And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. And she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. And at that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
We come to the end of January and the call to fast for one day a week this month. I hope we can make time soon to tell each other what God has done this month. Just listening to the staff recount the surprising works of God last Tuesday in our prayer meeting gives me strong encouragement to press on in some kind of corporate fasting—which I will tell you about in a few moments.
In this series of messages on biblical fasting we have seen from Acts 13:3 how God changed the course of history through the fasting of the leaders in Antioch.
We have seen from Matthew 9:15 that Jesus promised that when he had returned to his Father in heaven, then the church would fast.
We have seen from Matthew 4:4 that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God—that the nourishment of Jesus during his 40 day fast was the revelation of God through his Word. And that is what we want to feed on more and more.
And last week we saw from Ezra 8:21 that God rescues his people—including the little ones—through fasting.
"Thy Kingdom Come!"
Next week we are going to look at the Sermon on the Mount and notice that in Matthew 6 Jesus connects fasting with the prayer, and particularly the Lord's Prayer. The preeminent petitions of the Lord's Prayer are: Lord, let your name be hallowed, and, Lord, let your kingdom come. So Christian fasting is a fasting not just for immediate breakthroughs of faith and healing and righteousness, but also for the ultimate breakthrough—of the King's return in glory: "Thy kingdom come!" Or as the early church prayed it: "Maranatha!" = "Our Lord, come!"
This is exactly what we would expect in view of what we saw in Matthew 9:15. Recall that Jesus pictured himself as the bridegroom and said that his disciples don't fast because the bridegroom is present. But then he said, "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." So Jesus connects Christian fasting with our longing for the return of the bridegroom.
The church of Christ is called to put the earnestness of fasting behind prayer, "Thy kingdom come." "Bridegroom, come!" Fasting is a physical expression of heart hunger for the second coming of Jesus.
Fasting as the Counterpart to the Lord's Supper
I wonder if the Lord means for fasting to be a counterpart to the Lord's Supper. Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me." By eating we remember that Jesus has come and died for our sins. But by not eating—by fasting—we say: yes, but the bridegroom is not here. He was here, and he loved us to the uttermost. And we can eat and even celebrate with feasting because he has come. But this we also know: he is not here as he once was. And his absence is painful. The sin and misery of the world is painful. The people of Christ are weak and despised—like sheep in the midst of wolves (Matthew 10:16). We long for him to come again and take up his throne and reign in our midst and vindicate his people and his truth and his glory. So the feasting of the Lord's Supper expresses what has happened; and our fasting expresses what has not yet happened.
Jesus' Appointed Way for Us to Prepare for His Coming
In Luke 18:7–8 Jesus says,
Will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?
Have you seriously considered that Jesus has appointed a way for us to prepare for his own second coming? God will send the Son of Man and vindicate his elect who "cry to him day and night." Cry what? Cry, "Thy kingdom come!" "Come back, O precious bridegroom. Come reign as King. Come, vindicate your people. Come, marry your bride."
And since the life of the church and the evangelization of the nations is part of that preparation we cry out for that too. "Lord, revive your people. Lord, cause your Word to run and triumph." If you have eyes to see the way the world is, in contrast to the way it is supposed to be under the Lordship of Christ, you will feel plenty to fast for.
Anna: Fasting for the First Coming of the King
In calling for the church to fast for the coming King, we are not asking for something new. The morning's text shows us an old woman who gave almost her whole life to this sacred ministry before the King came the first time. Luke 2:36–38,
There was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. And she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 And at that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Mary and Joseph had just brought the infant Jesus into the temple. Luke tells us about two very old people, Simeon and Anna, who recognize who the baby is. What marks both of these people is that they were yearning and longing for the coming of the Messiah. In verse 25 it says that Simeon was "looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him." Jesus, the Messiah, is the consolation of Israel (vv. 26, 30).
In verse 37 it says that Anna virtually never left the temple and was serving the Lord "with fastings and prayers." In other words, she was like Simeon—she was longing for the Messiah to come; she was fasting and praying night and day because she was looking for "the redemption of Jerusalem."
In verse 38 she comes at just the right moment to see the Messiah-child, and she gives thanks to God and speaks of him to all who were "looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." In other words God gave a special glimpse of the King's glory to those who were yearning and longing and looking for "the redemption of Jerusalem." For Anna that meant a life of fasting decade after decade—probably 60 years since her husband died—as she ministered in the temple.
