First Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Did you give up anything for Lent this year? Some people do that, you know. It’s a tradition they have. Some of the usual suspects are chocolate or soda; and of course Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, so you can usually find a good fish fry at least. Although, it doesn’t seem like craving a Hershey’s bar or loading up on all-you-can-eat fried cod is really equal to the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Some people are aware of that, and take a more intense fast and deny themselves all food for a time, like a daylight fast where you only eat during the evening, one that actually causes your belly to grumble.
Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed fine outward training. When Jesus teaches about fasting, He simply assumes that His followers will fast. The disciples fasted during times of prayer, also. The reason why fasting is a fine bodily discipline is that it’s the complete opposite of what we are inclined to do. The flesh is turned in on itself and is always more ready to indulge its desires. Fasting and bodily discipline is the exercise of will over instinct; it’s something that separates man from the animals.
Although ironically, the animals who operate on instinct are rarely as indulgent as we humans. There is not an obesity epidemic among the coyote population. We Americans are especially caught in the self-indulgence spiral. We are naturally consumers—we’re taught that from a young age. I’m not talking only about food. When I was in Europe, I stayed at a host home that was 350 years old. It was the newest house in the neighborhood. Here in America we build cheap houses that fall apart and we tear them down to build bigger and newer cheap houses. We are consumers.
So fasting is a good bodily discipline, because by nature we indulge the needs and the wants of the body. The wants and needs of the body are not limited to food intake or creature comforts. Perhaps you get a rush of endorphins from a long run. Or maybe your family becomes the means by which you derive a sense of self-satisfaction.
Of course, on the other hand, fasting can become self-defeating. The wants and needs of the body also include a good reputation. We crave affirmation and attention. But we ourselves are so bad we can’t stand to have anything good said about our neighbors. We want them to say good stuff about us. So even our spiritual exercises become a means of boasting, like the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like the poor, sinful tax collector—he fasted and tithed! But he was not justified.
This is because by nature we indulge the needs of the body, but we deprive ourselves of spiritual food. We don’t want to indulge too much in the Gospel—that wouldn’t be proper. That’s not for us. We’re more comfortable with the Law, though we only like that in a measure that we can fool ourselves into thinking we’ve kept. But better keep the Gospel under control. Don’t get too extravagant with those means of grace. Spiritual austerity is preferred.
This means that our bodies and egos swell, but our spiritual life becomes atrophied. This can happen even for someone who is a regular church goes, who has daily devotions and reads the Bible as much as he reads any other book. What becomes atrophied is faith. Rather, by nature, we strengthen faith in ourselves, but faith in Christ is starved.
When Jesus Christ comes into the world, He not only comes into the flesh, but He comes into the flesh in order to invert the human nature. By nature—at least by nature since the fall into sin—humans indulge the body and starve the spirit. But Jesus puts both body and spirit in perspective. He puts them in their proper place. And it is clearly evident in His fasting and temptation in the wilderness.
Jesus fasts in the wilderness in order to focus on God’s Word. Fasting in the Scriptures is always connected to the Word of God and prayer. It’s not a spiritual discipline for discipline’s sake—that would just be another path to salvation by works. Fasting is the reminder that man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
And it’s the Word that sustains Jesus in the wilderness. It’s the Word that sustains Him in the middle of the devil’s temptation. When the devil tells Him to make bread, Jesus finds His bread not in the stones, but in the Word of God.
God’s Word is the feast in the midst of the fast. The evangelist only records a few sentences, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jesus was using the Word most extravagantly. When the evangelists report a verse of Scripture from Jesus’ mouth, generally, it’s never just a proof-text. For instance, when Jesus says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” it should recall all of Psalm 22, the Psalm of Jesus’ passion. Tradition even holds that Jesus prayed the entire Psalter during His hours on the cross.
It’s interesting that during His temptation, all of Jesus’ quotations from the Bible come from Deuteronomy, of all places. But it suggests that He spent His time in this wilderness fast meditating on the Pentateuch—the books of Moses. Forty days in the wilderness pondering the forty years of wilderness wandering of His forebears in the flesh. Perhaps He even retraced their journey and visited the sites of the Exodus, recalling the promises He fulfilled and the gifts He had given to His people.
The Pentateuch is no mere morsel of God’s Word. It is a rich feast. Just come to Bible Class if you doubt me—we’ve taken almost 2 years to cover 15 chapters of Genesis. But we’ve found all of biblical theology contained in those verses.
Here at the end of His wilderness wandering, when the devil comes to tempt Him, He may be hungry in His body, but He is filled full of God’s Word. He feasted in the middle of His fast. And so to the devil’s temptation, Jesus answers with the Word He has just inwardly digested. “Man will not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds through the mouth of God” (v 4). Again it has been written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (v 7). Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan, for it has been written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and Him alone will you serve’” (v 10).
Whether your fast is intense, or whether you’re just trying to abstain from chocolate, or whether you’re observing no particular Lenten discipline at all, the point of the fast isn’t the fast. The Lenten fast is so that we would rediscover the feast of God’s Word. So, rethink whether Lent would be a time to take up the habit of going to Bible class, or refocus your devotion on the feast that Christ gives in bread and wine—the Word of God that He gives us to eat and to drink. Or plan to read through the first five books of the Bible. You do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The Lenten Fast Is for a Feast on God’s Word
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard