Lent 1 – St. Matthew 4:1-11
Of all the miracles and signs and wonders that Jesus does during His time on earth, two stand out as more incredible than all the rest: the first is obvious: His resurrection. If you can raise yourself from the dead, you are pretty special.
The second however is perhaps not so obvious; although it is a part of our familiar Gospel text for today.
Jesus goes into the wilderness and fasts for forty days.
Perhaps that is not necessarily a miracle by the strict definition of the term. Fasting after all is something that you and I are very capable of doing. If you are healthy, you can go long periods of time, even forty days, without food.
But do you want to? I know I don’t. I have a set schedule for eating, and I go to great lengths to keep that schedule in line. I do not want to miss one meal, let alone forty days’ worth of meals.
Perhaps fasting is not for me; and perhaps it is not for you either.
After all, look what fasting does to you.
Ghandi fasted all the time; and in all the pictures that I have seen of him, he never looks very happy or healthy. Or what about fasting before a medical test? What does fasting do to people then? For the most part, it makes people cranky and largely unbearable to be around; and that is after fasting for just a day or two at the most.
And what about with Jesus? Fasting makes Him hungry. And when you are hungry, you eat more than you should; so in the end, the fasting puts you in a worse position than when you started.
But finally, fasting makes you weak. The devil does not come to Jesus when He has a full stomach, and is surrounded by friends and family, and is having a great day; the devil comes when Jesus is hungry and alone; He comes when Jesus is vulnerable; He comes when Jesus might be most susceptible to temptation.
The assumption of the devil, the assumption of all of us, is that when you fast, you are willingly placing yourself into a position of weakness. Food is a good thing, it gives you strength and abilities to protect yourself from infection and disease and temptation. Food also gives you the energy to love and serve your neighbor. But when you take that food away, you are going to be more prone to the attacks of the devil, you will be led into temptation, and you yourself will be the one in need of help.
Fasting sounds terrible; it sounds painful; it even sounds like it will result in the exact opposite of what you desire.
But what actually happens in our Gospel text?
Jesus has fasted for forty days in the wilderness, and the devil comes to Him; and what happens?
Jesus refutes the attacks of the devil with God’s Word.
Nowhere does it say that Jesus was doubled over in pain due to His fasting; nowhere does it say that Jesus was so weak from fasting that He could barely respond to the devil’s charges; nowhere does it even say that the devil had mercy on Jesus because of His great hunger.
The devil makes a full blown attack on Jesus with the temptations of the flesh, of the world, and of the spirit; and Jesus answers each with a recitation of God’s Word.
How can this be?
Jesus has just fasted forty days; He is supposed to be weak; He is supposed to be vulnerable; He is not supposed to be able to think clearly. How can He possibly deflect these attacks with such ease?
The natural answer is to say that Jesus is the Son of God, and that His divine nature allows Him to fast and deflect the temptations of the devil with ease.
But there is something much simpler than that at work here.
By fasting for forty days, Jesus has removed a distraction from His life and replaced it with prayer and meditation on God’s Word.
Now for most of us, it is hard to call eating three meals a day a distraction, but it is a time consuming event in the day between preparing the meal, eating the meal, and cleaning up after the meal; not to mention whatever after effects the meal might produce.
What if that amount of time was instead used for prayer and study of the Bible?
Fasting is not limited to not eating however; fasting is quite simply to refrain from doing anything for a period of time. Fasting from the internet, fasting from television; fasting from shopping; fasting from eating out, all will result in more free time during the course of your day.
And that free time will demand to be filled; and the temptation will be to stop indulging in one thing and to start indulging in another. It truthfully makes no sense to fast from the internet, if all you are going to do is watch more television; likewise it makes no sense to fast from shopping, if you are just going to sleep an extra four hours.
To fast during Lent is to step back from one area and to use that time to pray and to meditate. Fast from television one night a week by coming to midweek Lenten services; fast from the internet for an hour by praying the Litany each night; fast from a meal by using that time to read through the Psalms; fast from needless shopping by reading the Catechism; fast from excuses, and make Sunday worship a priority.
What will the end result be?
When the devil comes to you on Easter Sunday morning, and whispers in your ear that you have been good all Lent and you deserve a Sunday off; you can say with the Small Catechism: Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy; We should fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
When the devil comes to you and tells you that the Lenten fast is over and that you can skip daily devotions and go back to watching television or playing on the internet for hours on end; you can say Deuteronomy 6: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children.
And when the devil comes to you and tells you that your sins are too great for the pastor to forgive, you can say John 20: If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.
The fast of Lent is for you as well; so that you may cling to Christ and His Word ever more firmly in the sure and certain confidence that His work on the cross is for you and for your salvation.
But let the emphasis of your fast not be on you. Your fast, whether it is from food or from technology, or from frivolous spending, or what have you; is not your contribution to your salvation, but instead is a reminder of the saving work that Jesus alone fully accomplished on your behalf on the cross.
For your desire to spend more time in prayer and study, will ultimately be yet another broken promise. There are only so many hours in a day, and once more a devotion will be skipped. The weather is still suspect on Wednesday’s and on Sunday’s, and a service will undoubtedly be missed. The phone will ring, a commercial will catch your eye, word will spread about a friend or relative, and the technology will come back with vengeance, devouring many hours of your time.
It is in these moments of weakness, these times of failure, that your attention is directed once more away from yourself and the filthy rags that are your works, and you are pointed to the cross; where Jesus never broke the fast, giving up every possible pleasure, not just in the wilderness for forty days, but for the 33 years that He was on earth, never deviating from His appointed course that led to His cross and passion.
Whatever this Lenten season brings to you; whether it is increased prayer and devotion using the Psalms or the Litany or one of the special devotionals; whether it is time for quiet reflection, or time spent in worship singing the old Lenten dirges, may your focus never be shaken from the cross of Christ, who endured its suffering and shame, so that you might have eternal life in His name.