Sermon for Sunday, March 9, 2014 || Lent 1A || Matthew 4:1-11
If you asked a certain subset of people to describe in one word how they relate to you, what might that word be? Your child might say, “Daddy” or “Mommy.” Your wife might say, “Husband.” Your husband might say, “Wife.” Your boss might say, “Employee.” But there’s one description that tends to override all the others, especially here in the United States. That description is the one given you by the Marketing Department. That description is “Consumer.”
We consume about a quarter of the world’s energy, and yet we make up only one twentieth of the world’s population. Several of our most popular ways to die involve over-consumption of food or drink or drugs. I mean, have you seen how they deliver French fries at the restaurant Five Guys? They fill a cup with a fairly generous, but not outrageous, serving and then dump three or four more scoops into your bag! Who could possibly eat all those fries?
In our society, we fill ourselves up with fast food and fast cars, all the while buying stuff that we tell ourselves we need, but we really don’t. We fill ourselves up with anxiety over making sure our lives and livelihoods are secure, all the while ignoring the vast majority of people who will never have security. And we fill ourselves up with the sensational, yet banal, details of the lives of the rich and famous, all the while daydreaming about what we would do if the paparazzi followed us into a restaurant.
We fill ourselves up by hoarding stuff, by worrying about our security, by coveting fame. We fill ourselves up until there’s no room left within us for anything that we ourselves didn’t squash in there, until there’s no room left within us for God.
In the Gospel reading this morning, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness immediately following his baptism. After more than a month in the wilderness, Jesus meets the devil. And the devil can’t pass up such a juicy opportunity for temptation.
“See that rock over there,” says the tempter. “I bet you could turn that rock into bread and fill yourself up.”
“See the ground way below,” says the tempter. “I bet you could jump and be secure in the arms of angels who would never let you hurt even your foot.”
“See the kingdoms spread all over the world,” says the tempter. “I bet you’d be the most famous ruler of those kingdoms who ever lived if you first swore fealty to me.”
These three attempts at temptation make up the industry standard. Worrying about getting stuff, getting security, and getting fame – they’ve worked for centuries, thinks the devil. Surely, they will work on this Jesus fellow. Not to mention, Jesus has been out in this wilderness for forty days. I’ve got him right where I want him, thinks the devil. Surely, the industry standard temptations about stuff, security, and fame will work on a guy who has been living out in the elements alone with no food for forty days!
Of course, the industry standard temptations fail. Jesus isn’t worried about getting stuff or being secure or finding fame. Why not? Well, the devil has misinterpreted Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Rather than being a benefit to the devil in the tempter’s scheme, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness help not the tempter, but Jesus himself.
You see, Jesus wasn’t just killing time during those forty days. He wasn’t twiddling his thumbs waiting for the devil to turn up. Jesus was fasting.
A fast is a way to make a space, to open up a hole within ourselves. A fast is an active and difficult denial of something that has influence over us (traditionally food, though fasts certainly are not limited to that area). When we fast, we forego the things that we usually use to fill us up, the things that we mistakenly depend on to keep us going. And when we cease to fill ourselves up with all the junk of the world and all the anxiety about our own security and all our envy of the famous – when we cease to fill ourselves up with these things, we make room within ourselves for God.
Fasting intentionally opens up a hole for God to fill. When we clear away the rubbish that has piled up in our interior selves, we make a space for God to come in and dwell. And the more interior square footage we devote to God, the better we will be able to listen and respond to God’s movement in our lives.
This is just how Jesus fends off the devil in the wilderness. After forty days of fasting, he’s not empty, but full – full of God. Notice that each time the tempter goes on offense, Jesus dredges up from within himself words of scripture that speak to the believer’s relationship with God.
“Bread alone can’t sustain you,” Jesus says. “But every word that God speaks gives sustenance to creation.”
“I’m not going to jump off the temple,” Jesus says. “I don’t need to test God to trust God.”
“I’m not going to bow down to you,” Jesus says. “I serve God, and only God instills in me the desire to worship.”
Jesus combats the industry standard temptations of stuff, security, and fame. He beats off the tempter by filling himself up with God. And he fills himself up with God by emptying himself through fasting. During our own forty days this Lent, how will we make spaces within us for God? How can we clear away the rubbish so that God can move in and walk around? We can make a start by choosing to fast.
If you tend to fill yourself up with stuff you don’t really need, then promise not to buy anything beyond basic necessity and you may find basic necessity is more than enough. If you tend to fill yourself up with worry about the security of your livelihood, then stop and pray when you find anxiety setting in and you may find new sources of blessing. If you tend to fill yourself up with desire to live as the rich and famous do, then skip the grocery aisle magazine racks and you may find enough fame within your own close circle.
As you deny yourself the things that normally fill you up, actively invite God to enter the newly cleared space. Choose to fast. Clear away the rubbish, hollow out your insides, and give God a place to fill.