The First Sunday of Lent, Year A, 2017 – Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-21; Matthew 4:1-11
If you have any connection to Wycliffe, you know that Wycliffe makes very good cookies. Chocolate chip; white chocolate macademia nut; chocolate chocolate chip. I can never decide which is the best (generally I have one of each every time, so that I can figure it out); I love those cookies. But every Lent in our family, we give up desserts. Sure enough, there they were this week—Wycliffe’s great cookies, cookies outside the chapel on Ash Wednesday; cookies at the faculty meeting on Friday. There they were…so good…so tempting…and I had given them up.
“Why do you do it, then?” a colleague asked me. Why give them up if you love them so much? Good question.
Why do we fast during Lent? It’s important to note, at the start, that fasting is not the same thing as giving up coffee or sugar or FB or Twitter because it will be good for us to do so. Fasting is not a self-help technique. Fasting is a discipline offered us by the church during Lent. It is not self-improvement but obedience.
What is the gift that is given to us in this Lenten obedience, the discipline of fasting?
First: the gift of remembrance.
Every time I see that cookie and remember I have given it up, I remember that it is Lent. Every time I remember I am fasting, I remember, perhaps, another fast: Jesus’ fast, that much greater fast, 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. The fast that was preamble to Satan, that old tempter.
Matthew’s story is startling: Jesus is “led out, driven out, into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” What is the Holy Spirit doing, leading Jesus into temptation? Do we not pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil?”
Yes, we do—and this moment of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is the moment that makes our prayer possible.
To face the tempter, the evil one—to best the tempter—is the first task of the Son of God…because temptation and the tempter are the first problem in the world. Remember Adam and Eve and the serpent, in the good garden God has given. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat’? But look: the fruit is good; if you eat it you will have all knowledge, you will be as gods.’” And Eve saw that the tree was good for food and a delight to the eye and to be desired to make one wise, and she took of its fruit and ate, and gave it to her husband with her, and he ate. Temptation is the problem at the beginning of the world—to turn away from obedience and the walk in the garden with God; to be as a god myself, instead, alone.
Jesus faces the tempter at the beginning of his ministry as we faced the tempter at the beginning of the world. Only Jesus is obedient.
In the face of temptations to turn to his own devices, to use his own power for his own ends, Jesus chooses obedience instead, every time. Exercise your power! Turn these stones to bread! Humankind shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Jesus chooses obedience over the exercise of his own power, every time. You shall worship the Lord your God, he says when the devil presents him with all the kingdoms of the world and their glory: You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve. Obedience: to serve God alone. This is Jesus’ first word and his last.
And in his obedience, a whole new beginning. In his obedience, the first shoots of a mighty grace.
For as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man the many were made righteous…so that as sin ruled in death, so also grace shall rule through righteousness for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
At the beginning of Jesus’ life, at the beginning of Lent, we are plunged right into the problem at the beginning of the world; disobedience and the abandonment of God; and the answer God gives in Jesus Christ. So also grace shall rule through righteousness…through the obedience of one man.
And every time I see a cookie, I remember.
The discipline of fasting, this Lenten obedience, reminds us of where we stand, both the disobedience and the grace.
So fasting is also a call to penitence. Because the old story is true. We are tempted, away from the bedrock reliance on the Lord our God, to the powers and desires of our own minds and wills and hearts.
Have we ever in the history of the West had such a fixation on autonomy as we do now? Who am I? I am myself, by myself and for myself. I shall decide my own fate. Me, myself and I, an unholy trinity of self-determining ego. I am who I am. That is the mantra of our time and place.
And it is profoundly un-biblical. Then the Lord God said, “Let us make humankind in our image.”
Who am I? I am the child of God and my heart is made for him, and my heart seeks God so that it may sing.
Not by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God: that is how we shall live.
And it is Jesus who brings us back to who we are, who gives us back the song.
Fasting is for penitence, the distance we have gone from God.
And it is also, finally, for joy.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if by the sin of one man many died, how much more the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man Jesus Christ have abounded for many. How much more the grace!
The temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of Lent points ahead to Lent’s end, and the final obedience of Christ.
“If you are the son of God,” the devil says to Jesus in the desert.If you are the son of God, cast yourself down from the temple.
If you are the Son of God, the crowds say at the foot of the cross, come down from the cross.
Jesus ends his life where he began it, in obedience. He ends his life where he began it, standing in our place. The temptation in the desert leads from our disobedience by way of Jesus’ obedience to the cross. And there temptation turns to hope.
Fasting is a signpost on the way to grace.
Fasting reminds us not just of our own self-absorption and its cost, but of Jesus’ obedience and our hope.
Fear not, Jesus says, for I have conquered the world. Fear not, my friends.
With my own life I give you back your lives, so that you may belong again to God. With my own body I give you back your bodies, to be the place where God’s holy Spirit may dwell. The Lenten discipline of fasting leads us from Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness to the altar, where we find Christ’s body broken and our bodies made most whole.
So our fast is finally also our song. It reminds us of grace. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound.
Let us sing that grace this Lent with all our might, in fasting and in almsgiving and in prayer. Let our fast light our way, in remembrance, in penitence, in thanksgiving. I pray that it may be for us this Lent the road to joy.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found;
was blind but now I see.