By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Our youngest dog was sick this past week. Hope has a bit of a finicky stomach. When she gets sick, we typically give her gut a few hours to rest before we fill it up with food again. Now if you have ever had multiple dogs in the house, you know that one of the most difficult things you have to do is feed one without feeding the other. It makes me feel terrible as Hope stares at me with those… well, those sad puppy dog eyes. It’s not as if I can rationally explain in any comprehensible way that, were I to fill her belly with food right now, she would likely feel worse. There is no “dog logic” in that. All that Hope knows is that her sister is being fed and she is not being fed. No one enjoys the feeling of hunger.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent and each year on this Sunday the gospel scripture is an account of Jesus being tested in the wilderness. During this Lenten season, we’ll be focusing on spiritual practices that find their roots in Judaism and the spiritual practice that plays a prominent role in this morning’s story is the practice of fasting. Now, most Methodists today do not fast; which is interesting because John Wesley felt so strongly about the spiritual practice of fasting that he would not ordain to the Methodist ministry anyone who did not fast twice a week! So confident was Wesley in fasting as means of grace.
This morning I want us to consider what fasting may have meant for Jesus within this gospel story AND what fasting can mean for us today. How might fasting increase righteousness; an key theme in the gospel of Matthew? How might it effect change in our lives and in our world?
After our gospel writer presents the story of Jesus’ birth and the holy family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod, nothing more is said of Jesus’ youth. Chapter 3 of Matthew’s gospel begins with the words “In those days” and we discover that “those days” of which Matthew writes are that period of time when John the Baptist was carrying out his ministry in the wilderness. Now John does more than baptize. He issues a call to repentance, particularly pronouncing judgment over Jewish religious leaders who engage in hypocritical, self-aggrandizing behavior.[i] But most importantly, John heralds the arrival of Jesus. When Jesus comes to John for baptism, as he comes up out of the water, a voice from the heavens proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And then, boom; still dripping wet the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. After Jesus successfully passes that test, his public ministry begins. So this time in the wilderness is significant time. One might say that – stuck between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry – this story is the bridge that connects the announcement of Jesus’ identity with the living out of that identity. Let me say that again: this story is the bridge that connects the announcement of Jesus’ identity at his baptism with the living out of that identity through his ministry.
Now, since Old Testament times, Jews fasted. They fasted for a variety of reasons. I talked about some in my class this morning in the parlor and we’ll talk more when we gather with Rabbi Cohen this Wednesday evening. But in this sermon, I want to narrow in on the reasons for fasting that relate most significantly to this story.
First, fasting prepared the one who fasted for holy war. In the Old Testament, Jews would engage in fasting before a battle believing that fasting availed them of God’s power. Likewise, here in this story, Jesus is engaged in battle; in holy war. But his opponent isn’t the Philistines or any other Promised Land nemesis. His opponent is the devil or the tempter (those are labels our gospel narrator uses); or the Satan as Jesus addresses him. The word devil, diablos, means slanderer. The word satan means adversary. So Jesus recognizes the one with whom he is engaging as his adversary. In this gospel episode, we see that slander is a weapon employed by this adversary. And so this devil, this Satan, makes his best attempt at taking Jesus down by slandering the heavenly Father; misrepresenting who the heavenly Father is, how he exercises power, how he cares for his own, and even slandering the heavenly Father’s divine word. This is fake news at its best or worst… depending on how you see it. This one with whom Jesus does battle is in the practice of deceitfulness as a tool to undermine the reputation of the heavenly Father. But, while fasting may weaken his body, Jesus seems to display this long held belief that fasting can avail him of the heavenly Father’s powerful intercession which leads to victory over the adversary. So #1: fasting prepares one to do battle with, and in fact to defeat, the powers of evil and sin; those which are adversaries to God and God’s righteousness.[ii]
#2: a second function fasting plays is that it can result in divine revelation. Fasting sometimes accompanied prophecy and prophecy is, simply put, about receiving God’s authoritative Word, a revelation from God.[iii] Notice in this story that Jesus fends off the adversary by quoting scripture, God’s authoritative Word. Each defense, each rebuttal, Jesus offers is a quote from scripture. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues to reveal a special understanding of God’s Word and a special call to explicate it. Jesus even defines his ministry as a fulfillment of that Word.
