Quarter: Acts of Worship
Unit 3: Stewardship for life
Sunday school lesson for the week of Feb. 1, 2015
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture: Daniel 1:5, 8-17; Matthew 6:16-18
In just 17 days we will begin the Lenten Season. For Christians, it is imperative we prepare for Easter by walking with Jesus the way of the cross. How will you use these 40 days this year? The new unit we begin today suggests the life we live is an outward and visible sign of our faithful discipleship as followers of Jesus Christ.
Our focus in today’s lesson is on the practice of the spiritual discipline of fasting as a sign of fidelity to the faith. The two scripture lessons are uniquely helpful in this regard. Let’s begin with the Old Testament Book of Daniel.
Although the setting in Daniel is during the Babylonian Captivity (6th century BC) of the Jewish people, many scholars believe the book was actually written much later. The date usually given is during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV (175-164 BC), who was brutal in forcing the Hebrew people to become Hellenized (Greek). Because there was significant danger in advocating against the edicts of Antiochus, the writer of Daniel used as a code the hero of an earlier period in their history to encourage the people of his generation to hold on to their faith.
As you will remember, there were several deportations of the people to Babylon. Daniel was one of the earliest of those forcefully exiled from his home, but he was chosen, along with three of his friends, for special treatment. They were young, handsome men of the Jewish nobility. Well educated, they were being groomed to serve the king and his court. This grooming involved intensive training in every aspect of Babylonian culture.
Daniel was confronted with the choice of going along or holding fast to his faith through the practice of the dietary requirements of his faith. Many of us will at this point say, “This is irrelevant! We don’t have to observe Jewish dietary laws.” True, but we’ll miss the point of Daniel’s resolution. For him, it was not a law to be obeyed, but a matter of conscience to remain faithful to God. Following the rules is never the point. What truly matters is for Daniel (and us!) to remain steadfast in his faithfulness.
The story takes an interesting turn when Daniel convinces the guard over the four young men to give them only vegetables and water to eat, rather than the king’s ration, for a 10-day test to see if their physical condition would be affected by not eating meat. A word about the spiritual situation is necessary here. First for a committed Jew, meat had to be “kosher” – prepared in a very special way to keep the Law in Leviticus 11 and 17. There is also the strong possibility the meat might have been sacrificed to the Babylonian gods. (Remember, this was a problem Paul would confront in Corinthians!) To remain faithful, a vegetarian diet was Daniel’s only option. Again, the focus is on fidelity to his faith in an alien culture. The result of the test is overwhelmingly positive! The Jewish young men are obviously healthier than the others eating the king’s food. God blessed them for their faithful lifestyle.
Now let’s turn to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. The translation in the Common English Bible is revealing.
And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the
hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know
they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward.
When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face.
Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but
only to your Father, who is present in that secret place.
Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus assumed we would fast! Not fasting is a fairly recent development. Along with meditation, prayer, Bible study, tithing and other disciplines, fasting brings vitality to faith. Sadly many of us faithful, church-going folk have never practiced this discipline. The testimony of scripture and countless witnesses emphasizes the power of fasting to bring us closer to God. Isn’t this what Jesus is saying when He speaks of that secret place?
For Jesus, fasting was the crucial factor in preparation for his temptation in the wilderness, as he prepared for his public ministry. The need to have a more intentional time with the Father is the purpose of this unused discipline. During Lent maybe we will “give up” something as a way of fasting. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with such a practice, but a greater challenge is before us – give up food in some form and in some systematic pattern. Like with Daniel, you might be healthier both physically and spiritually!
In emptying our stomachs we just might find we are filled with the very presence and Spirit of God. To that end, may the following covenant prayer from John Wesley bless you now and through your Lenten journey:
Lord God, I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee, or laid aside for thee.
Exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty;
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven.