First Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXT: Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3)
So here we are, once again, at the start of the Lenten season, which began this past Wednesday. Lent has 40 days, not counting the Sundays. Forty days of fun in the sun!
Well, not exactly. As you may know, Lent is modeled after the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in “the wilderness”—that is, in the barren, sun-baked desert of Judea. And by the way, this desert—which lies just east of Jerusalem and descends to the Dead Sea—wasn’t really all that far away or hard to get to. In fact, Bethlehem—the town of Jesus’ birth—lies just on the western edge of it. All the while he was out there starving and sunburned, he was probably less than a day’s journey on foot from the nearest settlement.
I think that makes Jesus’ determination even more impressive. The only desert I’ve seen with my own eyes is in Red Rock Canyon in Nevada. It is dry there—and it is barren, and it is sizzling hot! Average temperatures during the summer exceed 95 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, which is the only one they use down south. When I was there, even “Mojave Max” the desert tortoise was hiding from the sun.
But it’s close enough to civilization that—even while you’re wandering in the sand amongst the Joshua trees and the yucca plants—you can see the Las Vegas strip off in the distance. And that, by itself, would cut short any kind of desert experience of mine!
Never mind spending 40 days there … if my feet hit the desert floor at sunrise, I’m sure I would be heading back into the city before noonday, looking for an air-conditioned convenience store and a Slushie machine.
Not many of us would willingly endure the kind of tortuous vision quest that Jesus undertook in the Judean wilderness. Perhaps that explains why the season of Lent is not embraced with more enthusiasm. We think Lent is all about … well, misery! Fasting. Sacrifice. Suffering. Meditating upon grim realities like, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
Yeah. Not exactly a festive time, Lent. And yet, there’s a flip side to the season—one we seldom think about. A flip side that’s alluded to in a Lenten Litany which calls us to:
- Fast from fear; feast on faith.
- Fast from despair; feed on hope.
- Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
And so on, like that. It was written by the American pastor William Arthur Ward (1921-1994). The complete text* was posted on my office door during one Lenten season a few years ago. Besides the parts quoted above, it includes advice like:
- Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God.
- Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
- Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
- Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal hope.
- Fast from thoughts of weakness; feast on promises that inspire.
- Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that undergirds.
Ward’s litany makes the point that Lent is as much about feasting as it is about fasting. Back in that biblical desert, Jesus chose to fast from some things and feast on others. Did you notice that Jesus countered each of the devil’s temptations with Scripture?
- “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3)
- “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deut. 6:16)
- “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Deut. 6:13)
Those quotations are all from the Book of Deuteronomy—chapter six and chapter eight. Jesus might have been fasting from physical nourishment, but he was feasting on the Word of God.
Just as surely as Satan understood Jesus’ divine nature, he knew what sort of wonders Jesus was capable of. He could have instantly satisfied his hunger by working a miracle: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Notice that the tempter does not make that particular suggestion until after Jesus’ 40 days of fasting are over. The ordeal is now officially concluded. So, why not seek immediate gratification? You see, just as the devil knows about Jesus’ divine nature, he also knows about his human nature. Here is a human being—a real one—who has been pushed to the limits of his endurance, almost to the brink of death.
“You did it, Jesus! Good for you! Now, why make that long journey back into town to find a bagel stand? Certainly you’ve earned the right to benefit from a little of your own magic. You’re the Son of God, for heaven’s sake! Why don’t you just turn this boulder into a nice, fresh baguette?”
Well, why not? What would it harm? Who would even know?
Here’s the thing … Over the past weeks, through Epiphany—and even farther back, through Advent and Christmas—you may have noticed that the theme of incarnation has kept popping up.
Jesus is God in human flesh. Our tradition tells us that he was fully divine and fully human. He came to live among us as one of us.
The concept is mysterious, but it reveals this truth: Jesus of Nazareth was one of us. His human-ness was as real as our own. He wasn’t God disguised as a man … he was God become man. “True God and true man,” as the church fathers used to say. This is part of what we mean when we say that humanity and divinity are reconciled in Christ. Two seemingly opposite things—the human and the divine—are united in him.
He was born as we are born. He grew from an infant into a toddler, into a child, and an adolescent, and finally an adult. He had to learn everything, just as we have to learn everything: how to feed himself, how to walk, how to talk, how to live in human society.
He had to learn a trade in order to make a living. He had the same physical limitations as we do. If he didn’t eat, he got hungry. After a hard day’s work in the carpentry shop, he was tired. If he cut himself, he would bleed.
And he had to deal with all that stuff the way any of us would. Make a sandwich. Take a nap. Put on a bandage. He was human, as weare human … and he would suffer and die, just as we suffer and die. As someone said, “When God became human, he didn’t just come for the fun stuff.”
No. Jesus came to enter fully and completely into our human life. That was the point. And it ruled out extraordinary measures when it came to his own well-being and comfort. It had to be that way. Otherwise, he would not actually have been one of us. And he could not really have been either our example or our Saviour—at least, not the kind of Saviour that he became.
