Gilchrist who used to have a problem, and he would say, “How can God forgive me when he knows I’m going to do it again?”  As chances are, none of us are perfect in practice, I’m not saying that. And one time when he did fall into a particular temptation he said, “I did it again.”  And in his book, “Love is Now”,  he said it was just as a voice from heaven said, “Did what again.”  You have heard it before when the Bible says that “your sins I’ll remember no more.”  Never.

Well, it is not easy.  It’s the way with a lot of preaching.  It’s like the little girl who took her younger brother to church one Sunday and he said, “Is it done now? Is it done?” And she said, “No.  We got to go out and do it.  We got to make it run.”

“If all were easy, if all were bright, where would the cross be, where would the fight?  But in the hard places God gives to you chances to prove what He can do.”

So Great A Salvation (Part II)

Well, the result of all this (see previous post) is that God himself declares that we are perfect.  Not like a judge who says, “Well, Jim Jones, I know you are guilty but I am going to give you another chance.  I’m going to put you on probation or declare your sentence suspended,” and all that sort of thing.  Or you have heard this illustration where a judge comes down off the bench and takes off his robe and takes the place of the prisoner.  Preposterous if ever I heard it.  God doesn’t regard us as if we are perfect, He says, “You are perfect!”

A minister’s wife, a younger woman with a busy family, said to me she was contemplating suicide.  And I said to her, “Dear girl, you’re much too late.  That was done long ago.”  And she said, “What do you mean?”  And I said, “I mean simply that you died with Christ.  That old suicide prone nature of yours died with Christ.  You are a new girl.  You’re the daughter of a King!  You should act like it and live like it.”  One of the oldest ministers at one time in the Christian Reformed Church was Leonard Verduin who had been reminding us for years that the song “Rock of Ages” says “…let the water and the blood from thy wounded side which flows, be of sin the double cure, cleanse from sin and make me pure.”

That leads us to the second proposition and that is that baptism is more than washing.  What does Romans 6 say and what do all our formularies say, like baptism and communion and so on?  That our old nature was buried and is dead and gone.  It says 150 times in the New Testament that we are in Christ and that Christ is in us.  And it ransacks nature for analogies and illustrations and parables of this thing.  Jesus says on the last night of his life, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  A common sap flows through us, a common life.”  Paul, as I said before, uses the illustration of a husband and wife.  “I’m talking about a great mystery,” he says, “of how this can be true, but it is.”  Peter talks about bricks in one house.  And Paul speaks in I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 about our being members of just one body, Christ and we, He is the head and we are the body.  And the very formulary says, “You have been baptized into God.”  What a grafting.

Now that that is clear to us comes the problem, what about sin?  If I’m so perfect, why do I still keep on sinning?  Is Jesus party to all that?  Do I sin or does satan make me do it?  Well, there are lots of illustrations.  Cory Ten Boom uses the illustration of the bell towers in the Netherlands where the trusted players can let the rope go and the bells will keep on ringing.    But I like the illustration, more contemporary, of an automobile where the motor “dies”.  We say, “He killed the motor.”  But the car could coast for miles if going down a long enough hill.  Or here is a medical illustration:  The Bible talks about the motions of the flesh.  I had to have a physical exam one time and I sat up on the table and the doctor took out a little hammer and he started to hit me, he hit me on the knee.  But I got even with him.  I gave him a swift kick.  And he said, “Oh, you are in good condition.”  Now I hadn’t meant to kick the man, that was just a reflex.  So I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that”  “That’s all right,” he said. “I understand completely.  That wasn’t you.”  And so there are these old motions of the flesh, these old floppy discs in our computers that are programmed wrong, and every now and then the old man that I’ve said more than once is dead and buried pushes up the ground and his hoary, cadaverous head, his skeleton looks out at me and says, “This is the way you used to be.”

I used to hate like mischief the occasions when the old me would crawl out of the grave.  If I had had a mountain top experience I was almost reluctant to live the next couple of days because I knew there would be this insane boy at the bottom of the mountain to face me, who was myself as a boy.  But I thank God, just recently I have begun to thank God, who periodically says, “Look at these old pictures in this family album.  See what you once were, what you would be today without me.”  It makes me think of Peter walking on the water.  The Bible says he looked down at the waves and got scared.  Prior to that I think he was looking over his shoulder at his fellow fishers and saying, “How am I doing?  Get a load of this! Me, walking on the water!”  And Jesus let him go down, down, down.  And he would have gurgled to his death except that he had to come to realization that he wasn’t walking on the water, but Christ was, in him.

So that is the answer to those places in the Bible where it says, “Put on the new man!”  What it is saying is, “You are a new man.  Act your age.  Be what you are.”  Hebrews 6 scolds us when it says “You act like children.  You are not children.  Don’t act like children.”  I was once trying to console an elderly widow about the Christian life who was desperately lonely and she said, “It’s hard.”  And I said, “My dear sister, it’s impossible.”  Jesus himself in John 15 when he was talking about being the vine and we the branches, said, “Without me you can do nothing.”  Nothing.  “In Him we live and move and have our being,” says Paul in Ephesians.  And in Philippians says Paul in chapter 4:13, “I can do everything through Him who is constantly infusing me with his power.”

