'Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God.'--Joel.
In our soft and self-indulgent day the very word 'to fast' has become an out-of-date and an obsolete word. We never have occasion to employ that word in the living language of the present day. The men of the next generation will need to have it explained to them what the Fast-days of their fathers were: when they were instituted, how they were observed, and why they were abrogated and given up. If your son should ever ask you just what the Fast-days of your youth were like, you will do him a great service, and he may live to recover them, if you will answer him in this way. Show him how to take his Cruden and how to make a picture to his opening mind of the Fast-days of Scripture. And tell him plainly for what things in fathers and in sons those fasts were ordained of God. And then for the Fast-days of the Puritan period let him read aloud to you this powerful passage in the Holy War. Public preaching and public prayer entered largely into the fasting of the Prophetical and the Puritan periods; and John Bunyan, after Joel, has told us some things about the Fast-day preaching of his day that it will be well for us, both preachers and people, to begin with, and to lay well to heart.
1. In the first place, the preaching of that Fast-day was 'pertinent' and to the point. William Law, that divine writer for ministers, warns ministers against going off upon Euroclydon and the shipwrecks of Paul when Christ's sheep are looking up to them for their proper food. What, he asks, is the nature, the direction, and the strength of that Mediterranean wind to him who has come up to church under the plague of his own heart and under the heavy hand of God? You may be sure that Boanerges did not lecture that Fast-day forenoon in Mansoul on Acts xxvii. 14. We would know that, even if we were not told what his text that forenoon was. His text that never-to-be-forgotten Fast-day forenoon was in Luke xiii. 7--'Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?' And a very smart sermon he made upon the place. First, he showed what was the occasion of the words, namely, because the fig-tree was barren. Then he showed what was contained in the sentence, to wit, repentance or utter desolation. He then showed also by whose authority this sentence was pronounced. And, lastly, he showed the reasons of the point, and then concluded his sermon. But he was very pertinent in the application, insomuch that he made all the elders and all their people in Mansoul to tremble. Sidney Smith says that whatever else a sermon may be or may not be, it must be interesting if it is to do any good. Now, pertinent preaching is always interesting preaching. Nothing interests men like themselves. And pertinent preaching is just preaching to men about themselves,--about their interests, their losses and their gains, their hopes and their fears, their trials and their tribulations. Boanerges took both his text and his treatment of his text from his Master, and we know how pertinently The Master preached. His preaching was with such pertinence that the one half of His hearers went home saying, Never man spake like this man, while the other half gnashed at Him with their teeth. Our Lord never lectured on Euroclydon. He knew what was in man and He lectured and preached accordingly. And if we wish to have praise of our best people, and of Him whose people they are, let us look into our own hearts and preach. That will be pertinent to our people which is first pertinent to ourselves. Weep yourself, said an old poet to a new beginner; weep yourself if you would make me weep. 'For my own part,' said Thomas Shepard to some ministers from his death-bed, 'I never preached a sermon which, in the composing, did not cost me prayers, with strong cries and tears. I never preached a sermon from which I had not first got some good to my own soul.'
'His office and his name agree; A shepherd that and Shepard he.'
And many such entries as these occur in Thomas Boston's golden journal: 'I preached in Ps. xlii. 5, and mostly on my own account.' Again: 'Meditating my sermon next day, I found advantage to my own soul, as also in delivering it on the Sabbath.' And again: 'What good this preaching has done to others I know not, yet I think myself will not the worse of it.'
2. The preaching of that Fast-day was with great authority also. 'There was such power and authority in that sermon,' reports one who was present, 'that the like had seldom been seen or heard.' Authority also was one of the well-remembered marks of our Lord's preaching. And no wonder, considering who He was. But His ministers, if they are indeed His ministers, will be clothed by Him with something even of His supreme authority. 'Conscience is an authority,' says one of the most authoritative preachers that ever lived. 'The Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessons; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories; such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions.' Now, the well-equipped preacher will from time to time plant his pulpit on all those kinds of authority, as this kind is now pertinent and then that, and will, with such a variety and accumulation of authority, preach to his people. Thomas Boston preached at a certain place with such pertinence and with such authority that it was complained of him by one of themselves that he 'terrified even the godly.' Let all our young preachers who would to old age continue to preach with interest, with pertinence, and with terrifying authority, among other things have by heart The Memoirs of Thomas Boston, 'that truly great divine.'
