“A Fast Month”

“A Fast Month”
Psalm 32; Matthew 4:1-11
Stephanie Mettler
February 26, 2023

Welcome to Lent, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least for me, it’s maybe my favorite season of the year, rivaling Advent and Christmas. Many of you know a good bit about Lent, but for the sake of review… The word “Lent” refers to springtime, the word ‘Lent’ coming from an Old English word meaning “lengthen,” as the days do when we get to spring. Lent is the season of the cross, in which Christians are invited to deeper discipline and a deeper pondering of the mystery of Jesus’s sacrifice and victory. The 40 days of Lent is the season that invites us to “walk with Jesus” in both a spiritual and physical way. We discipline our bodies and minds and hearts so we can be like Jesus in body, mind, and heart so we can work his purity and justice into our own daily rhythms and not hold them as merely ideas. Traditionally, Christians have chosen to fast and pray during Lent, throwing off basic pleasures and comforts in order to know Christ more deeply.

The call of Lent is a little bit like the de-influencers of social media, trying to encourage us not to buy into things that are, in the end, just going to disappoint us.

Practicing Lent looks a bit like the way my youngest child has learned to practice undistracted bottle drinking. If he is not going to get distracted while he’s drinking a bottle, he needs to get rid of the pacifier. I used to hold it in my hand while he drank from the bottle, but he would see it and stop drinking. This was very distressing for someone trying to help him gain weight and take in as much healthy food as possible. I started requiring that he hand the pacifier to me so I could hide it. He started to get my drift, and he eventually would see the bottle, come running, and throw the pacifier across the room on his way. Imagine my heart soaring when he understood that the pacifier is good, and it’s fun. It makes our car rides a lot quieter and it makes him smile just to see it sitting in his carseat. It’s been our lifesaver through teething. But when we get down to seeking pure nutrition, it’s a hindrance.

One of the things I like most about Lent is the draw of the utter honesty it evokes. When you get to Lent, there is no faking it till you make it. People practice fasting from many things during Lent, whether they are fasting from foods like meat or desserts or from habits like media consumption or from attitudes like impatience. When you practice fasting from anything, you are exposed and humbled on day 1, or, if you’re pretty good at fasting, on day 2. It is hard to stay faithful to our commitments, and there are so many easy ways out. It’s easy to keep our metaphorical pacifiers close, just in case. Through the struggle, Lent shows us our dependence on God at a core level because we are not often strong to face temptation on our own.

These 40some days of Lent are a mirror of the time Jesus has spent fasting in the wilderness. Of course, the tale we’ve just read of Jesus’s fast and the subsequent temptations probably doesn’t have us lining up at the door to volunteer to fast.  But because this account from Jesus’s life is in holy Scripture, we need to give it some air time this morning.

So imagine being stuck in a deserted place with the worst living being imaginable. Some of you may already be seeing a face in your minds…
In our passage today, Jesus is stuck with the worst living being imaginable. But it’s not the person you were thinking about a second ago. It’s actually Satan.

Today’s passage has Jesus in the wilderness. Amidst a landscape of dry dirt and rocky ground, we can see a tired Jesus, hungry from 40 days of fasting, and exposed to evil.

Why would anyone go into the wilderness alone, with long, cold nights and long, dry days? Why would anyone choose to put themselves at a lack? Why would anyone want to come face to face with the battle between good and evil? Especially Jesus, who has just been baptized, and is supposed to be starting his ministry years.

The wilderness is not pretty. For God’s people the Israelites, the desert wilderness was the place to eat manna and learn to trust God through 40 years of nomadic living. The wilderness has been the place that brings God’s people back to the basics of having a loving, trusting relationship with God, but through a season of struggle.

The scripture makes clear that it is the Spirit of God who has led Jesus here, where no person might wish to be. In this barren space, Jesus can find the true treasure of the wilderness, which is unity between God the lover – and his beloved. If Jesus emerges from the wilderness with that and only that, he will have it all. And he cannot minister to God’s world any other way.

Jesus is not sheltered from wilderness reality. Jesus has fasted for 40 days, a fast lasting just over a month, and when he is at his most vulnerable, he faces three temptations that will test him and reveal what kind of a savior he will be.

Enter Satan.

There is a rhythm, a call and response, a proper back-and-forth argument.   The luring call of temptation to sin and a response of faithfulness to God.

The first temptation is for food – If you are God’s son, turn these stones to bread. Jesus responds from the playbook, from the words of Scripture he has been brought up on. “It is written…”“Man shall not live on bread alone,” – but every word from God is life and is our spirit’s nutrition.

Temptation, Scripture… repeat.

Second is a seeming test of faith, given at the temple, which ends up being an invitation to test God – throw yourself down so God can save you. Jesus said, “Again it is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.” In his temptation, he would not tempt God.

Temptation, Scripture, repeat.