I think one of the reasons Luke tells us about Simeon and Anna is to illustrate how holy and devout people respond to the promise of Christ's coming. And how God responds to their longings. They see more than others see. They may not understand fully all the details about how the Messiah is coming—Simeon and Anna surely didn't—but God mercifully gives them a glimpse before they die, of what they so passionately wanted to see.
Christians: Fasting for the Second Coming of the King
Now here we are—we Christians—on the other side of the King's coming. He has come and gone away again. He has revealed his glory. He has shed his blood for sins. He has risen from the dead. He has ascended into heaven to sit at Father's right hand until he puts all his enemies under his feet. He has sent his Holy Spirit to regenerate us and sanctify us and indwell us. He has commissioned his church to disciple the nations. And he has promised in John 14:3, "I will come again."
How Does Our Situation Compare to Anna's?
Her hopes were based on the promises of God like ours are. But O how much more we have seen! How much more of the Messiah we know and can hope for! She had never seen the years of Jesus' compassion and power, as we have. She had never heard the words of authority and wisdom and love, as we have. She had never seen the blind receive their sight and the lame walk and the lepers cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead raised and the poor evangelized the way Jesus did it. She never saw him consecrate himself in Gethsemane, or crucified for our sakes on Golgotha. She never heard the merciful words, "Today you will be with me in Paradise," or the triumphant words, "It is finished." She never saw him risen from the dead triumphant over sin and death and hell.
But we have. And now this one, whom we know so well, is gone. We walk by faith and not by sight. The one whom we love was taken away. The wedding party was broken up. It is as though the wedding march had started and we were walking down the aisle to him, and at the last minute he disappeared.
Shall We Long for Christ Less Than Anna?
Shall we long for him less than Anna longed for him? Does the fact that we have had him with us for 30 years and have his Spirit now make you long less or more? O what an indictment of our blindness if the answer is: less.
I say, let us long for him and yearn for him and look for him with more intensity than Anna and Simeon. Shall we have less devotion than these pre-Christian saints? We have beheld his glory. Glory as of the only begotten of the Father. And shall we hunger less for his appearing? Paul said he was going to receive a crown of righteousness with all "who have loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:8).
Fasting for the King's Coming
Are we settled into the world so comfortably that the thought of fasting for the end of history, is almost unthinkable?
What about older people? Can you taste the glories of the presence of the King better because they are nearer? Do you turn that taste into fasting for the King's coming?
What about younger people? Do you love Jesus so much that his coming would be the greatest thing you can imagine? Or is he a kind of weekend topic of religious talk that sometimes helps you with a bad conscience but isn't someone you would want to interrupt your life?
What about those of us in the middle—or pushing the upper end of the middle? How do we feel about being told that fasting may reflect how much we want the bridegroom to come? Does Anna's passion for the Messiah appeal to us at all? Do we want the appearance of Jesus more than we want to finish our career plans?
I believe that my life will never be the same after the fasting focus of January 1995. I have seen too much now about fasting and the meaning of hunger for God, and hunger for his Word, and hunger for the children's safety, and hunger for world evangelization, and hunger for the Bridegroom, and the way Jesus speaks of expressing this hunger with fasting—I have seen too much now to go on with business as usual.
What Shall We Do as a Church?
- To keep the biblical discipline of fasting before us as a church . . .
- To give more people a chance to grow in this kind of prayer . . .
- To avail ourselves of all that God has ordained for the empowering of our intercession . . .
- To be unrelenting in our pursuit of revival and world evangelization . . .
- And to help us long for the Bridegroom night and day . . .
. . . I am proposing a simple ministry called the Fasting Forty.
The Fasting Forty is a group of 40 people who fast for one day a week in a given month of 1995. It may be different people from month to month. Or some people may want to do it more than one month.
At the end of each month I will print a card called the Fasting Forty card, and make 40 copies available after the morning service. When all the cards are taken, the Fasting Forty will be known—by God.
There is no plan to identify who the Fasting Forty are. This will accord with Jesus' teaching that we should beware of fasting to be seen by other people (Matthew 6:16–18).
Each month I will try to give some special Scripture and focus to the prayers of the Fasting Forty. This will be shared more widely so that any of you can join the 40 if you wish.
From what we have seen this morning, you don't need a crisis in your life to call for fasting. All you need is a longing for the Bridegroom to come. Lord, increase our love for your appearing!