Summary: Temptation - Fasting - Lent - Temptation - Forgiveness
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.