Message for 5 March 2017–“Tempting Tale” (First Sunday of Lent)

Jesus’ temptation is quite the scene (Matthew 4:1-11). The up-and-coming Messiah had no sooner finished drying-off from baptism than God’s Spirit led him into the wilderness. The text indicates that Jesus ate nothing for forty days, a feat that would leave most ordinary humans at the point of death.

When Jesus was at his weakest, Satan appeared and began a trilogy of tests. The first ordeal came when Satan encouraged a hungry Jesus to turn rocks into bread. Jesus reminded his misanthropic host that “One does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4a).

With the trial of appetite over, Satan then tempted Jesus with worldly authority. Satan said that he controlled all governments and that he could give them to anyone he pleased. (Contrast this to Paul’s opinion that governments were ordained and sustained by God, to punish evildoers —Romans 13:1-7). As with the first temptation, Jesus again quoted scripture. Then Satan tempted Jesus for a third time, this instance to call on God to provide an angelic army for a divine rescue.

The temptation story reveals that Jesus overcame perils common to the human condition: appetite, power, and privilege. Jesus mastered each threat, and we can be inspired to do the same. But what about an extreme fast, the total or almost complete denial of food. Should you ever weaken yourself and possibly risk your health? That’s precisely what many so-called desert faith fathers did in the early centuries after Jesus. These odd fellows isolated themselves in caves and wastelands while others cut and bruised themselves and even performed self-castration, all in hopes that they could prove their resistance to Satan and presumably gain God’s favor. There seems to be a fine line between trying to prove spiritual strength and acting irresponsibly. The things that people do in the name of religion continue to turn many people against it.

A more common and accepted practice of deprivation involves a lighter form of fasting, such as during Lent, when mainly Catholic and mainline Christians temporarily change their diet.  Many such people of faith deny themselves something that tastes or feels good as a way of demonstrating their piety or trying to draw closer to God. Many Lenten participants fast from harmful substances, or just refrain from eating too many tasty and calorie-rich foods. At least in these cases there’s good dietary and even medical reasons that will promote wellbeing. Many who perform light fasts report that their spirit is more awake and alert, sensitive to God’s presence more than before.

There’s danger in that if people think they can fast for the forty days of Lent and then live like hell the rest of the year then they are deceiving themselves. God wants a consistently good life, one directed by love above else. Quick and temporary fixes are not helpful in the long term. Developing a life with daily meditation on God’s promises might prove more powerful than any amount of fasting. Some people argue that there’s not much point in rituals of self-denial other than gaining social status from people who are impressed by such behavior.

Extreme acts of self-deprivation can cause more trouble than they are worth. Life is hard enough without inviting disaster through rituals of denial or tempting fate by putting yourself in danger. Moderation is often a key to a vibrant life and simply staying afloat each day is a sufficient trial for most mortals. Harming yourself or tempting fate by risking death is not a sustainable model for spiritual growth and wellbeing.

Jesus survived Satan’s temptations and didn’t seem to suffer any lasting, negative consequences.  Of course, Jesus had the privilege of power and authority unique to his status as God’s Son. You don’t need to deliberately invite Satan to tempt you.  Instead, take comfort in the way God’s strength and endurance are imparted through each day’s eternal love. You might not win the holier-than-thou award for resisting temptation, but the prize of eternal life is there already, awaiting your acceptance.   –Reverend Larry Hoxey