If the first two temptations were too easy for Jesus, Satan comes back with a third – a temptation to raw  power, to have it all – all the kingdoms of the world, and to have them in the way the kingdoms of this world are typically gotten, with bowing just a little to the wrong person. Most would say yes to the offer, but Jesus cares about how the sausage gets made. Jesus sends him away, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  Jesus will not be disconnected from his source. Jesus will not be distracted from his purpose – the worship and service of the Lord.

What’s interesting about the temptation story is its context within the book of Matthew. This story of temptation immediately follows the story of Jesus’s baptism.  At Jesus’s baptism, God had spoken Jesus’s belovedness – saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” It is in the baptism story that the Spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove coming to land. It is in the wilderness of hunger and temptation that Jesus will prove the power of God’s Spirit, from a life steeped in God’s words.

For all three temptations, Jesus quotes Scripture. Once Jesus hits Satan with an “it is written” in the first temptation, Satan plays trump for trump. Satan quotes scripture in the second temptation  but is intentionally misinterpreting it. Psalm 91 goes on to say, “I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.” Jesus was cared for by angels, but the angels weren’t there just  to keep him from fasting or facing down darkness.  His belovedness has not sheltered him from the necessity of going through the desert trials. The Spirit has led him here, and he has chosen to follow the Spirit.

How slow this fast month must have felt. How long not just the days but the moments. No one is singing Jesus’s praises in the wilderness. He is living without any affirmation – except the still, small echo of his father’s voice, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The fundamental truth that Jesus would have experienced so personally and so clearly in the time of wilderness testing, is that God was his living source,
and that was enough, because he was beloved of God.

Jesus combats the temptations to take it easy, to display self-serving spiritual bravado, to gain influence cheaply.  He fights back with the very words of God. They are life for him now. In his fast, he has feasted on every word from God’s mouth. So no matter how friendly Satan’s offers could get, Jesus could chop and dice them up and reveal their substance. The power of Scripture that Jesus loves so well is described in Hebrews this way: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Imagine the holy rage Jesus feels as he hears truth twisted, when he knows the heart behind the scriptures. Imagine how he must be clinging to the words he remembers now. They are all he has. Jesus has lived a God-centric life. The Message has Jesus saying it this way: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” (Mt 4.4) . He has lived in these words and for them.  The words of God are written into his heart and they echo in his mind.  He has eaten these words for lunch, and now they are all he has. And thankfully, they are all he needs.

Jesus is ready to start the most powerful ministry years of his life.

It is after this grueling time that Jesus emerges and takes over sharing John the Baptizer’s clear message for the people: “Repent, for God’s kingdom is near you!” We also see Jesus healing those who are sick and plagued by devils of their own, and we hear him turning the world upside down with the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. The Spirit had led Jesus to fast and pray and when Jesus emerged from the dryness and sharpness of this rocky terrain, Jesus came in the power of the Spirit and with a sharpness of focus that guided him into the three most world-altering years this good earth has ever known.

The story of the temptation of Jesus invites us to take a long, loving look at Jesus in the moments we would grow weary in our own faithfulness. Hebrews 12.1-3, in the Message paraphrase of the text, says, “Strip down, start running–and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed–that exhilarating finish in and with God–he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!” Jesus has experienced our temptations. He has known the strain of discipline. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the voice of God echoing in his ears, he has prepared a way in the wilderness.

There is a book we read at our house sometimes called Goodnight Whispers. It’s a book about a girl whose father whispers his love for her in her ear each night. He says things like, “I love you very much,” and “I love being your father.” She becomes a toddler who learns to walk and a child who learns to climb and swim and sing, a teenager who is present and gives everything she has to her work and play, carried by her father’s love.  She hears the whispers her father spoke in her ear each night throughout her whole life, as she faces new challenges. Eventually, she becomes an adult and a mother, and she begins to whisper to her young son, how very beloved he is. And I’ll bet he grew up to live in those words, feasting on that love his whole life through.

The Christian writer Dorothy Sayers told us, “Lent is not intended to be an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. It is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. Put another way, Lent is the season in which we ought to be surprised by joy. Our self-sacrifices serve no purpose unless, by laying aside this or that desire, we are able to focus on our heart’s deepest longing: unity with Christ.”

In Lent, we take our 40 days to focus on the cross, in preparation to receive the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. We do Lent so we can be ready for Easter.  In Lent, the Spirit is for us the wind in our sails…maybe especially then. It is in the Spirit’s power that we learn to live to hear the words of God and live in the love of God, hearing the right voice in our ears.

Forty days of baby steps on the path of the long obedience, 40 fast days on the long road of yeses to Jesus and his kingdom. And yet, Lent is actually 46 days long. Our fast month slows down for the 6 Sundays in Lent, in which we do not fast…rather, we feast. Sunday is the day each week of the year that Christians gather and celebrate – the Resurrection. Which we mark for 50  days of Eastertide. And it does not end in Lent.   So we fast, fast… (feast!). Fast, fast… (feast!). Until he comes – alive – for all to see.

About Stephanie Mettler