Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s that special time again! Ah, Lent, you can smell the purple repentance in the air. We’ve gobbled down the sweet sweet Shrove Tuesday pancakes. We’ve had the mortality of ashes touch our foreheads. We’ve washed them off, being reminded of our Baptism which washes our sins away and gives us new life. We’ve stood on the mountain top and have looked down at the valley we must now walk through. Our journey to the cross begins a new this year. But like anything in life, we get the most out of something when we invest in it. You know what I mean. Kids that get a free ride to college are the ones who party all the time and then flunk out. The kid who has 3 part time jobs just to make ends meet to put herself through college, she’s the one who excels and knows the value of her education. The same thing with Lent. We are free in our Christian faith to simply flake the Lenten time away. But, if we invest ourselves in this holy time of year, we will certainly find much blessing waiting for us.
But the temptation is great, I know, I know. Just let time become totally secular like everything else in our world. But if we do, if we ignore this special time of repentance, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, then we actually deprive ourselves of the true reason for the season. It’s like saying Christmas is all about Santa Claus and presents, or Easter is all about the Easter bunny and egg hunts. When we think this way, we deprive ourselves of Christ – the true reason for every season under heaven! Lent and all the preparations that come along with it seek to steep us in Christ our Saviour. To bring us a heightened awareness of our heinous and wicked sins we commit day after day after day, exposing our darkness. But also to show us the light of the Gospel that shines in the darkness with forgiveness, healing and grace. And the darkness has not overcome it.
And this is the heart of Lent. Overcoming darkness. Defeating evil. Triumphing over spiritual enemies. We see this oh so clearly today in the Gospel reading. And what a reading it is! Right after our Lord is Baptized, He goes into the wilderness. He is led by the spirit out into the wilds of the desert. And Lo and behold, Jesus is fasting sumptuously on meat and dairy, eggs and olive oil and washing it all down with a cask of wine. … Um, no. Actually, just the opposite. Jesus is fasting. And it’s a strict and total fast meaning ‘no food.’ For 40 days and 40 nights this has been going on. And St. Matthew tells us the obvious “He was hungry.” Well no doubt! That’s a good long while to go without food. And yet our Lord does this to prepare Himself. He is preparing to do spiritual battle with the Devil.
And battle He does! Satan takes Jesus back to the Garden of Eden where the downfall of people began. We just heard that story again in the Old Testament reading to refresh our minds. Adam and Eve also were tempted in the Garden by Satan. And what was their temptation? Money? Power? Hollywood fame? Nope. Eating. Eat the forbidden fruit. Do the one thing God said not to do. Eat of the tree and in so doing, surely die. Ingest the poison of mortality! And we know what happened. Eve and Adam gave in to the temptation. They ate and then they died and sin entered the world. And as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Satan tries the same old trick from the temptation playbook with Jesus. He’s hungry. Tempt Him with food. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (MT 4:3). Ease your hunger Jesus. Make your life 17% more comfy. Break your fast. Let Satan get the upper hand! But no way! Jesus stands strong in His fasting discipline and defeats the temptation with the Word of God. “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (MT 4:4).
And this is it in a nutshell. People don’t live by bread alone. On the contrary, we live by the Word of God. It was food that got people into trouble in the first place, opening us up to temptation. Adam and Eve should have fixed their eyes upon God rather than the tempting look of the fruit. They should have clung to Him as the source of life rather than to food. They should have known that God Himself was the giver of every good and perfect gift, and that they needed Him more than any earthly thing. So Jesus our Lord is fasting. He is depriving Himself of earthly things so that He may be full of heavenly things. He was being nourished by the God of Heaven which gave Him the strength to face the temptations of the devil. Where Adam and Eve ate and died, Jesus does not eat and He lives that death may die. For the theologically enthused, this is called Recapitulation - Christ is victorious where Adam failed and has come to undo the failure.
And Jesus our Lord truly does exactly this. He gives us, His lenten followers, a template of righteousness and victory. First of all, it’s faith and trust in God above all things. God is Number 1. His Word is life and truth. And with God, there will always be a definitive victory over sin, death and the devil. And also with that triumphant faith comes fasting. The hunger of Jesus’ flesh does not overcome Him. Rather, through His hunger our Lord submits the flesh to the power of the spirit. This too is available to us as God’s people. We are keenly aware of the conflict that rages within us in the face of temptation. We struggle to do what God wants us to do. St. Paul says this as he laments “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing!” (Rom 7:19). But as we fast, as we deprive our flesh and realize our need for God, the way of victory is opened to us.
One of the ancient Church Fathers said “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak” (St. John the Dwarf). Fasting becomes the way to help us subdue our sinful flesh to the will of the spirit, just as Christ our Lord did for us in the desert. We can’t use that old cliché, “the devil made me do it.” Instead, through fasting and repentance, we must overcome the devil’s attacks and temptations the same way that Christ Jesus our Lord does.
This is part of our Lenten journey to the cross. Fasting allows us be reminded of how much we need God and depend upon Him for everything. The church over time has setup fasting guidelines, such as not eating meat products, eggs and dairy throughout Lent to remind us of this. But, as St. Basil says, “Beware of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meats. Real fasting is alienation from evil.” This is what Jesus our Lord teaches us in His battle with Satan. The real victory comes in faithfulness to God and knowing His word. And that Word is a word of forgiveness and mercy to the struggling sinner. This is God’s Lenten word of promise to us. The battle that Jesus won in the desert through fasting would be eclipsed by His winning the war on the cross. And this is why we journey to the cross, to make Christ’s victory our victory.
Lent calls us to repentance. Lent calls us to abandon our lusts of the flesh and walk the road to the cross, seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness. Fasting is more than not eating food. It’s about bringing the body under control of the Spirit and this is not that we may look spiritual in front of our friends. Rather all the spiritual disciplines of Lent are designed to bring us closer to our Saviour, to bring the will of God to the forefront of our hearts and minds. To help us be who God has made us to be in our Baptism: His forgiven followers. Fasting is firstly a fasting from sin and embracing Christ’s victory over Satan as our own. May His winning word of forgiveness, life and salvation bless and guard us as we journey to the cross this blessed Lenten Season. In His Name, Amen!