Our text today tells us that Jesus was fasting.
It should be obvious that I am not an expert on fasting, but I can answer a couple common questions.
Should we fast? Jesus never commands us to fast, but he assumes that we will. In Matthew 6:16 he says “When you fast” not “If you fast”. “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.”
Fasting is certainly Biblical. We read about fasting often. The most common fast, sometimes called the normal fast, is going without solid food, but consuming liquids, for some specified period. There are biblical examples of fasts lasting anywhere from one day to forty days.
There are also examples in scripture, for example Daniel, of what is called a partial fast. This is a decision to go without certain specific foods for a period of time. This is the tradition that gave rise to Lent and is most appropriate if an extended period is being contemplated.
Finally, there is at least one biblical example of an absolute fast where a person takes in nothing by mouth. Obviously, there are serious health implications to this sort of fast.
A fast is not a diet. While there are health considerations involved in at least one fast, the refusal of Hebrews in Daniel to eat at the King’s table, the purpose of a fast is spiritual, not physical. In fact, the intent is to focus on the spiritual by denying the physical. The time that would normally be involved in meal preparation and eating is devoted to prayer instead. Often it is intended to undo heavy burdens or to seek God’s guidance – often through a difficult period. In our story today, it is to seek God’s presence and blessing on the new ministry that is about to begin. It is never part of a deal with God. It is never if I do this God will be obligated to do something for me. Also, it is never for public display. It is always a private spiritual matter.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, so I want to take a few minutes to talk about what that means,
In our modern tradition, holidays are associated with food. We’ll have chocolate tomorrow for Valentines Day. We eat hot dogs on the fourth of July and Turkey on Thanksgiving. And what is a birthday without a cake? Every family has their own special traditional foods for their celebrations.
Jewish tradition, the tradition that gave birth to the church was different. Jewish Holidays include 16 fasting holidays (days when they are not supposed to eat) and 8 feast days. Some Jewish folks jokingly refer to this schedule as the Orthodox Yo-yo Diet. In Jewish tradition, feasting is for celebration while fasting is for solemn remembrances. The Christian tradition of Lent grew out of this mindset.
It was early in the history of the church that new converts to Christianity wanted to be baptized on Easter Sunday. It was a special celebration. The church began organizing itself toward preparing new believers for that event. The church set aside forty days as a special time of study and spiritual preparation. While the new converts readied themselves, church members used the time for to renew themselves as well. The forty days came from this passage, where Jesus prepared for ministry with a forty day fast. The original name for Lent was quadragesima, which means “forty days”. “Lent”, a German word for Spring, came into popular use much later. In those early times, Lent was much more severe than it is today. Meat, fish, eggs and milk products were forbidden, and only one meal was taken each day.
I am not advocating that we all embark on a strict fast. I am suggesting that we might want to spend part of these next 6 weeks in some serious study and reflection. Some of us may even choose to engage in some form of self-denial as a way of heightening an awareness of the spiritual dimension of life.
But our passage today is more about temptation than it is about fasting. When Jesus is at his weakest – before he has begun his ministry in earnest – Jesus had to face and overcome temptation.
Do you remember Geraldine – that old Flip Wilson character – whose tag line was “The Devil made me do it”? Flip Wilson once said – “The Devil made me do the first time, but after that it was all me.” We pray “lead us not into temptation” – maybe because we are perfectly capable of finding it ourselves.
If you don’t find yourself struggling with temptation at times, I suggest that you hold a mirror to your mouth to make sure that you are breathing. Temptation is something is a fact of life for every Christian.
One thing to remember is that temptation itself is not a sin. It does not even imply that you are prone to sin or are vulnerable. Remember that here it is Jesus himself who is the target of temptation. When we feel tempted ourselves, we know that we are in good company. In fact, the very fact that you are struggling is a positive sign. Those who give in easily don’t spend much time in the struggle. And the Devil wouldn’t be trying to stop you unless you were doing something right.
Temptation comes when we are at our weakest. In our passage today Jesus is not only weak from hunger - it is significant that he is alone. He has left his home and his family. He has not yet called his disciples. He has left John the Baptist and he is not yet before the multitudes. He is in between. He is alone.
The same is true for us. We generally have our greatest struggles with temptation when we are isolated. Sometimes that isolation is our own fault. We often choose who we hang out with. While it is a mistake to totally isolate ourselves from relationships with people outside the church, we often go to the opposite extreme. Often, we could and should arrange to cultivate relationships with Christian friends at work or at school who could support us through the tough times.
Besides being alone, our biggest temptations often come when we are in unfamiliar circumstances. It is no wonder that so many people do things while they are on business trips or attending conventions that they would never dream of doing at home. Those commercials for Las Vegas even play up this phenomenon. You’ve seen them – the ones that say “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” When folks are away, there is less fear that their actions will have any consequences. They are separated from their support system – their families and churches. There are no impressionable kids around. The normal work routine is interrupted. Why not drink too much? Why not gamble? Why not fool around? What could it hurt?
