And Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
(1 John 1:9)
Our session has called today a day of prayer and fasting. We mentioned this in the original letter that we sent to you when this all began (see the letter on our homepage). But I wouldn’t blame you if you’d forgotten. A lot has happened since then.
What is fasting? Fasting is depriving yourself of some physical sustenance or delicacy in order to draw near to God. Lent, of course, is the normal season for fasting, meant to prepare the soul for the celebration of Easter. There are many types of fasts, from total fasts with no food or drink, to meal fasts (e.g no lunch), to partial fasts (e.g. no meat). Each of these can be used to discipline your body and remind yourself of your dependence upon God.
But there is another kind of fast—a fast of repentance.
When times of trouble come upon God’s people, it is proper for them to fast and to plead with God to remove the calamity. Fasting during a time such as this is a symbol of a repentant heart, a heart in mourning over sin. It is a sign that you have turned from your sinful ways, and are seeking God with a pure heart.
Indeed, disasters are meant to drive us back to God in repentance. It doesn’t mean that God sent a pandemic because you sinned in some way. But disasters, pain, and death did not enter the world until Adam and Eve sinned. We know from Genesis that death is the result of sin. And that means that whenever something like this occurs, it is a reminder that with our sin we contribute to the fallen, broken state of the world. And we should repent.
Therefore, in light of what has befallen our community--indeed, the whole word--the session of Woodland Church calls on each of you to fast and to pray today. We call on you to take an honest look at your hearts, to invite God to show you where you have sinned and where you need to repent. Turn away from sin and toward God, placing your hope in his mercy.
Do this not just for yourself and for your family, but for your church, for your city. Call on God to bring this spirit of repentance to all of New Orleans, that we might see revival during this time of crisis.
If you are unprepared from a full-day fast (as I suspect you have already eaten breakfast by the time you’re reading this), fast from lunch, and dedicate that time instead to prayer and the reading of the Psalms. Journal your confessions and even pray as a family if you are able.
Another option is to fast from some delicacy like chocolate or alcohol to remind you that you are not dependent upon creature comforts, but upon the Lord. Whenever you desire whatever you are fasting from, turn to the Lord in prayer in that moment.
If you are sick, or suspect you are sick, do not fast from food or fluids. Choose something else, like television or social media. Whenever you feel the boredom that comes from not having these things, turn to the Lord in prayer and read the psalms.
God hears our prayers and he is merciful. Lean into that.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
(Psalm 51:1-2, 7-10)
Resources for fasting:
Scriptures for fasting and repentance:
The Book of Jonah
2 Chronicles 30:9
2 Peter 3:9