The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
Recently, I heard a preacher quote stand-up theologian Lily Tomlin: “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?”Does God talk to us today? If so, are we listening? What does it mean to believe in God? If God truly wants a relationship with us by faith, how do we talk to God and how does God talk to us?
When we hear about the miracle of faith in Jonah, chapter three, the miracle that the people of Nineveh believed God, the miracle which took place within capital of the Assyrian Empire, the hated enemies of Israel; when the “Ninevites believed God,” what does this really mean?
Put this miracle of faith from the Book of Jonah into contemporary terms. Imagine a country-wide revival broke out across Iraq, with Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, along with all other people groups of Iraq, including the people of Mosul, site of ancient city of Nineveh, begin believing God, falling in love with God, trusting their whole lives to God, humbling themselves before God through fasting, repenting and praying for forgiveness, and the whole country began seeking ways to sacrificially and humbly love their neighbors, including others from different religious groups. Would you be surprised? Would you check www.snopes.com or some other urban legend website to see if someone was posting an internet hoax?
While we’re at it singing Kum By Yah and envisioning world peace, let’s also imagine the miracle of all 40,000 plus Christian denominations, including Catholics, Orthodox, and all the many facets of Protestantism falling on their knees, calling denominational wide fasts, and begging God’s forgiveness for our attitudes of judgment and hostility towards other fellow followers of Christ.
Let’s think about fasting. In the story of Jonah, a foreign nation turns to God and a fast was proclaimed, a proclamation issued by the king. The people, from most influential to most overlooked, greatest to the least, all the people participated in the fast by humbling themselves. They put on sackcloth, a coarse, uncomfortable, and unfashionable piece of clothing woven from animal hair, intended to express penitence, that deep attitude of the broken heart yearning for God’s mercy.
We don’t have any garment that comes close today to the embarassment or discomfort of sackcloth, but a hospital gown provides at least the unfashionable concept. Our bodies are vessels of our soul. What we wear on our bodies and what we do to our bodies can help us in the journey of our soul. Fasting is one such spiritual discipline, practiced by the three world-wide, monotheistic religions as a way to guide the soul homeward, along with the spiritual disciplines of almsgiving and prayer.
As a contemporary practice, like scratchy animal hair against the skin, fasting rubs against a pleasure-seeking culture of self-indulgence and materialism. The most common type of fast is fasting from food. As a beginning step into the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting, allow me a few practical ideas.
Try a 24 hour fast. Begin your fast after dinner one evening. Fast for the next 24 hours, giving up all food during this time. Drink plenty of water or clear fruit juice, such as apple juice. At normal breakfast time and lunch time, sit in your normal place for those meals, and instead, open your Bible and read aloud from a chapter of Jonah, or a chapter from one of the Gospels. Break your fast the following evening, at dinner with a simple, non-spicy meal, offering a prayer of thanks for all God’s gifts, especially for God’s gift of compassion. If you are diabetic, pregnant, or have nutritional concerns, better to try other approaches to fasting besides abstaining from food.
Fasting not only purifies our lives and unites us closer to God, but also unites our lives with hungry people in the world and brings goodness back upon our homes and hearts. Other forms of fasting besides abstinence from food include abstinence from luxury activities for a week, fasting from watching television, stop playing electronic games for a week, giving up time on the computer and the internet each week, or writing letters instead of calling people by phone. As you fast, consider writing letters to elected officials expressing your concern about world hunger.
For those who are food fasting, during meal times, when you are especially hungry, ask God to help those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Contribute towards some world hunger fund by sending off a check to a hunger relief agency for world hunger relief. Connect your fasting to the needs of our hungry planet. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?”