So he refrained from using his divine power for his own benefit. He fasted from that—not just for 40 days in the desert, but for 30 years upon the earth.
But he also feasted.
In the desert, and on the hillside, and in the streets of countless Palestinian towns, and in Jerusalem itself, he feasted. He feasted upon the same sources of comfort—and power—available to all the rest of us. Scripture, to be sure. But also prayer, and contemplation.
And community. Don’t forget that. He surrounded himself with all the wrong sorts of people—tax collectors and prostitutes, rough fishermen and lepers and all manner of misfits and underdogs. Wild beasts in the desert. Not exactly the movers and shakers of his society—but that is where Jesus found his community, and from these ordinary people he drew inspiration and strength and encouragement and purpose.
Just as, in the desert, Jesus chose to fast from his power as the Son of God and feast upon his faith in God, so also—for the duration of his public ministry, from the Jordan River to Calvary’s hill—he fasted from concern for himself and feasted upon service to others.
He used his power not to raise an army and bring Rome to its knees, but instead to raise up the downtrodden, and extend compassion to the last and the lost and the least. And he did all this not by remote control from a throne up in heaven beyond the clouds, but as a humble, travelling rabbi walking the dusty roads of a defeated and occupied country.
I think that Lent ought to draw our attention to all of that—and not just to those 40 days in the desert. Jesus was not some kind of ivory-tower thinker, or reclusive philosopher. No. He was a teacher who called disciples to follow him. And the disciple, you must realize, is someone who is being trained to become just like the teacher.
Those of you who’ve seen those “NOOMA” videos that were popular a few years back may remember Rob Bell talking about this. A rabbi in Jesus’ time would only accept disciples whom he believed he could effectively train. That is, the rabbi had to believe that his disciple was capable of doing what the rabbi did.
Most would-be disciples were rejected by the rabbis they approached, because they didn’t have “the right stuff.” They were judged as “not good enough.”
Rabbi Jesus, however … he seems to have had extremely low standards! The people he called to be his disciples were among the least likely candidates you could think of. No Ph.D.’s in this crowd. In fact, from the gospel accounts, it seems like they but rarely understood what Jesus was trying to teach them. And when the chips were down, they all deserted him and fled. Well, all except the women … but that’s a whole other sermon.
In the end, though, it was this same group of unlikely characters—plus a thug named Paul and a few other raw recruits—who carried on Jesus’ mission. They changed the world. Somehow, this bunch of cowards grew lion’s hearts. Somehow, this group of “C” students came to grasp the very mind of God.
How could this happen? I think it happened because, in their walk with Jesus—for one year, or two, or three, or however long it was—they experienced things which challenged them, which discomforted them, which lifted them up and cast them down, which gave them flashes of insight and scared the living daylights out of them. It was their own kind of desert sojourn.
They had left everything to follow him—this inspiring, charismatic, unconventional, infuriating, embarrassing, frightening, wonderful Jesus. And their journey with him transformed them, in spite of themselves.
I believe this is the kind of journey Lent is supposed to be, for us. Near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus sat his disciples down and said to them: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these …” (John 14:12).
If we believe in Jesus, we will do even greater things than he did. As hard as it may be to believe, that’s what he said. It’s hard to believe—but it’s not impossible. It’s very possible. It is possible precisely because this Jesus was as human as we are.
Oh, maybe we can’t walk on water or raise the dead … at least, not yet. Most preachers can’t even keep people awake through a sermon! But the truly great works that Jesus did—like loving his neighbours, and extending forgiveness, and saying “no” to self-interest and abuse of power and exploitation of the weak … We can learn to do this. We can learn to respond in love, instead of fear. We can become willing to sacrifice ourselves for others; to lay down our lives out of love for our friends … and even our enemies.
It’s possible. It’s not easy—but it is quite possible—for ordinary mortals to do these “greater works.”
It’s possible because an ordinary mortal who was born in a cattle shed to an unwed mother, who became a refugee in his earliest years, and who spent a significant chunk of his life as a homeless person with “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20) did it before us. And he wants us to believe that if he could do it, we can do it, too.
Part of getting there—of arriving at that place where we can do “greater works”—has to do with what we choose to feast on. And what we choose to fast from.
So, as you walk your Lenten path—through desert places and fruitful orchards; through city streets and hospital corridors; through times of joy and times of sorrow—consider well the menu items presented to you.
During this time before Easter—these weeks leading up to a Last Supper and a trial and a cross and finally, a triumph … See if you can develop an appetite for the delicacies of heaven, more than the fast food of our western culture.
Discipleship is an acquired taste. But once you learn to appreciate it, it will sustain you through the worst of times, and set a place for you at the banquet table of God. There is no greater work. And there is no greater blessing.
* For the complete text of Ward’s “Lenten Litany on Fasting and Feasting” see: https://gloriadeihudson.org/documents/Fasting_and_Feasting.pdf