First Sunday of Lent
“Four Fs of Fasting” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our lectionary, Year C is the year of St. Luke. Luke’s gospel dominates the readings all year (Matthew is Year A, Mark is B). So if you haven’t noticed, we’ve already read Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, presentation in the temple, baptism, his early teaching — and today finds us back at his temptation in the wilderness. After Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness. Forty days of fasting, then the three temptations we read about today in Luke 4.
A good reading for the first Sunday of Lent, right when we’re settling into the disciplines we’ve chosen for this year. I want to tease out four points from Jesus’ temptation, both to better understand what happened in that wilderness, and to understand what we are about here when we’re tempted. For lack of a better idea, let’s go with “Four Fs of Fasting”:
- Fasting is First
- Fasting is Fighting
- The Fasting that is Futile
- Fasting and Forgiveness
Point one: Fasting is first — And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. (Luke 4.1-2) At the beginning of Jesus’ work, just after John baptized him in the Jordan, before he ever performed a single miracle, healed a single person, preached a single sermon — fasting came first.
Now, here’s why that’s important. Jesus wan’t just going on a “cleanse” — like drinking juice for 7 days or sitting in a sweat lodge. He was doing something very specific, and we get a hint of it when we see Jesus countered every temptation the devil threw at him with scripture. And not just any scripture — one part of the book of Deuteronomy. Luke wants us to know that. In Deuteronomy Moses spoke to the people of Israel about their testing in the wilderness — after the Exodus from Egypt, before Israel entered the Promised Land, they went first to the wilderness (eremos) and hungered. In Deut. 8 Moses sums up the experience:
Remember the way the Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness (Jesus was led into the wilderness for 40 days) that he might humble you, testing you (Jesus was tested) to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments. And he . . . let you hunger (Jesus hungered) and fed you with manna . . . that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from he mouth of the Lord (the exact words Jesus spoke to Satan). (Deut. 8.2-3)
That’s not coincidence. Luke is telling us that Jesus is the “new Israel.” That’s why he was out there in the first place. One writer put it this way —
Now we can see the meaning of Jesus’ fasting more clearly. It was not an arbitrary choice of something to do in the face of Satanic temptation. It was a voluntary act of identification with the people of God in their wilderness deprivation and trial. Jesus was saying, “I have been sent to lead the people of God out of the bondage of sin into the Promised Land of salvation. To do this I must be one of them. That is why I was born. That is why I was baptized. Therefore I will take on the testing that they experienced. I will represent them in the wilderness and allow my heart to be proved with fasting to see where my allegiance is and who is my God.
Jesus is the new Israel, so he had to hunger like they did. God tested Israel; now he’s testing Jesus. But where Israel failed, Jesus was faithful. Fasting came first.
Point two: Fasting is Fighting
Look at the actual temptations: (1) Turn a stone to bread — that’s to hunger for food. (2) Fall down and worship the devil in order to rule all the kingdoms of the world — that’s to hunger for power. And (3) throw yourself down from the temple — that’s to hunger for control, to know the angels would catch him. Each time Jesus was tempted to hunger for something more than he hungered for God. That’s the fight we join when we fast in Lent — to understand our disordered desires, reorder them, and keep God our deepest hunger.
Here’s the really hard part — the greatest dangers to us aren’t murder or sedition or even the bigget, baddest vices. It’s making gifts into gods. Making the good things God gives us — your children, achievement, your thesis, your business — into little gods. In John Piper’s book on fasting he says:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night . . . . The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.
Here’s the principle: To hunger for anything more than God is idolatry. Is it wrong to hunger for pie, for entertainment, for fellowship with friends? Of course not. But to hunger for it more than God is. St. Paul says “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor. 6.12) When we fast we see what dominates us, what we hunger for too much, which gifts we’ve made into gods. Lent is following Jesus into battle. And the greatest weapon in our fight to love God above all things is fasting.
Two last points — one is something bad that happens when we’re good at fasting, and the other is something good that happens when we’re bad at fasting:
Point 3: The Fasting that is Futile
There is a shadow side to fasting; it can backfire on us. Remember when the Pharisee and the tax collector went up to the temple to pray — The Pharisee said “Thank you, God, that I’m not like other people — I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have.” But the tax collector begged “God, have mercy on me a sinner,” and he was the only one of the two who went home justified. (Luke 18.9-14) Going without food for a day, abstaining from technology or sweets or spending money for a week — God doesn’t care a lick about that if it doesn’t drive us to Jesus. Fasting is futile if it just leads to spiritual pride or doesn’t transform us.
Which gets us to the last point: Fasting and Forgiveness
All of us who fast this Lent will fail at one time or another. But when we fail, that’s when the really important work can start. Fr. Schmemann says:
However limited our fasting, if it is true fasting it will lead to temptation, weakness, doubt, and irritation. In other terms, it will be a real fight and probably we shall fail many times. But the very discovery of Christian life as fight and effort is the essential aspect of fasting. A faith which has not overcome doubts and temptation is seldom a real faith. No progress in Christian life is possible, alas, without the bitter experience of failures. Too many people start fasting with enthusiasm and give up after the first failure. I would say that it is at this first failure that the real test comes. If after having failed and surrendered to our appetites and passions we start all over again and do not give up no matter how many times we fail, sooner or later our fasting will bear its spiritual fruit.
All that keeps Lent from being a self-salvation program is to remember we’re not saved by fasting or bible reading or volunteering or prayer or anything we do. God accepts us because Jesus kept his fast, not because we keep ours. Jesus is the new Adam, obeying God (this time) about the tree. Jesus is the new Israel pulling God’s people through the world to safety and salvation. That’s the gospel.
What are you hungry for? You were made to hunger for God. If you have let anything else ascend above him in your life, he invites you to come to the altar for forgiveness, and he offers you himself under bread and wine. He fasted for you. Now welcome to his feast.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Quotes are from John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1997), and Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s, 1969).
Audio of this sermon is available at http://ow.ly/Yol8w