3. A third thing, and, as some of the people who heard it said of it, the best thing about that sermon was that--'He did not only show us our sin, but he did visibly tremble before us under the sense of his own.' Now I know this to be a great difficulty with some young ministers who have got no help in it at the Divinity Hall. Are they, they ask, to be themselves in the pulpit? How far may they be themselves, and how far may they be not themselves? How far are they to be seen to tremble before their people because of their own sins, and how far are they to bear themselves as if they had no sin? Must they keep back the passions that are tearing their own hearts, and fill the forenoon with Euroclydon and other suchlike sea-winds? How far are they to be all gown and bands in the pulpit, and how far sackcloth and ashes? One half of their people are like Pascal in this, that they like to see and hear a man in his pulpit; but, then, the other half like only to see and hear a proper preacher. 'He did not only show the men of Mansoul their sin, but he did tremble before them under the sense of his own. Still crying out as he preached to them, Unhappy man that I am! that I should have done so wicked a thing! That I, a preacher, should be one of the first in the transgression!'
This you will remember was the Fast-day. And so truly had this preacher kept the Fast-day that the Communion-day was down upon him before he was ready for it. He was still deep among his sins when all his people were fast putting on their beautiful garments. He was ready with the letter of his action-sermon, but he was not equal to the delivery of it. His colleague, accordingly, whose sense of sin was less acute that day, took the public worship, while the Fast-day preacher still lay sick in his closet at home and wrote thus on the ground: 'I am no more worthy to be called Thy son,' he wrote. 'Behold me here, Lord, a poor, miserable sinner, weary of myself, and afraid to look up to Thee. Wilt Thou heal my sores? Wilt Thou take out the stains? Wilt Thou deliver me from the shame? Wilt Thou rescue me from this chain of sin? Cut me not off in the midst of my sins. Let me have liberty once again to be among Thy redeemed ones, eating and drinking at Thy table. But, O my God, to-day I am an unclean worm, a dead dog, a dead carcass, deservedly cast out from the society of Thy saints. But oh, suffer me so much as to look to the place where Thy people meet and where Thine honour dwelleth. Reject not the sacrifice of a broken heart, but come and speak to me in my secret place. O God, let me never see such another day as this is. Let me never be again so full of guilt as to have to run away from Thy presence and to flee from before Thy people.' He printed more than that, in blood and in tears, before God that Communion-morning, but that is enough for my purpose. Now, would you choose a dead dog like that to be your minister? To baptize and admit your children and to marry them when they grow up? To mount your pulpits every Sabbath-day, and to come to your houses every week-day? Not, I feel sure, if you could help it! Not if you knew it! Not if there was a minister of proper pulpit manners and a well-ordered mind within a Sabbath-day's journey! 'Like priest like people,' says Hosea. 'The congregation and the minister are one,' says Dr. Parker. 'There are men we could not sit still and hear; they are not the proper ministers for us. There are other men we could hear always, because they are our kith and our kin from before the foundation of the world.' Happy the hearer who has hit on a minister like the minister of Mansoul, and who has discovered in him his everlasting kith and kin. And happy the minister who, owning kith and kin with Boanerges, has two or three or even one member in his congregation who likes his minister best when he likes himself worst.
But what about the fasting all this time? Was it all preaching, and was there no fasting? Well, we do not know much about the fasting of the prophets and the apostles, but the Puritans sometimes made their people almost forget about fasting, and about eating and drinking too, they so took possession of their people with their incomparable preaching. I read, for instance, in Calamy's Life of John Howe that on the public Fast-days, it was Howe's common way to begin about nine in the morning and to continue reading, preaching, and praying till about four in the afternoon. Henry Rogers almost worships John Howe, but John Howe's Fast-days pass his modern biographers patience; till, if you would see a nineteenth-century case made out against a seventeenth-century Fast-day, you have only to turn to the author of The Eclipse of Faith on the author of Delighting in God. And, no doubt, when we get back our Fast-days, we shall leave more of the time to reading pertinent books at home and to secret fasting and to secret prayer, and shall enjoin our preachers, while they are pertinent and authoritative in their sermons, not to take up the whole day with their sermons even at their best. And then, as to fasting, discredited and discarded as it is in our day, there are yet some very good reasons for desiring its return and reinstatement among us. Very good reasons, both for health and for holiness. But it is only of the latter class of reasons that I would fain for a few words at present speak. Well, then, let it be frankly said that there is nothing holy, nothing saintly, nothing at all meritorious in fasting from our proper food. It is the motive alone that sanctifies the means. It is the end alone that sanctifies the exercise. If I fast to chastise myself for my sin; if I fast to reduce the fuel of my sin; if I fast to keep my flesh low; if I fast to make me more free for my best books, for my most inward, spiritual, mystical books--for my Kempis, and my Behmen, and my Law, and my Leighton, and my Goodwin, and my Bunyan, and my Rutherford, and