To my dear people,
I have been your Pastor for over a year now, and if you were to have asked me when I was leaving Pittsburgh if I thought in a year’s time I would be telling my people to stay home instead of coming to church, the answer would be a definite “no”. And that would have been foolish of me. We never know what is going to happen in the next year, month, week, day, hour, or moment. We make our plans, but it is the Lord Whose decree will stand. So, here we are, in the midst of this unexpected epidemic; and the best thing that we can do for ourselves and for each other is to be apart for now.
There are a few things that need to be discussed concerning our services, etc. First, the Session has decided that we will not be having services at our church building until the current regulations have been lifted. This is not ideal, obviously; there’s not a Lord’s Day that passes that I do not ache because I’m not able to be with God’s people in the house of the Lord. But, though it is not ideal, it is necessary for the safety of all our members, especially those who are most susceptible to this sickness. Just as we would not have service in the building if it were on fire, so we will not have service in the building when it puts our people at risk. Neither I, nor any of the rest of your Elders, are willing to put your lives at risk unnecessarily.
Second, and this follows from the first point, we will not be having a gathered Easter service this coming Lord’s Day. We will continue worshiping at home as we have been doing; I will post the sermon on Saturday and I hope that you will all join me and your brothers and sisters throughout the world and in heaven and the holy angels in lifting your voices in praise to our risen Lord! I would also encourage you not to have large family gatherings on this day as you would normally do. Lord-willing, there will be a time (hopefully in the near future) when we will be able to join in these kinds of celebrations; we should pray for that day and look forward to it, but at the same time recognize that, at least for now, we’re not living in it.
This brings me to my third point. Our denomination (the Evangelical Presbyterian Church), along with the PCA and the Anglican Church in North America, will be joining together in a day of fasting and prayer tomorrow (Good Friday). Materials and information concerning this day of fasting and prayer can be found at www.epc.org. I would like to say a quick word about fasting, as some of our people have asked me about it:
Fasting, of course, is a spiritual discipline that has existed among the people of God since the time of the Old Testament. It is, though, a discipline that is rarely practiced today. Perhaps the exception to this is the liturgical period of Lent, which, for many, has become an excuse to draw attention to oneself on social media, and usually entails “giving up” something that you probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place. If that is what we are calling “fasting”, we are far from the biblical discipline.
So, what is fasting? Fasting is a cessation from eating food, signifying our creaturely dependence on God and our desire for His help. It’s no surprise, then, that we rarely see the discipline of fasting exercised in Scripture without it being joined to times of fervent prayer. In the New Testament, for instance, we see the saints at Antioch seeking to honor God in worshiping, fasting, and praying. “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul (as in, Paul). While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1-3). In this instance, we see that fasting and praying were both seemingly regular disciplines for Saul and Barnabas before they were sent off on their first missionary journey; indeed, it was during a time of fasting and prayer that Saul and Barnabas received their orders from the Holy Spirit to take the gospel to the world.
Another example, and one that is perhaps more pertinent to our current crisis, is found in the Old Testament book of Ezra. A group of the exiles was to return home to Jerusalem; to make this journey meant to expose yourself to the possibility of robbery and even death. So, Ezra writes: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” (Ezra 8:21-23). Note, Ezra “proclaimed a fast” for the purpose of “humbling ourselves before our God”. In other words, the result of fasting is the recognition that we are not able to help ourselves; God alone is our Help, and our empty stomachs proclaim that unless we receive from Him, we will remain empty, unless He helps us, we are helpless. Note also that fasting is connected to “imploring our God”, that is, prayer. I think there is enough biblical evidence to say that unless your discipline of fasting is accompanied by prayer, you’re probably just going hungry; indeed, this is why health fads like “intermittent fasting” are not Christian fasting – they’re not tied to prayer and humbling oneself before God.
This was the problem Jesus saw with much of the fasting that was being done by the hypocrites. In the Sermon on the Mount, He says to the people, “And when you fast (notice “when” not “if“), do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:16-18). I’ve known some people who have taken this to mean that nobody should ever know that you are fasting; I don’t think that’s what is being said here, as we have already seen that others knew that Paul and the rest at Antioch were fasting, just as the fast of the returning exiles was a corporate fast. The point that’s being made here has more to do with the reason why you’re fasting – is it to be seen by others, or to humble yourself before God. If I’m fasting to be seen by others as a particularly pious person, then I’m actually doing it for the exact opposite reason fasting should be done. True fasting is seen by God; it’s a plea to Him that we are empty and in need of filling, that we are helpless unless He helps us. It’s never a banner to be unfurled before others to show my own personal holiness and self-sufficiency; it’s an imploring of our God to help us because we are not sufficient in ourselves.
Books have been written and will continue to be written about fasting; I do not intend to write one here. But, I hope that tomorrow you will join with the rest of the EPC and others in a day of fasting and prayer for relief in this epidemic. Fasting, like prayer, does not force God’s hand; He is in the heavens and does all that He pleases (Ps. 115:3). But, He has commanded us to pray for ourselves and for others, and in doing so we glorify Him Who is all-sufficient and our constant Help in time of need. Our fasting is a way of physically signifying that we are in need of His help. And what a fitting day to cry out to the Lord for help, the day when the church commemorates the God Who came, Who gave Himself as the Sacrifice for His helpless people! Glory be to our Lord Jesus Christ! Let us fast and pray that He would deliver us now in our time of need, and that He would be glorified in bringing healing to those throughout the world suffering from the coronavirus!
Practically, if you are going to fast, we don’t see anywhere in Scripture fasting being something other than a fasting from food. To say, “I’m going to give up Netflix, or Facebook, or Youtube, etc., for a day”, while all of those things are good and recommended as long as they are replaced by times of prayer and study of God’s Word, they’re not biblical fasting. Why? Because none of those things are basic and necessary, no matter what a twelve-year-old girl might tell you. Food is basic to us all. When we abstain from eating we are saying that our need for God and His help is more basic than our need for food. I hope you understand the reasoning here. That being said, your fast tomorrow may go from sundown tonight to sundown tomorrow; may be eating a small breakfast, skipping lunch, and then eating a late dinner; may be abstaining from food from midnight to midnight; God alone is Lord of the conscience, and as there is no specific guidance given in Scripture to how such a fast should be conducted, the decision is left to you (though the EPC and others have given some guidance in this, their guidance is not mandatory). The questions with which to concern yourself are these: Are you truly seeking God in your fasting and in your praying? Are you humbling yourself before God and calling upon Him for help because you know that you are helpless?
May you continue to know God’s unchanging grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit Who dwells within you all!
Yours in Christ,