So Great A Salvation (Part I)

There’s a danger in studying small bits of scripture the way we do from week to week in that we fail to see the forest on account of the trees. So I thought it well that our theme should kind of summarize it all, look at the whole of it, under the theme of our Great Salvation, which is a quote from Hebrews 2:3, which says that “How shall we escape if we neglect a so great salvation?”  And I thought for years that if we don’t repent and become Christians, we would go to hell.  But Hebrews is talking about static Christians, carnal Christians, who don’t press on.  A bicycle or an airplane have to move forward or they are going to fall.  And so Paul says, “How will we escape the inevitable consequences of not moving ahead?”  Of just being comfortable in the status quo.  How should we escape if we neglect all the dimensions and the great proportions and the stupendous beauty of our salvation.  In other words, God is not happy when we are scarcely saved, when we scrape in to heaven so to speak, by the skin of our teeth.  Jesus says, “I want your joy to be full!”  And he says, “I came to give you life, and that you may have it more abundantly….full life.”  That’s the way it ought to be.  And the Bible says in I Peter 4:18 that “the righteous are scarcely saved.”  Isn’t that a damning inditement?

Now, how do you square that with the fact that the Bible also says that everybody is fully saved?  Even little babies, who we trust possess the Holy Spirit.  We all possess the Holy Spirit.  This isn’t an elite group, the disciples and apostles, who happened to be Spirit filled.  We are all Spirit filled.  But like air in balloons, some are little tiny balloons and some are larger, but we are all supposed to be filled with the Spirit.   Charismatic, pentecostal.  This isn’t new, it is in our creeds and catechisms, where it says when Jesus was buried, we were buried with him too, so that our old nature is dead and gone.  But the problem is that we don’t enjoy it.  It may all be theoretically true, you may say, “He was right, it was all in the Bible and in our creeds,” but it hasn’t dropped from our heads to our hearts.

So, a few thoughts, and the first is that salvation is far more than having our sins forgiven. (The other topics which will be further amplified or delineated is that baptism is far more than the washing away of our sins, and finally, that heaven is far more than “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by-when-we-die.”  Heaven is something here and now, we should be citizens of the kingdom of heaven already now.  We have risen with Christ, we’re reigning with Christ.  And we shouldn’t be “under our circumstances” but looking down on them.  We shouldn’t be all the time looking up but should be looking down and getting the view point that Christ has.)

You ask the average Christian, “What did Jesus do for you?”  And the answer is, “Oh, he died for my sins.”  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.  The thrilling fact, as Paul put it in Galations 2:20, “I was crucified with Christ.”  If I may digress, we all learned John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he  gave his own begotten son, that whosoever….”  Well I’m not “whosoever”.  I don’t know if that includes me or not.  I really don’t.  We can’t go on a verse like that that is so general.  But we can on the basis of Galations 2:20 which says, “When Christ died, I died, I was crucified with Christ.  Never the less, I live.  Yet not I live, but the life which I now live… in this earth suit…, I live by faith, the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Now that is personal, that is individual.

We pay a lot of attention to Jesus and his work on earth.  But Paul says in II Corinthians 5, “I don’t know Christ after the flesh anymore.  I don’t know anybody, I don’t even know myself after the flesh.  I’m a new person, and I look at other Christians as though for whom Christ died.”  If you forget everything else, you just say to yourself, “I was crucified with Christ.”  Don’t say “Christ died for me,” but “I died with him.”  Someone has said that liberal Christians stress imitation.  There are bumper stickers and bracelets that have WWJD on them.  And so we are to ask ourselves, “What would Christ do if he was in this situation?”  I just don’t know what Christ would do in my situation, I just don’t.  He didn’t live in this century.  Imitation is the gospel of the liberal.  And the “fundies” as we speak despairingly of them when we are fundamentalists ourselves, speak of a gospel of substitution: “Christ died for me, he took my place.”  Their atonement can be so commercial, something that we don’t practice on earth at all.  When Mr. A has been sentenced to die that Mr. B can take his place.  This is contrary to human justice…mere substitution.  But the whole gospel is unification, identification.  When Christ died, we died.  That’s justice.  And when he rose, we rose.  And that’s love, that’s grace.

Paul is discussing in Romans 5 this precious doctrine and he says, “How can I make this plain?  Oh, I know.  We all know that we have descended from Adam.  That’s agreed upon.”  Anybody who has studied genetics knows that you get your traits from your folks, even the way you walk, what you look like, it’s in the genes. Well, now, when we’re children it seems preposterous that we can leave our family, our home of which we are an integral part, a genetic part, and take up with a perfect stranger, and that he or she becomes closer to us than our dad or our mother, the woman who bore us.  But it is fact, it’s true. That’s the way it works, that’s how a new family begins. The two become one…psychologically, emotionally, etc.  And the Bible says that that is the way it is with salvation.  He is our husband and we are his wife.  We can repudiate Adam and Eve and say technically, legally, “We have nothing to do with you anymore.  By the grace of God we got our bodies from you but that is as far as it goes.”  II Corinthians 5:17 “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”  Just as Jesus was, a new creation.  “Old things are passed away,” done, gone and buried, “all things have become new.”  Do you know that if you look up the work “cross” is a concordance, the New Testament talks more about your and my crucifixion than that of Christ?  It does.  “If anyone would be my disciple let him take up his cross and follow me.”  That is what Jesus said.  And Paul said, “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, whereby I am crucified unto the world and the world is crucified unto me.”