He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, on this First Sunday of Lent, I want to consider the significance of Christ’s hunger in the wilderness as he resists the temptations of the devil. St. Luke informs us plainly that after eating nothing for forty days, Jesus was famished. You might wonder why being famished at the end of forty days without food would be worthy of note -- seems like pretty self-evident consequence -- but still, the text draws our attention to Jesus’ hunger nevertheless. It makes us consider the fact that he persisted alone in the desert for forty days with nothing but the Spirit who had filled him. This was all he had to arm himself with against the devil’s assaults. It is a point that we are not to miss. And seeing that we are now in the Season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, the hunger of Christ takes on immediate relevance to us. What does Christ’s hunger and temptations reveal about his preparation for his Passion ? And in turn, how might this reading frame the entirety of our Lenten practice for the coming weeks?
It’s important to notice at first that Jesus did not adopt a regimen of moderation out there in the wilderness. Jesus was not on a diet out there. And likewise, our own fasting is not primarily about moderation. I think it’s really important that we get this right during Lent. Moderation is a kind of negotiation. It’s about both/and. With moderation, nothing is necessarily renounced or rejected; rather, everything is accepted according to some measure of discretion. It’s why moderation often gets associated with refined taste and elegance, which is why I gracefully demurred from the Mountain Dew Baja Blast last time I was at Taco Bell. “Oh, no thank you, I’ll just have an ice water with my Cheesy Gordita Crunch -- I mean, I have standards!”
And you know, we’re all surrounded by these little calculations of moderation -- our society is obsessed with them. A little bit of this and a little bit of that -- moderating each and every experience into its proper proportion, negotiating ourselves with the world so as to achieve some imagined standard of virtue, purity, health, wealth, fashion, success, beauty, honor. You could say that in a certain sense, modern American life is caught in a perpetual rival Lent. Think of all the pressures we’re subjected to, from all over the place: “live more intentionally” -- “be a minimalist” -- “curate a disciplined lifestyle.” All these imperatives are just ways of subjecting ourselves to certain order, the world’s order, in order to gain control over our position within it. And unfortunately, we use the logic of moderation to construct all these hierarchies of value and worth wherein we consider some people to be better than other people simply because they’ve more successfully negotiated themselves to the standards of the world.
So the logic of moderation can easily reinforce various unjust power dynamics among people. And it can also underwrite all kinds of self-justification and self-righteousness. That said, some moderation is obviously a key component to being a functional human being. Indeed, Christians are called to always live moderately, whether we’re talking about food and drink, clothing, luxury, etc. But Scripture is also equally insistent that such moderation doesn’t by itself indicate spiritual or moral superiority. And this is because moderation is a thoroughly this-world activity, whereas Christianity is about the kingdom of God, which is decidedly not of this world. This is where the Gospel makes one of its many objections to the world’s logic.
So moderation is about working with what’s in front of us. That doesn’t make it inherently bad, but it does limit its scope. Moderation is for achieving the most ideal balance possible within the terms set by the world. It’s like pragmatism.
But Jesus wasn’t a pragmatist, and he definitely didn’t come to achieve an acceptable arrangement with the world. This is the basic reason why he doesn’t eat for forty days. His fast is a complete and total renunciation of negotiating with the world which has been given over to the devil. And it is this renunciation that gives the season of Lent is basic character. In fact, you could say that what Jesus refuses is precisely the kind of accommodations we and the rest of humanity have made in our sin.
The pastor and theologian Willie James Jennings is helpful here. In his book The Christian Imagination, he goes through each of Jesus’ temptations and identifies how Jesus is not merely acting on his own, by himself, but also for the sake of Israel and all the peoples of the earth. He faces “the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires of all peoples” on their behalf. So with the first temptation, the devil tempts Jesus to command a stone to become a loaf of bread. Here there is Jesus’ personal temptation to satiate his wrenching hunger, but there is also the fundamental anxiety that all nations have. As Jennings says, “every people, every nation wants to be self-sufficient, to feed its own, to turn its stones into bread.” Jesus confronts the perennial human temptation to make a deal so as to become self-sufficient. And his response is that “one does not live by bread alone.” Jesus understood that we never have complete mastery over our own provision and survival -- it’s like we say at the Offertory every week: “all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It is ultimately on the word of God alone that we subsist.
The second temptation also deals with both Jesus’ immediate needs and our collective human fears. When the devil tempts Jesus by promising him the glory and authority of all the kingdoms of the world, “he presents to Jesus a straight shot and short route to world victory.” Remember that this what Jesus is here on earth for to begin with, but the victory that the devil promises is an illusory one, for it is ultimately no victory at all, since it demands that Jesus be subservient to the real prince of this world. And as with the first temptation, there is a collective dimension. “If given the chance,” Jennings says, “any people would want to rule the world and guide all other peoples…. Every people wants to stand on the world stage ‘in splendor.’”
Finally, with the third temptation, the devil suggests that Jesus throw himself off the temple, since as the Son of God, he would presumably be rescued by angels. Here Jesus is personally confronted by the need for proof that all of this suffering is worth it. But he also confronts “the longing of all peoples to be safe and secure, to be freed from danger, to be supported on all sides by angels, to see their collective existence as ordained by God and secured by the divine will.” Every nation wants to be God’s chosen nation and to see that proven before them. But Jesus doesn’t put God to the test.
This is where we see ourselves in Jesus’ temptations. Not in Jesus the victor over the devil, mind you, but precisely in the devil’s offers that we all have in some way accepted. “We are there in failure,” Jennings says, “as the ones who have succumbed to temptation. Again and again we have fallen, joined gladly in alliance with the tempter’s desires.” By contrast, what we see in Jesus’ victory of his fast and resistance to temptation is a preparation for the cross. It’s why from here on out Jesus is on an inevitable trajectory towards death, his final temptation. But he is already practicing death in his rejection of both his own sustenance and his refusal to live in harmony with a world given over to the devil. He is gesturing towards the possibility of living in the world yet not in dependence or subservience to the prince of this world.
So for our own Lent, how should all this frame our practices? For one, Lent is not about optimizing yourself. There are probably lots of things that we could all stand to do a bit less of for our own good, but cutting back on these things alone is not really the point of Lent, though that can certainly help. I’ll say it again: Jesus was not on a diet in the desert. Lent is for taking ourselves into the red, of practicing a real deficit. Because it’s really hard to understand that we do not live by bread alone until we cease living on bread for a moment. It’s also difficulty to perceive our own complicity and accommodation with the world when we’re still just trying to moderate our intake. This real deficit of Lent imitates Christ’s refusal to negotiate that begins here in the wilderness and culminates in his death on the cross. There’s no way out of this alive.
It was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness, just as it is the Spirit who leads us into Lent. Jesus was full of the Spirit, as are we. The question before us now is whether we believe that this Spirit is enough for us. Amen.