Significant emphasis is placed on dieting and exercise in the West, particularly at New Year, when gym memberships, diet plans, weight loss clubs, de-tox programs and other body image products are at the height of their appeal. Whilst much could and has been said about the deterioration of our health and physical condition there is an underlying vanity that crosses into idolatry when it comes to achieving the right look. Most programs are external in focus and emphasis. If you drop a few rolls, tone up the abs and thighs and skip a dessert or two, you will feel better on the inside as a result.
Jesus contended with this external focus in the area of spirituality. Religious sects had arisen during the 400 year period between the events of the Old Testament and the New Testament. One group, the Pharisees, had become popular and powerful. They had an array of elaborate systems, clothing and rituals that marked them as especially devout. Their goal was to “fake it until you make it”: Modifying your external dress, conduct and speech could eventually effect a change internally that would procure God’s blessing and approval. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus clicked with the Pharisees. Both of them denounced their hypocrisy as vanity that had a temporal reward and no appeal to God.
Matthew’s gospel shows Jesus teaching that the kingdom of heaven is not about possessions and physical appearance. Despite what the people had heard from the Pharisees, the kingdom of heaven was about relishing God’s glory not establishing a political and economic empire to escape the rule of Rome. Whenever Jesus taught or performed miracles he gave small sneak previews or sample tastes of Kingdom reality. This is what the kingdom sounds like, this is what the kingdom feels like, this is what the kingdom looks like, as he spoke, healed and led his disciples. In each instance he reversed or undid the effects of sin’s curse, if only temporarily, to show the power of the kingdom. Never, in any of these instances, did that involve showering people with riches, accolades, political power or influence. In Matthew 10:17-25, he even goes as far to say the opposite will result from prioritising God’s kingdom.
One illustration Jesus gave of this priority was in the “acts of righteousness” mentioned in Matthew 6 – Welfare, Prayer and Fasting. In each instance he reminded them to seek God’s approval rather than public appraisal. The “benefits” of fasting, for instance, are not that you loose a few kilos and increase your public opinion and set up yourself as a candidate for political office. Rather, that you savour the joys of the kingdom instead of the cravings of the flesh. Some of the Pharisees valued the external effect of fasting so much that they would make themselves up (like ancient actors) so that they appeared to be fasting (when they weren’t) so that they would achieve celebrity and renown. Jesus response, was, “If celebrity is what you’re after, then celebrity is what you will receive – but not in heaven! If your desire is, instead, to relish and celebrate God’s name and reputation, then that is what you will achieve.”
This was Ezra’s approach when he was traveling to Jerusalem to oversee the temple re-construction. He wanted to magnify and emphasise God’s sovereignty and providence. He fasted and prayed, asking God for a safe journey. The result? Ezra 8:31-32 – “The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us … so we arrived in Jerusalem”. Fasting is not about diet, it is about tasting and experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth. What will your diet consist of this year? New body image? New car? New income? or a RESOLVE to be passionate about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven?