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THE LENTEN FAST

By John Percival


      "This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer."--ST. MARK ix. 29.

      You remember the narrative from which I have taken this verse. Jesus, as we read, had just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration, and when He was come to the multitude, a certain man besought him saying, "Have mercy on my son, for he is lunatic and sore vexed, and I brought him to Thy disciples, but they could not cure him." Then Jesus rebuked the devil, and the child was cured from that hour. Thereupon His disciples came to Him with this inquiry--"Why could not we cast him out? And He said to them, Because of your little faith. This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer;" or, as our Authorised Version has it, "by prayer and fasting."

      Here, then, we have set before us a very striking and significant contrast: the contrast between the spiritual power of Jesus fresh from the Mount of Transfiguration, and the want of such power in His disciples, who represent to us the common life of the multitude and the plain. His reply to their question was clearly intended to suggest to them the cause of their spiritual feebleness. Do you wonder at your lack of power over the diseases of the soul? "This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer." Now, this suggestive answer is very appropriate for our consideration at the present time when we are approaching the season of Lent, which has been observed century after century as a special season of fasting, prayer, and penitence for sin, through all the Christian Church.

      When we think of these weeks, it is reasonable to believe that such observance, so universal, so long continued, must have satisfied some deep need of the heart, especially as it is not based on any particular dogma. And this incident in the Saviour's life, and these emphatic words of His, may help us to a clearer understanding of the value of such times. They declare to us the principle of the spiritual harvest, that, in the spiritual life as in all else, we reap as we sow. They are intended to convey to us this plain lesson, that if any of us give little thought, attention, or effort to that side of our life which we speak of as the spiritual, if there is in our daily habit and practice little real prayer or self-denial, or devotion, little communing with God, little endeavour to live in the spirit of Christ, and if, this being so, we find ourselves weak or vacillating in our struggle against sin or evil, whether in our own life or in society, there is nothing surprising in such a result.

      It is in our religious life just as in everything else--spiritual carelessness or neglect must mean spiritual weakness. In all other matters we look for results in some proportion to our efforts. As we sow we expect to reap.

      Here, for instance, in your daily life, if you wish to excel in any particular game or pursuit, you practise it with diligence. You know that, without such practice or concentration of effort upon it, any expectation of excellence is simply foolish.

      In your school work you recognise the same conditions. Intellectual growth may seem sometimes to come slowly, in spite of all your efforts; but it comes with certainty if you persevere, and it is equally certain that it hardly ever comes at all to those who use no effort.

      If, then, you look for progress or distinction, you know that you must fix your thoughts upon your work, and practise industry, and, above all, that you must cultivate a love of learning, so that your mind lingers over it with some sense of enjoyment.

      You do not expect a harvest where you have not sown. And it is just this same law which you recognise and accept in other matters that our Lord is here declaring to us as the law of spiritual power.

      Do we desire to cast any evil influence or any weakness out of our life? Do we ask despairingly how it is that we have not been able to cast it out? Our Lord's answer comes to us in these emphatic words--"This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer."

      In other words, if we really desire that our soul shall be cleansed and strengthened, we must surrender it to Him in prayer and self-denial, in spiritual exercises and communion, that He may cure it of its sin or its weakness, and inspire us with new life.

      Prayer and fasting are in this word of His the symbol of all special exercises of the spirit, as it strives to get free from the burden of the flesh and to come nearer to God; and without such exercises, He presses it on us if we stand in need of such reminders, we cannot hope for any harvest of spiritual strength.

      And we can hardly have failed to notice how His own practice corresponds with His warnings and injunctions.

      Before He began His ministry we read of His forty days' fast in the wilderness; and at every turn, in the course of it, we read again and again incidentally of His constant withdrawals into privacy with God.

      His short life on earth was a life of spiritual ministry. All the common things of life were to Him so many illustrations of some spiritual lesson of the Father's love and care, or of man's dependence on Him. In every voice of the world there was the undertone of some spiritual suggestion. So that we might say--Surely His days were one unbroken course of spiritual work and communion, and He could need no special seasons or exercises; but His example teaches us a different lesson.

      As if to bring it home to us beyond all possibility of doubt or question, that the most devoted, the most active, and most powerful spiritual characters, will always be those whose communion with God in private prayer and exercise is most constant and intense, He Himself was continually withdrawing for such communion; and there are no more suggestive passages in the Gospels for our guidance than those incidental references which tell us, as if by chance, giving us passing glimpses into the unrecorded portions of His life, how on one occasion He retired into a mountain apart to pray, or how on another he spent the whole night apart in prayer, or how he was in a desert place apart in prayer.

      These withdrawals of Jesus into the solitude of the desert or the mountain, these hours in which He was alone with the Father, are but another name for those exercises of prayer, fasting, meditation, communion with God, without which, as He tells His followers in the text I have read to you, it is not possible to eradicate from the soul those influences of sin which destroy its harmony and undermine its strength.

      These withdrawals were His times of spiritual refreshment; and by His practice He declares to us His need of them. And if in His case they were necessary, much more are they necessary for you and me, entangled as we are amidst all the varied influences of our common life, and with natures prone to sin.

      Hence it is that the Church has set apart this season of Lent to come round to us year by year as a season of special thought and prayer and self-denial. Many other times and seasons come to us laden with the same spiritual influences, and to be used by us as times of reflection, inspiration, purification, and strengthening. This is the purpose which the quiet of these recurring Sundays should be fulfilling in our lives, or our gatherings for Holy Communion.

      And once and again there comes to us in the course of life some time or season which is sure to make its impression upon our soul as having brought us in a special sense into the presence of God, and within the overshadowing influences of His Spirit.

      So it may happen to us that some family bereavement, the death of father or mother, of brother or sister, or child of our affections, draws us away from the world into a closer communion with our Father in Heaven, a communion which is never entirely lost again or forgotten. So, too, comes the season of confirmation, as to many of you just now, with all its thoughts, feelings, prayers, and resolutions.

      And it is a happy thing for our life when any of these seasons leave an indelible mark upon our memory and our spirit.

      But as we think of these words of Jesus, "This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting"--the question for each of us here to-day is, what practical daily meaning we hope to give to this season of Lent which is to begin on Wednesday.

      Let us not fancy that we can allow such seasons to come and go, year by year, giving them no thought or attention, without some corresponding loss.

      The voice of humanity, and the experience of centuries, the practice of holy men, and the example and the words of Christ Himself, have all testified to the need there is for the spiritual observance of such times, if men are to keep their soul alive in them--and who are we that we should venture to set ourselves against such overpowering testimony?

      Let us rather address ourselves seriously to making these weeks a time of some special exercise or discipline such as our life may need.

      There is hardly one of us but will confess, if he thinks of the matter at all, that the world is too much with us; that its influence is too strong upon us; that we are too ready to conform to its ways and follow its indulgences. And such a confession is equivalent to an acknowledgment that we need these Lenten seasons. And if with this feeling in our hearts we use the coming weeks with any definite purpose, praying to be rid of some temptation or weakness, or to be endowed with some strength, or to be supported in some good purpose, we are sure to recognise with thankfulness, when the time is over, that it has indeed proved a time of some dislodgment, that some temptation or habit has fallen away from us and left us free, so that some new spirit or purpose has begun to grow in us.

      We shall, in fact, be conscious, as the weeks go on, that a new life of new tastes and new satisfactions has sprung up, as the first fruits of our prayer. If we doubt the need of such exhortations as these, let us reflect for a moment--Does it not sometimes happen to us that our souls are only too like the soul of that sick child in the Gospel?

      Good instincts, and intentions, and tendencies, are clearly felt and recognised, but they are fitful, weak, and intermittent. Another spirit seems to lay hold of us and carry us whither it will.

      If in any sense this can be said to be your case, then remember, that just what the Saviour's healing word was to that child, sick and possessed, as He met it on His way from the Hill of Transfiguration, and breathed over it the spirit of the higher life, reducing the chaos of the soul to harmony, and bringing reason out of madness, and freedom out of demoniac possession, these holy seasons of time-honoured observance may be to your soul, if you use them reverently, and as God's appointed means for your growth in the Spirit.

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