Audio is available here: Fasting with Christ
It is the first Sunday of Lent and we have begun our fasts, however we might understand them. For some of us, the fast might be something positive. So to engage in a Lenten discipline is to join a small group, study a topic or book or author of spiritual significance. For others, it might be something negative—a fast in the more traditional sense—a temporary relinquishing of a good for the sake of something better.
At my former College, Lenten fasts were a bit of a novelty for most students. Here were Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelical Free kids trying to make sense of the three or four Anglican profs who had smudges of ashes on their foreheads. Who talked of fasting. And after a couple of years of observing, a few would try to enter into a Lenten fast. Foregoing Chocolate was a favourite. As was coffee or soda. A few particularly hardy souls even tried a traditional Lenten fast and bid what was at least sometimes a not-so-fond farewell to meat, which is what “Carnival” means.
I wonder if they ever got to working out why Christians fast. Have you? A friend of the family wrote to me on Facebook a few years ago to tell me that she had tried to explain the connection between Shrove Tuesday and Lent to her daughter. She began by explaining Lent and how, traditionally, people gave up eating meet for the 40 days. Her daughter thought about that for a few moments and then said, “It’s good that they lent-ed, because vegetables are good for you!”
Do some of you think about fasting that way? In terms of what it will provide for our bodies? Someone I know (not the person thou think I’m talking about) mentioned to my wife that this year, they were going to give up meat for at least 1 meal per day for Lent. And to lose weight. And to save money. We too often confuse fasting with dieting—we make it about us and about our needs and desires.
The Gospel this morning helps us begin to think about fasting, perhaps in ways that may surprise.
“Jesus,” begins Luke, “full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” What did Jesus do after his baptism? He fasted. Where did Jesus go after his baptism? The wilderness—the home of the powers of darkness. Why? To be tempted by the devil. By linking the baptism and temptation stories in this way, Luke places Jesus’ fasting in the context of his preparation for ministry and mission.
“He ate nothing at all during those days,” Luke continues, “and when they were over, he was famished.” The interplay here is between physical weakness and spiritual strength. After having been baptized by John in the Jordan, Jesus left civilization behind for 40 days—a biblical metaphor meaning “a long time.” What modern readers might miss at this point is the significance of the wilderness. Jesus didn’t retreat from people to seek a quiet place to commune with his Father. On the contrary. In Jewish and early Christian thought, the wilderness was the devil’s home turf. After fasting for a long time, Jesus was hungry and ready to face the tempter’s full force.
Early Christian readers rightly grasped that the confrontation was a microcosm of Jesus’ mission. Here, in the wilderness, before he could begin his work, a decisive battle determined the course, shape, and eventual success of Jesus’ mission.
Furthermore, Jesus didn’t stumble into the wilderness by accident. The Gospel writers agree—Jesus went to the wilderness, obeying the call of the Spirit. Matthew and Luke speak of Jesus being led. The image is one of the Holy Spirit moving ahead of Jesus, beckoning him to the confrontation. Mark’s image is more stark. He says the Spirit drove Jesus. Now the Spirit is behind, pushing Jesus. Either way, the conflict Jesus faced did not signal God’s abandonment or rejection. He did not go alone. The confrontation with the very personification of evil marked the beginning of Jesus’ mission to the world. After his Father commissioned Jesus at his baptism, Jesus headed off to war.
But of course, the war would not be fought in the way we usually think. Jesus fights by God’s rules. Look at Luke’s ordering of the three temptations: the devil preys first upon Jesus’ hunger and exhaustion. “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The devil tries to break the link between physical and spiritual desire. He hopes to distract Jesus from the sources of spiritual strength by turning him to his physical weakness. Jesus refuses to be baited in this way. He returns throughout to the words of Scripture. His true source of nourishment—and ours—is God’s word. This, though only increases the intensity as the tempter moves to his next tactics.
Next the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and opens to him the route of political power: “To you I will give their glory and all their authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.” Finally the tempter offers the path of religious adoration, when after taking Jesus from the mountain to the Temple pinnacle, he says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. . . .” Be a political revolutionary! Be who the people want. Be a wonderworker! Compel people to believe by works of power. Be the Messiah of their expectations. Take the easy way.
Perhaps what surprises us most is that Jesus never disagrees with the devil. He doesn’t dispute Satan’s authority to make these offers or his power to bring them about. Quite the contrary, Jesus takes the offers as real, the power of the devil as legitimate, and yet denies the devil his prize. These are alluringly and frighteningly real temptations. They are brutal battles.
Theologians like me are sometimes tempted—that word is used deliberately—here to get trapped in a theological puzzle. Could Jesus have yielded? If not, how is he human? If so, how is he God? And here we run into the kind of problem that arises when we theologians refuse to invite the text not simply to discipline our answers but also our questions. Luke, frankly, could care less about metaphysics at this point.