Anywhere you go, you can find Christian support if you look for it. I remember when Linda and I went to Las Vegas one year to celebrate our anniversary. We attended a few shows and went to the Elvis museum [Ain’t nothing but a hound dog – thank you very much]. We also went to an outstanding church. Central Christian Church in Las Vegas is one of the most influential churches in the country. You should have seen the expression on the cab driver’s face when he picked us up at the Rio, where we were staying, and we asked him to take us to church. The church is some distance from the strip so we had plenty of time to talk with the cabbie about excited we were to have the opportunity to visit this congregation and how lucky he was to have this church right in his home town. It’s not just “Sin City”
Like us, Jesus faced some particular challenges. He was hungry and was tempted to have food. He was powerless and was tempted to demonstrate power. He was lonely and he was tempted to have the angels serve him.
There is something interesting going on here. There was a popular Jewish conception concerning the nature of the Messiah. They expected that he would feed the multitudes. They expected that he would be king, not just of Israel, but of the world. They expected that he would transform the Temple into his palace and he is tempted to go to the Temple and bring angels to his aid.
More interesting is that Jesus did fulfill the role of the Messiah. He did minister to the multitudes, including feeding them. He did establish the kingdom of God. He did transform the Temple of God, changing it from an edifice of stone to the hearts of believers. The most insidious temptations are the ones that are close enough to our calling to be attractive, but yet are still perverse. They are what we know we are supposed to do, but at the wrong time or in the wrong way.
Sometimes the attacks that challenge us are similar. We see what seems to be a minor short cut on the way to achieving something good. Why not take an easier path? So what if we cut a few corners or someone is hurt, as long as in the end we gain a greater good? The idea that the end justifies the means is one of the most insidious lies we have ever faced and it never seems to go away.
Sometimes we feel as if we have few choices. We are pressured into a single course of action. That is rarely the case. I think of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They have thousands of trees from which they can eat. There is no shortage of opportunities or variety. Yet they, like us, are drawn to the forbidden fruit. It is an expression a rebellious spirit for which there is no excuse, yet it seems compelling to us all.
So how do we resist temptation?
I’ve already spoken about the need to have the support of other believers. You can find Christians who will support you wherever you are and whatever you face.
Another thing that is modeled for us in this story is a reliance on Scripture. Jesus was a careful student of Scripture which he readily called to mind when he was most in need. We also need to immerse ourselves in the words of the Bible. We can do that through what we read, what we hear in Church and in classes, and in the songs that we sing. We live in a marvelous time in which the quality of contemporary Christian music not only equals, but generally exceeds the quality of secular alternatives. Music has a way of filling our souls. When we listen to songs that degrade us and our relationships, we become susceptible to temptations. When we spend our days listening to songs with a Christian message, we begin to internalize that message and live differently. It renews us in a way that nothing else can.
We need to realize that giving into temptation has a consequence. Few of our foibles ever go unseen for long. Even if they do, those secret sins take a toll on us. God does not lay down rules for us in order to control or restrict us, but in order to protect us. When we give in, we unleash an inevitable chain of consequences that invariably harms us or others. And God sees what no one else can. Often it is our relationships with others that bear the brunt of our failings. At other times, the burden falls directly upon us. We were designed to live in a certain way. When we choose another path we diminish ourselves and who we are. We are diminished in our own eyes and more importantly we alienate ourselves from God as well.
One mistake that we often make is that we focus on resisting temptation. If I ask you not to think about an elephant, all of a sudden elephants are everywhere. If I say, “I’m not going to eat that chocolate cake, I’m not going to eat that chocolate cake, I’m not going to eat that chocolate cake” I can be pretty sure that I am going to be eating chocolate cake. Focusing on what you won’t do is the road to failure. Instead, do something else. Nothing gets your mind off of your own weaknesses and trouble than working to help others. Find a place of service. Make a difference in the community. You will find that you simply don’t have the time or the interest to engage in more destructive behaviors.
Ask for God’s help. When the times get tough, the best place to be is on your knees. Here we read about God sending angels to minister to Jesus. God hears and responds to those who sincerely call out for His help. That does not mean that He rescues us from our temptations, but He does minister to us and heal us after our trials. Only after we are broken can we be restored.
Not only are we all tempted, the truth is that we all fail. That does not mean that we lose every battle, certainly not, but everyone of us has failed on occasion. So given the fact of our failure, what do we do from there? Do we say with Flip Wilson, “The Devil made me do it once, now I do it on my own”?
God does not tell us that failure does not matter. It does. We have already acknowledged that our failure can bring severe consequences. What we are saying is that God offers an opportunity for a fresh start.
Can you imagine what would happen if you were going financially bankrupt, and you went to your largest creditor and said, “Here’s what I want you to do: I want you to clear my debt, give me a brand new start, and then I want you to adopt me as one of your own children.”
After he recovered from the heart attack, he would make a phone call to the nearest mental hospital to have you taken away.
But God doesn’t do that. God seeks us out. God says, “I know you are spiritually bankrupt. And so I will clear your debt, give you a new start, and I will adopt you as one of My own children.”
We do not have to be captives of our pasts, but can bury our past and put on a new life. God seeks, not to condemn us for what we did wrong, but to forgive us and redeem us and put us on a new path. It was while we were separated from God - what the Bible refers to as sinners - that God sought to bridge the gap that our own failings created.
In our text, Jesus endured his period without sin. He went on to begin his three years of public ministry – sharing with us this message of God’s grace.
Those of us who have received that gift of grace have also been given a divine mission. We too must reach out to those who have fallen short. We too must forgive. And we too must introduce others to our God who forgives and redeems.