Fasting and What We’re Really Hungry For

Sermon from March 2nd, 2014, the first Sunday in Lent. The text for this Sunday was Matthew 4:1-11.

Fasting and What We’re Really Hungry For

The Gospel passage that we read today is a pretty familiar story. It’s the first Sunday in Lent, and so we read the story that is most directly connected to the celebration of Lent. It’s the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And like a lot of the more famous stories in the Bible, we all think we know what happens. If you’re anything like me, you listened to maybe the first sentence or so of the reading, and then went, “Oh, temptation in the wilderness” and kind of leaned back and tuned out for the rest of the reading.

And the danger of this kind of thing is that we fall back on our preconceived notions of what Scripture has to say, rather than actually hearing God’s word for us in the here and now.  Since the temptation is to take the highway through a passage like this, today we’re going to take the scenic route, and go slowly so that we can hear what this often told story has to tell us today.

Our begins with a simple sentence to establish the setting: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The setting, then, is familiar. Not the wilderness, necessarily, but temptation. We’ve all been in temptation at some point or another, and if you haven’t, I’d suggest you just aren’t trying hard enough. What’s significant here is that temptation is where the Spirit led Jesus. The Spirit doesn’t always take us where we want to go (otherwise, the Spirit would always lead me to Schlitterbahn). To let yourself be led by the Spirit is to accept that you really aren’t in control of where you’re going, and that often times the places the Spirit calls us are difficult and unpleasant. Fred Craddock puts it this way: “it’s usually the obedient and not the disobedient who are struggling, being opposed and tested. The disobedient seem to have a knack for locating the cushions.”[1]

“He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards, he was hungry (famished)” This may qualify as the understatement of the year. At Fun and Worship last week we talked about this story, and it took a while to explain what fasting is. First, we had to establish that there was a difference between fasting and waiting until dinnertime. It’s sort of correct to say that we fast between meals, that’s where we get the word Breakfast, we break our night’s fast. But I wouldn’t say I’d been fasting every day for my entire life just because I get up from the table between breakfast and lunch.

Second, we had to establish that fasting is a choice. There are 16 million children in America who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That’s not fasting. That’s starving, and it’s a tragedy. Fasting is a way to respond to that tragedy, but it’s definitely something different. Fasting is when we refuse to satisfy our physical hunger in hopes that we might satisfy our deeper hungers, hunger for meaning, hunger for closeness with God, hunger for justice and peace. This is what Jesus is doing when the devil arrives on the scene.

“The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The tempter is a very good word to use for the devil. We tend to think from books and movies and old stories that the devil is God’s opposite. But Matthew demonstrates a traditionally Jewish understanding of the devil, that the devil is God’s tool. The Hebrew word for “the devil” is ha-satan, i.e. Satan, which means, “the adversary,” or “the accuser.” And it refers to a figure on the Divine Council, whose job it was to oppose the decrees of God. Sort of like a prosecutor in a courtroom, whose job it is to make the case that the defendant is guilty whether the defendant is or not. Ha-satan’s job is to make the case against us before God. What is important to remember here is that God is not the defendant’s lawyer, but the Judge, and thus Satan does not exist on the same level with God.

And the tempter has arrived to tempt Jesus in regards to what has just happened, at Jesus’ baptism, when a heavenly voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” “If you are God’s son,” says the tempter, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” It sounds like the devil is asking whether Jesus is the Son of God or not, but that’s not really the question. The question is who do you think can satisfy your hunger? Is it you? Or is it God? Jesus has to choose between attempting to satisfy his needs on his own, or choosing to put his trust in God to satisfy his needs. And so do we…

But instead of turning to himself to satisfy his physical cravings, Jesus places full reliance on God. He answers, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” At great personal expense to himself, Jesus chooses to put his trust in God, because he believes that God will satisfy all our needs, even the ones that we don’t know how to ask for.

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘On their right hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” The devil saw that Jesus had turned to Scripture for his response to the last question, and now was seeking to turn that Scripture against him. The Bible says a lot of things. And as the devil illustrates, you can quote Scripture to make it say just about anything you want. But that’s the wrong way to read Scripture. You already know what you want, you don’t have to read a book to figure that out. You read Scripture so that you can understand what God wants.

I don’t know if Jesus ever wondered about his mission, whether he truly was the Son of God tasked to call followers to the way of the cross. I know I wonder sometimes. But jumping off the Temple would certainly be one way to test it. Either he’s right or its over, one way or the other, Jesus would have proof.  But instead, Jesus chooses to put his faith in God, and reminds the devil that Scripture also says “Do not put the Lord to the test” Jesus chooses not to use Scripture for his own ends, but submits himself to God’s ends.

Finally “the devil took him to a very tall mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” First of all we should note that if the devil is offering Jesus the kingdoms of the world, it is obvious that the devil believes they are his to give. Second, we should recognize that the devil is offering is God’s plan. God’s plan is for Jesus to reign over the whole world, and all the nations will bow down to him. What the devil is offering, is for Jesus to gain the whole world without the cross. If the last question asked if Jesus would use his power for his own ends, this questions asks if Jesus is willing to use someone else’s power for God’s ends. The end is the same, Jesus reigns, but in this method Jesus does not have to endure the torture, the abandonment, the incessant bickering of his disciples while he walks inexorably towards death.

But once again Jesus chooses the hard path, giving up even his own life, to submit himself to God’s will and God’s way. He chooses submission over control, he chooses God over anything else. “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” Then the devil left, and suddenly the angels came and waited on him.

In each of these encounters the devil offers Jesus what he wants. To satisfy the hunger in his stomach, to squelch his rumbling doubts, and justify himself to those who doubt him, to skip the pain of human tragedy and have sovereignty without sacrifice.

And the testing does not end there, for Jesus, or for anyone. Temptation isn’t a valley that we pass through before we achieve enlightenment, but a companion on our journey, constantly pulling us towards our selves and away from God. And each of these acts the devil challenges Jesus to do, he will do in his ministry. He will conjure up bread to feed five thousand. He will save himself from danger, passing through the crowds when they tried to throw him off a cliff in Nazareth. He will gain political power challenging the authorities, and enter Jerusalem as a king. The difference, is that while the devil wants Jesus to use his power for what he wants, in each of these instances Jesus chooses to use his power for what God wants.

That is what resisting temptation is. It is a choice, not to use our powers (whatever they may be) for what we want, but to use them for what God wants. It is much like fasting. Just as one might fast to fulfill spiritual hungers deep within our bones, we resist temptation because we believe that there are deeper fulfillments than the satisfaction of our selfish desires.

And it is worth remembering that while Jesus refused to turn stones to bread, he turned himself to bread, that we might eat, and be satisfied.[2] The sacrifices he made were for you and me. The sacrifice he became is given to us. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

So, friends, come, eat, and be satisfied. By the fasting of repentance and devotion, let yourselves be filled, not as you would have it, but as God would.

[1] Craddock, Fred. “Testing That Never Ceases” Christian Century 107 no. 7 F 28 1990, p. 211.

[2] Adams, Joanna. “Stone to Bread” Journal for Preachers 33 no 2 Lent 2010, p. 17.



About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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