The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with your Church history, the Christian Church—for centuries upon centuries—has always meditated on the Gospel account of Christ’s wilderness temptations for the first Sunday in the Lenten season. We’re not doing anything different today. This being the case, you can well imagine that there are a TON of different sermons in our history that all deal with and address these various temptations of Jesus, many of which are very good and edifying. Some not so much. Some treat these temptations as nothing more than a mere “how to,” as in, “Here’s how Jesus overcame temptation when He was tempted, so here’s what you need to do.”
Do you recognize the problem here? If Jesus is nothing more than a “how to example” for us to overcome temptation and sin, then that means He didn’t need to suffer and die for us. We just need to step up our game and try harder. After all, if Jesus can do it, so can we! If Jesus is simply giving us an example to follow for overcoming sin and temptation, then all we need to do is follow the template. Sadly, like I said, some of those sermons are out there. Some of those sermons may even be preached today, to the danger and detriment of the souls who hear such self-centered, works-righteous poison.
Why was Jesus tempted? Answer: For us! Centuries upon centuries of the faithful all proclaim and confess this Gospel Truth. Jesus was tempted in our place, as our perfect and sinless substitute. He was tempted and overcame such temptations because we can’t. There’s no “how to” about it!
What’s really sad is that these are some very basic temptations. The devil doesn’t come at Jesus with crazy, off-the-wall temptations that nobody else has ever had to endure. He comes at Jesus with the most fundamental desires—hunger, pride, arrogance, control, and greed. “Turn these stones into bread.” “Jump off the building. If you really are the Christ and you really trust in God like you say you do, God will save you.” “Tell you what I’m gonna do. If you just bow down to me and serve me, I’ll put you in charge. I’ll give you all these kingdoms.” But Jesus didn’t take the bait. Us? Hook, line, and sinker! What’s truly sad is that we don’t even put up a fight. In fact, many times the fight arises when we’re called out in our sinfulness. “Who do you think you are?! How dare you judge me!” This is why Jesus was tempted. He did what we can’t do and don’t do.
But here’s the thing: I’m quite certain that you already know all of this. I know for a fact that you’ve been hearing it from me for ten-plus years now. You may not have been listening, but I know you’ve heard it. I’ve got ten years of sermons to prove it.
So…let’s take a different tact for today. Why did Jesus fast? For those of you who worshipped with us this past Ash Wednesday, this may seem redundant, but it’s not. Why did Jesus fast before these temptations? Again, the answer comes down to vicarious satisfaction, which is just a fancy way of saying that He was our substitute. Don’t over-think this. The devil seduced our first parents to gratify their desires by eating; eating the very food that God commanded them to abstain from. It’s not like they were starving! God richly provided them with all that they could possibly need. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of this one tree—of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” God gave them every fruit of every tree to eat. There was no shortage of sustenance. Their daily bread and their cup runneth over. And yet…it wasn’t good enough for them. They wanted more. They wanted to be like God. They wanted to be His equals. They wanted control. It should come as no surprise that some of our Christian forefathers have noted that the first sin wasn’t the sin of disobedient eating, but the sin of pride. The devil whispered gently in their ears, and they took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. This is why Jesus fasted. He fasted because we can’t and we don’t.
Now, some of you may already be scratching your heads because you know your Church history. You know that for centuries upon centuries Christians have observed the forty days of Lent by fasting…just like Jesus did. But…doesn’t that contradict the whole “Jesus isn’t our example, but our substitute” thing? Well…it depends how you look at it. If you think you need to fast like Jesus did so that you too can overcome sin and temptation, then you’ve got it all wrong. Jesus isn’t our example. He’s our perfect and necessary substitute. However, if you properly understand the whole concept of fasting, then Christ’s humble, faithful example will make perfect sense to you.
You see, the whole idea behind fasting is that the time you would normally use to eat (or whatever else) is instead used for prayer and meditation. Rather than eat (or whatever else you typically do), you take that time and read God’s Word and pray. Rather than feed your gut, you abstain and let God feed you with the feast of His Bread of Life—His holy Word. You trust in God. You hold fast to His promise that He will richly and daily provide you with all that you need (not necessarily desire) for this body and life.