my Jeremy Taylor, and my Shepard, and my Edwards, and suchlike; if I fast for the ends of meditation and prayer; if I fast out of sympathy with my Bible, and my Saviour, and my latter end, and my Father's house in heaven--then, no doubt, my fasting will be acceptable with God, as it will certainly be an immediate means of grace to my sinful soul. These altars will sanctify many such gifts. For, who that knows anything at all about himself, about his own soul, and about the hindrances and helps to its salvation from sin; who that ever read a page of Scripture properly, or spent half an hour in that life which is hidden in God--who of such will deny or doubt that fasting is superseded or neglected to the sure loss of the spiritual life, to the sensible lowering of the religious tone and temper, and to the increase both of the lusts of the flesh and of the mind? It may perhaps be that the institution of fasting as a church ordinance has been permitted to be set aside in order to make it more than ever a part of each earnest man's own private life. Perhaps it was in some ways full time that it should be again said to us, 'Thou, when thou fastest, appear not unto men to fast.' As also, 'Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the outcast to thy house?' Let us believe that the form of the Fast-day has been removed out of the way that the spirit may return and fashion a new form for itself. And in the belief that that is so, let us, while parting with our fathers' Fast-days with real regret--as with their pertinent and pungent preaching--let us meantime lay in a stock of their pertinent and pungent books, and set apart particular and peculiar seasons for their sin-subduing and grace-strengthening study.
The short is this. The one real substance and true essence of all fasting is self-denial. And we can never get past either the supreme and absolute duty of that, or the daily and hourly call to that, as long as we continue to read the New Testament, to live in this life, and to listen to the voice of conscience, and to the voice of God speaking to us in the voice of conscience. Without strict and constant self-denial, no man, whatever his experiences or his pretensions, is a disciple of Jesus Christ, and secret fasting is one of the first, the easiest, and the most elementary exercises of New Testament self-denial. And, besides, the lusts of our flesh and the lusts of our minds are so linked and locked and riveted together that if one link is loosened, or broken, or even struck at, the whole thrall is not yet thrown off indeed, but it is all shaken; it has all received a staggering blow. So much is this the case that one single act of self-denial in the region of the body will be felt for freedom throughout the whole prison-house of the soul. And a victory really won over a sensual sin is already a challenge sounded to our most spiritual sin. And it is this discovery that has given to fasting the place it has held in all the original, resolute, and aggressive ages of the Church. With little or nothing in their Lord's literal teaching to make His people fast, they have been so bent on their own spiritual deliverance, and they have heard and read so much about the deliverances both of body and of soul that have been attained by fasting and its accompaniments, that they have taken to it in their despair, and with results that have filled them in some instances with rapture, and in all instances with a good conscience and with a good hope. You would wonder, even in these degenerate days,--you would be amazed could you be told how many of your own best friends in their stealthy, smiling, head-anointing, hypocritical way deny themselves this and that sweetness, this and that fatness, this and that softness, and are thus attaining to a strength, a courage, and a self-conquest that you are getting the benefit of in many ways without your ever guessing the price at which it has all been purchased. Now, would you yourself fain be found among those who are in this way being made strong and victorious inwardly and spiritually? Would you? Then wash your face and anoint your head; and, then, not denying it before others, deny it in secret to yourself--this and that sweet morsel, this and that sweet meat, this and that glass of such divine wine. Unostentatiously, ungrudgingly, generous-heartedly, and not ascetically or morosely, day after day deny yourself even in little unthought-of things, and one of the very noblest laws of your noblest life shall immediately claim you as its own. That stealthy and shamefaced act of self-denial for Christ's sake and for His cross's sake will lay the foundation of a habit of self-denial; ere ever you are aware of what you are doing the habit will consolidate into a character; and what you begin little by little in the body will be made perfect in the soul; till what you did, almost against His command and altogether without His example, yet because you did it for His sake and in His service, will have placed you far up among those who have forsaken all, and themselves also, to follow Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God. Only, let this always be admitted, and never for a moment forgotten, that all this is said by permission and not of commandment. Our Lord never fasted as we fast. He had no need. And He never commanded His disciples to fast. He left it to themselves to find out each man his own case and his own cure. Let no man, therefore, take fasting in any of its degrees, or times, or occasions, on his conscience who does not first find it in his heart. At the same time this may be said with perfect safety, that he who finds it in his heart and then lays it on his conscience to deny himself anything, great or small, for Christ's sake, and for the sake of his own salvation,--he will never repent it. No, he will never repent it.
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH