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Lent 1A Sermon
Matthew 4: 1-11

March 5, 2017

 

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

Forty days and forty nights. Can you believe it? Jesus walked around an area that looked much like the picture on the front of your bulletin cover without food for 40 days and 40 nights. According to Scientific American, totally fasting from both food and water will kill a person in about three weeks, depending on their age, starting weight and general health. 74 year old (and slight of build) Mahatma Gandhi, while protesting for the independence of India from the British, famously went 21 days while only taking small sips of water for sustenance along the way, before he broke his fast. It is generally accepted in the medical world that a person can survive much longer without food if they have ample amounts of water to drink, but the length of time again varies due to the condition of the one who is doing the fasting. It is unclear as to the ability of a human being to survive a 40 day fast and what shape that person will be in afterward, especially in the conditions that Jesus would have experienced in this desert wilderness.

That is why we tend to view that number 40 as symbolic rather than literal. In the Bible, the phrase, “40 days and 40 nights,” or, “40 years,” is often used to describe the duration of something. Noah, his family and the animals were on the ark for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days when receiving the law from God. Elijah also fasted for 40 days, and the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness between their escape from Egypt and their entry into the promised land. Is it coincidence that all of these things happened in intervals of 40, or is there another explanation?
It is my understanding that people in ancient times used to use the number 40 to describe a really long period of time, not to report an exact duration of some event. Think about it – it is just over a month, long enough to lose track of how long things are going on, especially if it is particularly unpleasant. It isn’t forever – there is a beginning and an end – but it is long enough to have an effect on a person. When our passage says that Jesus fasted for this amount of time, I am not sure that it really means exactly 40 days and 40 nights; it means that he fasted a really long time … long enough that he was really, really hungry!

It is then that the devil comes and tempts him with bread. “You’re hungry … you can conjure bread easily … turn those rocks into bread and eat, already!” What the devil suggests makes sense, actually. Jesus does have the capability to do such things. After all, he will go on to multiply five loaves of bread and some fish to feed 5,000 people with plenty left over. He will calm a storm and walk on water. He has the abilities to do some incredible things … so why wouldn’t he easily do something to alleviate his hunger?

I think that the reason Jesus doesn’t is because of the way the devil addresses Jesus, not just the first time but two of the three times that he tempts him. He begins by saying, “If you are the Son of God … command these stones to become bread … throw yourself down.” If you are the Son of God … These words should ring in our ears because just two verses before this passage we read the story of Jesus’ baptism, which concludes with the heavens parting and a voice proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son. It may have been 40 days and 40 nights (or so) since Jesus heard these words, but I am sure that they had stuck with him. You don’t forget something like that happening to you.

In the New Testament, the devil is the personification of the evil forces that are opposed to God. This story is not merely an incident where these forces try to trip Jesus up, getting him to compromise his principles on a couple of things. This story tells the vital incident in Jesus’ life where his readiness to live out his calling to be God’s Son is tested by the one who will oppose him at every turn, through the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees, the evil spirits he will cast out, and through every illness that he will encounter. The devil is testing Jesus’ understanding of what it is to be the Son of God. While it may mean doing some miraculous things for others when they are sick, hungry or hurting, it doesn’t mean taking shortcuts to escape his own battles with hunger, weakness or vulnerability. That is how some people want to picture God, but that is not God’s nature.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that we call this season, “The 40 Days of Lent.” Even that designation is a little dubious. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, we count 47 days. In order to get 40, we have to leave out the seven Sundays, since Sundays are always days to celebrate the resurrection anyway, it isn’t hard to make this argument. We have 40 days in Lent, not counting the Sundays, which unite us with Jesus in his 40 days (or so) in the desert wilderness. Why is it so important that we join with Jesus in this time?

Well, it is for the same reason that it was so important for Jesus to do this, right after his baptism in the Jordan. He had just heard the voice proclaim him Son of God … it is only natural that the enemy of God’s will and love would test that sonship. At our baptisms, we were proclaimed to be sons and daughters of God. It is only natural that God’s enemy will test that relationship in our lives as well. If you are like me, you recognize how God’s enemy tests that notion regularly with messages around us that we are not loveable unless we look a certain way, act a certain way, or live a certain way. The devil today tests our reliance upon the love and grace of God whenever he sees the opportunity. The message is, “If you fail, you are no good … so do whatever you can to succeed. And pleasure is your reward!”
That is why we take these 40 days out of our year and, in a way, join Jesus in this desert wilderness. Some of us will fast, denying ourselves food or activities that we don’t think we can live without. I notice that whenever I make a decision to do something like that, almost immediately there are opportunities to “indulge.” That’s the way it is! Notice that the devil didn’t tell Jesus to turn stones into bread after he had just eaten a big meal! He waited until he was famished! But even more than that, whenever we commit ourselves to a deeper spiritual life, connecting with God through reading scripture, prayer and worship, we find all sorts of obstacles in that path. Lent is a time when we can reflect on that fact – that God has an enemy, and that enemy wants us to drift further and further away from God into self-reliance. That we know how we would like to live – with plenty of food, with the fame and good name that everyone wants, and with authority or influence to run our own lives. But we also know that it is not always possible to live with these things. So, we join Jesus in the wilderness in sacrifice and reflection, throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.

Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of being helpless sinners, doomed forever to succumb to the tests of the devil. It is a time for us to reflect on Jesus’ witness as he answered the devil with God’s word – even when the devil uses God’s word himself to convince! It is a time for us to consider Jesus’ sacrifice all through his life for the healing and well-being of his brothers and sisters. And it is a time for us to simplify our lives as we appreciate the cross and its power to defeat death once and forever.
40 days and 40 nights is a long time … even if it isn’t exactly that long! Enduring this season in the presence of the spirit, may we always remember that by virtue of our baptisms, we are children of God, no matter how that might be challenged by the devil and the world. Confident of that fact, we journey through this wilderness with Jesus as our companion, until that day when, having endured our own death, we too shall celebrate the resurrection with all of the saints. Amen.