This is why Christians—for centuries upon centuries—have observed fasting, not just in Lent, but as a regular practice throughout the year. Yes, during Lent we also fast as a way of reminding ourselves of all that Jesus gave up for us. This is true. We don’t give up a sin/vice for Lent. That’s just plain wrong and foolish! You should do that all the time! Rather, we give up something near and dear to us as a way of remembering that Jesus gave up all of heaven’s glory and majesty to take on our flesh, all so that His flesh could suffer and die for us in our place. This is all good, right, and salutary. But…the main reason behind fasting is to set aside time for God.
What about you? Do you fast? I’m asking from a Sabbath perspective; the perspective of resting and letting the Divine serve you. Even as I ask I’m reminded of a very famous quote: “If the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy.” Sure, you may not be some terrible reprobate of a sinner. We can always think of a BUNCH of people who are way worse sinners than us! But…are you too busy for God? Careful! God knows the Truth! How often we lament how famished we are in our relationship to God. “I’m not being fed. My thirst isn’t being quenched.” And yet…we stay away and abstain from the very gifts of life that He is constantly holding out to us and endeavoring to nourish us with. We spread ourselves so thin with all kinds of self-imposed busy work, and yet we lament how famished we are in relation to God. We complain of hunger pangs while we fill our guts, our hearts, and our minds with endless helpings of rot-gut swill! And make no mistake: The devil makes sure to keep the buffet stocked full! It’s like a cruise ship to hell, with endless options and no limits. We gorge on the very things that do NOTHING for our souls; for our salvation.
So…I’ll say it again (and I want you to take a good long look in the mirror): If the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. Understand: All our natural gifts and abilities are just that—gifts from God. They are not “evil” in and of themselves. However, they cease to become gifts when they instead become our gods; when they take the place of God; when we serve ourselves and not our God.
I think back to my own circumstances a little over one year ago. I was so busy, spread very thin with all kinds of different projects and worries, mostly self-imposed. I was worrying about all kinds of things that really weren’t mine to worry about. And then it happened: I woke up in the dog’s bed after suffering a grand mal seizure. I spent the next day and a half in a hospital bed. I spent the next few weeks after that unbelievably sore and lethargic, desperate to recall those two days that were still a dark haze. I still don’t remember everything from that time. I had been slowed down.
And you know what? It was the best medicine I could receive. That’s not to say that it was an easy pill to swallow, but the Good Physician knew what I needed. I hadn’t been listening. I hadn’t been a good patient. I had been too busy feeding on all the other things, and not allowing time for God to nourish me. He slowed me down. I was made to fast from all the different jobs and duties that I was very good at and enjoyed doing; jobs and duties that piled up and wound up keeping me from the Bread of Life. It was during this time of imposed fasting that I came to realize just how spiritually-famished I had become. The fasting time was exactly what I needed. I had been blessed with an abundance of new-found time to feast on God’s Word and Promise.
Having said all this, I pray you NEVER have to experience such a harsh prescription. Consider your life. Consider your oh-so-busy schedule. Consider all the plates you’re trying to keep spinning. Consider all the turbulence in your life… and then consider the fact that maybe that hunger pang you’re feeling in your soul is the Good Physician calling you to fast and turn away from all that and instead turn and hold fast to Him. Consider the various vocations He gives you; the offices and estates He bestows upon you to serve Him by serving your family, your friends, and your neighbors. Consider how those God-given vocations may be suffering because you’re too busy trying to do things that God hasn’t given you to do; things that God hasn’t given to you to worry about. Perhaps a fast is in order.
Dear Brothers and Sisters: Here is your God and Lord, graciously and abundantly holding out to you His Bread of Life. Here is your feast that has no limits, no conditions, and no end. St. Augustine (ca. 400 AD) once said, “The heart of man will not rest until it rests in Thee.” This is why we take this special time known as “Lent.” This is why we carve out time out of the Church year—to (re-)focus on Christ and all that He gave up for us and our salvation. Look to this cross. Look to this font. Look to the feast. By all means, imitate the faith of your Lord. Imitate the faith of men like St. Paul and all those faithful Christians who’ve come before you. Fast…in faith. Focus…in faith. Feast…in faith. Fast, focus, feast…rest and rejoice.
In His name and to His glory…AMEN.
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