The Season of Lent began yesterday with Ash Wednesday. The ashes that begin the season point us towards the ultimate end of the season. Lent will end with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The ashes point to our sin and mortality.
The Hebrews would publicly express their remorse, grief or repentance by placing ashes on their heads or faces. Jesus makes reference to this in Matthew 11:21. The ashes imposed on the forehead at the beginning of Lent are a sign of our need for the salvation Jesus will offer and procure for us on Good Friday.
Likewise, ashes expressed the Hebrews' grief at the death of a loved one, and at the same time were themselves a metaphor for our own mortality. Abraham notes in Genesis 18:27 that, as a man, he is merely “dust and ashes.” Genesis 3:19 notes that “from dust you were taken and to dust you shall return.” Thus, at the graveside we pastors will take a handful of dirt and place it on the casket with the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” Ashes imposed at the beginning of Lent point to our mortality and our need for Easter and the hope of the resurrection.
We fast during these forty days to identify with Jesus’ forty days of fasting. My experience of the value of fasting is this: Every time I find myself longing for the thing I’ve given up, I recall that Christ matters more to me than the thing I hunger for, and then I pause to pray and thank God for his love and invite him to see my fast as an expression of my love for him. The act of self-denial for the purpose of growing closer to God deepens my longing for, and devotion to, God.
During the next forty days I’ll be posting some of the devotions I’ve written for my little book, The Way: 40 Days of Reflections. This little book is a daily devotional that goes along with the hardback book, The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus that many of you are reading and studying this Lent. I’ll also post a few photos of various places in the Holy Land mentioned in the book.
Today, given the focus on fasting, I thought the devotion on the devil’s temptation of Jesus with food would be appropriate:
TEMPTED BY FOOD
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. ’” —Matthew 4:1-4
I weighed myself this morning, as I was getting ready for the day. One pound heavier than yesterday. How did that happen? Ugh! This is a constant battle in my life. Do I eat that extra piece of pizza? Do I grab a handful of dark chocolate peanut M&M’s sitting in the jar by my desk? Do I super size it, or accept the smallish regular size? And yes, I’ll take my cake ala mode.
I struggle with the daily temptation of food. The percentage of Americans who are overweight tells me that I’m not alone.
Immediately after hearing the voice of the Father saying he was God’s beloved son, Jesus left John and the Jordan behind, and made his way to the wilderness to fast and pray for forty days. The Wilderness of Judea is breathtakingly beautiful (see my photo above). It is a desert comprised of mountains and hills and hundreds of ravines cut by rivers that flow when the rains come. Caves line the walls of the ravines and the sides of the mountains. Once thousands of monks lived in these caves, though now the few monks that still live here do so in one of the handful of monasteries built into the Judean wilderness.
Jesus came to the desert to fast for forty days, just as both Moses and Elijah had done centuries before him. Fasting from food is difficult because food is our most basic of needs. Our brain is wired to constantly be looking for our next meal. Fasting from food is a way of redirecting our focus from food to God. It is a way of reminding ourselves that we “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
The devil came to Jesus near the end of his fast. I doubt he appeared in physical form, but instead, he came as he comes to us when tempting and testing us, through a whisper, a thought planted in our brain that will not let us go. The temptation was to eat, to break his fast and eat. It was food the tempter tested him with, just as he had first tested Adam and Eve in the garden long before. “Break your fast. Eat!”
Interpreters have seen much more in this temptation. The devil twice remarks, “If you are the Son of God…” as if the mental struggle Jesus was facing in the temptations was whether he really believed what he had heard God say. This is precisely how the devil tempted Adam and Eve as well: “Did God really say not to eat the fruit of this tree?” Perhaps the real temptation was to use his power to alleviate the hunger he felt, a precursor to using his power to avoid the cross. Maybe the devil was planting a seed in his mind that by turning stones to bread he could win followers while bypassing the cross. All of these may have been a part of the temptation that day.
Ultimately, as I read this temptation, I remember that Jesus was tempted by the very thing I struggle with each day. He had the self-control to say, "No," to the devil’s whispers, to neither break his fast nor to use his powers for self-preservation. He reminded himself and the devil that we don’t live by bread alone. We live by the words that proceed from the mouth of God. This, in the end, is the very point of fasting.
Jesus, thank you for revealing the story of your temptations to the disciples, who shared it with us. It is good to know that you struggled with temptation too. Help me in my struggle with the tempter. Amen.
This devotional is a part of The Way: 40 Days of Reflection and is used by permission of Abingdon Press.