When we stick with Luke and with his story of the temptation till the end, a different concern emerges. Luke wants us to notice, and C.S. Lewis rightly reminds us, that only one human has faced temptation from beginning to end without ever yielding. Only one felt the tempter’s full power to prey upon the weaknesses of the body, will and spirit. And in each case, the human Jesus resists only in the power of the Holy Spirit and only with the words of Holy Scripture and eventually, he is victorious.
Irenaeus, a second century Church Father, sees here the beginning of the undoing of the Fall. He plumbs the depths of Paul’s title for Jesus, the Second Adam, by setting the temptation of Adam alongside the temptation of Jesus. Here’s how he presents it. Adam and his wife faced the tempter in God’s garden. Satan, says Irenaeus, came to their place of advantage. He appealed to their bodies (the fruit was good for food), their wills (the wisdom it held was to be desired), and their spirits (in eating, they would become like God). Powerful temptations to be sure, but Adam and his wife had every means at their disposal to resist. Their bodies were strong from the good food of God’s garden. Their wills entirely oriented toward the good. Their spirits continually refreshed by direct communion with God. Where they should have won, they lost, consigning themselves and all their children to live under the reign of God’s enemy.
On the contrary, Jesus, the Second Adam, faced the tempter in the wilderness. Far from facing the enemy from a position of strength and relative safety, Jesus took the battle to the devil’s arena. Far from a mere fruit, Jesus faced a full frontal satanic assault. Satan appealed to his weakened body (make these stones bread), his will (rule over these kingdoms), and his spirit (perform a miracle). Where every advantage was gone, Jesus should have lost. Yet he defeated Adam’s (and our) old enemy. And so this man, Jesus, this Second Adam began to undo the sin that enslaved human beings to him who holds the power of death. The battle was joined.
Conflict and victory: these are the themes are boldly painted on Luke’s canvas. The mission of Jesus is a conflict, a war. And it is not Jesus who’s under attack. Rather, as he moves from the waters of baptism in the Jordan to the wilderness and thence into Galilee he’s on the offensive.
From the first skirmish in the wilderness on, Jesus would proclaim and enact the Kingdom of God, rescuing people from the powers of darkness. Every healing, every exorcism, every aphorism and sermon from Galilee to Gethsemane to Golgotha is to be understood as the slow and steady march of the Kingdom of God against the devil. And in the end, and in all of this, the Ascension tells us, Jesus is victor.
Now, what does the Gospel say to us on our Lenten fasts?
Well, let’s begin with the most obvious: Lauren Winner, in Mudhouse Sabbath, talks about fasting weakening and strengthening us simultaneously. The connection between the two movements, she says, is desire. We long for food and as our bodies are weakened that longing grows. It sharpens. It might even become painful. At the same time, when we fast, we long for God with a desire that, hopefully, is also sharp and perhaps even painful. And our spirits are strengthened. Our hunger for food reminds us that our true hunger is for communion with our Creator and Redeemer.
Fasting does remind us that our true desire is, or ought to be, for God. To remind us of the great truth expressed by St Augustine this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord. And our hearts will not rest until they rest in you.” No doubt this is true. Fasting—if undertaken rightly—does sharpen our desire for God, it does create an environment where greater intimacy with God is possible. But that’s not only what the Gospel talks about this morning.
So we must ask further questions. Fasting does draw us closer to God, but what does drawing close to God look like? To what end do we cultivate intimacy with God, longing for God, by fasting? Some of us might have an image of the hermit, cut off from the wider life of the world. To be close to God is to be removed from the affairs of daily life. The goal of intimacy with God, which fasting helps encourage, is withdrawal from the world. But this is not the image Luke gives us in the Gospel this morning.
Luke tells us that we fast to prepare for the battle that the Spirit leads us into. We do not fast to withdraw from the world, but in order to be led—driven even—by the Spirit into the world to proclaim the Good News. For the mission of Christ becomes at his Ascension the mission Christ carries out through the Church. It becomes, simply, our mission. Just as Jesus went from Jordan to the wilderness being led by the Spirit; just as he came from the wilderness into Gallilee empowered by the Spirit to bring the Good News, so in the power of that same Spirit, we bear witness to the Kingdom that he brings.
Of course, this is not to say that we fast in order to bring about the successful completion of Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ fasting isn’t only an example which we are called as his followers to emulate (though it certainly is that). We bear witness to the Kingdom; we do not build it ourselves. To say that we do is to say we save ourselves, and indeed the world, by imitating Jesus’ example. All of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can point to places in our own lives where, unlike Jesus, we failed, we fell, we took the easy way. I can certainly say that. None of us is, in this life, ever free from having to pray, “Forgive us our sins.”
And that brings us to the final reason that we fast. We fast to remind ourselves that One has fasted already for us. He went into the waters of baptism for us. He pursued the devil into the wilderness, and where in Adam we failed, where in Adam we fell, where we in our own confrontations with the principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in high places, we are defeated, He faced the tempter’s power to the very end. And he won. And in him, we win, too.