So, that is what fasting likely meant for Jesus within this wilderness story. But what might fasting mean for us today? What does fasting have to do with righteousness: a being in right relationship with God and others? Can it strengthen our relationship with God and others? Can it actually effect change within us and through us? What does the spiritual practice of fasting – hardly a popular concept in America – have to offer 21st century Hoosiers? How might this be, in fact, a spiritual practice?
Well, first of all, fasting – particularly when it is accompanied by prayer, worship and the reading of scripture opens us to God’s divine wisdom; it can foster deeper communication with God. In Acts, chapter 13, we’re given a view of the church at Antioch. It is in the midst of their prayer and fasting that the Holy Spirit directs their next steps in ministry. Now, I’m not aware of there being any source that tells us precisely how fasting and prayer joined together spark this synergy. But here’s my own opinion on the matter. Going back to the illustration of my dog at the beginning of my sermon, every day I put food in my dogs’ bowls. I doubt they think much about it. It just happens. But when Hope saw that food go into her sister’s dish and saw nothing being put into her dish, she seemed particularly and keenly aware of the fact that I was the source of her food. Britt and I have been the source of her food for nearly 8 years. But, this automatic routine, this sort of “dietary entitlement,” was interrupted by her sudden state of hunger and vulnerability. Likewise, most of us don’t lack food. For most Americans, hunger is not imposed upon us. For most of us, fasting is a choice. We eat on a regular basis and, while we may pray before our meals giving God thanks, it is often something automatic and routine. But when I am hungry and unable to eat, I am suddenly and keenly aware of my vulnerability and when I am vulnerable I am more open to what others might offer me. Likewise, when our prayer or worship or reading of scripture takes place within the context of a fast, we are more aware of our vulnerability and weakness and may give greater consideration to our reliance on God; our vulnerability opens us to God and his Word. So, while we don’t want to think of fasting as something magical or manipulative, it can certainly place us in a state or condition of greater openness to and reliance upon God. Fasting can cultivate a state of readiness to truly hear and receive God’s Word. Methodist pastor Jacqui King writes that, “fasting sets the stage for hearing God.” Another Methodist pastor, Bret Walker, writes of his experience with fasting: “Every mealtime or anytime I feel hunger pangs, I use that time to pray… I bring my physical hunger, put it out of the way, and find my spiritual hunger.”[iv] Friends, many of our lives are ridiculously hectic and overrun with multi-tasking. John Wesley believed that fasting opened up more time for prayer. What might happen if, in the middle of our crazy hectic day, we used our lunch break to recluse ourselves to some quiet space (you don’t have to go out into the wilderness) for just a short time to pray and read scripture? Imagine how that oasis, that holy space, in the midst of our day might impact the rest of our day.
Second, in an interesting way, our fasting can also work against the powers of sin and evil and, again, not in some magical way but in a very practical way. Fasting can effect change in us and in the world. John Wesley believed that fasting was an even more powerful means of grace when it was accompanied by giving to the poor. So, often when people fast, they calculate what they might have spent on their lunch and give that money to a hunger ministry, like Food Finders or the Tippecanoe Food Pantry or Bread for the World. Sometimes, people choose to fast from a particular food “luxury” (especially during Lent) like beef, for example, which incurs significant “production” cost both financially and environmentally. In other words, we acknowledge the reality that some are not able to afford healthy, nutritious food and, through some form of fasting, we transfer the resources we would have used for ourselves to others in need and in doing so we effect a change – albeit small – by disrupting the cycle of hunger and poverty.
Friends, we are not Jesus, but like Jesus, by engaging in the spiritual practice of fasting, we can become more open and vulnerable to God’s Word through prayer and scripture. Like Jesus, when we fast, our self-sacrifice can work towards defeating the injustice and evil of hunger and malnutrition. Fasting is not something magical but, when practiced with sincerity, it can cultivate the righteousness Matthew’s gospel proclaims; a rightness in our relationship with God and with others.
[i] See Matthew 3:7-12
[ii] See Ezra 8:21-23: the Israelites fast before they set out to return to Jerusalem in order to protect them from any armies or enemies they might encounter along the way.
[iii] See 2 Esdras 5:12-13.
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