LUKE 4:1-13

7 July 2013


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            A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Randy at Brewsky's, a sports bar out west on 156th and Q.  We meet there most Wednesdays.  We started having lunch together three or four months prior to his wife's death, and have continued meeting since then.  Like most sports bars in town, it is filled with television screens, with each screen tuned to a different sporting event or program.  One of the screens that day had a program on called, "The 50 Best Plays at Home."  It counted down from 50, the greatest plays ever to happen at home plate.  Most involved violent collisions between the baserunner and the catcher, but not the number one greatest play.  The number one greatest play was Jackie Robinson's stealing home during the 1955 World Series, sliding under Yogi Berra's tag.  By the way, did you know Jackie went to UCLA!  I thought you did.

            After the play I asked Randy about his favorite Yogi Berra quote.  I told him my favorite was Yogi saying of a particular restaurant, "No one goes there anymore.  It's too crowded."  Randy did not hesitate.  He said, "My favorite quote is 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it.'"

            Jesus came to a fork in the road as he began his public ministry.  Before beginning, he had to choose what methods he would use to win people to God.  Turn with me to that "fork in the road" moment in Jesus' life.  Luke 4:1.  And remember this is the most sacred of stories because it could have only come from Jesus' lips.  There were no eyewitnesses to this encounter.


            Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Jesus answered him, It is written, One does not live by bread alone. ’”

            Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.

            Jesus answered him, It is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. ’”

            Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

            Jesus answered him, It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test. ’”              When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


            This is one of those times I wish we had an easy and tasteful way of showing some pictures here in the sanctuary, a big monitor that we could hide behind pocket shelf with a sliding door and we could push a button and and that door would slide open and we could watch the video or slide, and then when we were down, push the button and the door would slide back into place, so I'll just have to tell you and you can imagine the place in your mind.   We visited the area where all this took place out in the Jordanian wilderness, and let me tell you, it was a dry desolate place where the Spirit led Jesus.   It stretched for thirty-five miles one way and fifteen miles another way.  The Jews called the area Jeshimmon, which means "The Devastation."  It's not a friendly, hospitable place, and I want to point out three things in this passage.  I actually would like to point out four things, but because of communion we only have time for three.

            First, note the personal force of evil at work here.  Now, we often make jokes about this personal evil, like the story of the woman who bought a very expensive dress.  Her husband asked her, "Why did you buy this dress?" 

            She said, "Well, honey, the devil made me do it.  I was trying it on in the store and the devil said to me, 'I've never seen you look more gorgeous than you do in that dress.'"

            The husband responded with, "Well, why didn't you say, 'Get behind me, Satan?'"

            She replied, "I did, and he said, 'It looks great from behind as well.'"

            We make jokes about this personal force of evil, but the bible doesn't.  We may not believe in a personal force of evil, but the writers of the bible did.  And that leads me to the second thing I want us to note here.

            Second, note how temptation varies from person to person.  What tempts you may not tempt me and vice versa.  The newest technological gadget does not tempt Trudy at all, but it does me.  Furthermore, what may tempt Jesus may or may not necessarily tempt us.  For example, it's no temptation for us to turn stones into bread or leap from a tall building because for us those things are impossible.  Now the second temptation on the other hand, the power temptation, that is something that would be attractive to many of us.  Most of us have thought to ourselves, privately never sharing this with others, we have thought to ourselves, "If I were King of the World, or if I were Queen of the World, if I were in charge, I would do such and such."  So two of the three temptations Jesus faces are tailored to him, to a man whose powers were unique and who had to decide how to use them.  As Jesus is about to embark on his public ministry, before the heads out to teach and heal and preach, the Spirit leads him out to the wilderness in order to settle, once and for all, the methods he will use to win people to God.  Will he choose the way of power and glory or will he choose the way of humility and the Cross?

            Then, thirdly, note Jesus used fasting as a way of dealing with the temptation in the wilderness.  Fasting played a major role in preparing Jesus to withstand the temptations in the wilderness.  This fasting may have made Jesus physically hungry, but it also made him spiritually strong.

            And if we read through the Scriptures, the people who practiced the spiritual discipline of fasting reads like a biblical "Who's Who."  Biblical fasters include Moses the Lawgiver, David the King, Elijah the Prophet, Esther the Queen, Daniel the Seer, Anna the Prophetess, Paul the Apostle, and of course, Jesus our Lord.  Not only that, a cursory reading of church history also reveals that many of the great saints, people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney fasted as well.  

            In light of that, I want to make a case for rediscovering this long forgotten and often ignored spiritual practice, and before we go any further let me define it.  Fasting is abstaining from food for spiritual reasons.  Now, we may fast and abstain from food for other reasons.  We may do so for physical reasons in order to jump start a diet, or political reasons like going on a hunger strike, but we are talking here about abstaining from food for spiritual purposes, and Jesus clarifies that in his Sermon on the Mount.  Turn we me to Matthew 6:16.  That's two books prior to Luke's gospel. 


            And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


            A little context.  Jesus was referring to the Pharisees here.  The Pharisees fasted two days a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.  Why those two days?  Because those were market days and they would paint their faces, mark them up, to show people in the crowded marketplace how spiritual they were.  They were not abstaining from food for spiritual reasons, but in order to impress others, and Jesus points that out, and other than Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is a national day of fasting, it is to be a private matter between ourselves and God.

            While we are in Matthew, let's read one more thing Jesus says about fasting.  Turn with me to Matthew 9:14.  Do you have that in front of you?  Listen to Jesus words. 


            Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast? 


            Now, don't get your hopes up.  If you are anything like me, a person who really loves food, who starts the day by thinking what he will have for each meal of the day, if you are anything like me you are thinking, "Great.  Fasting for Christians ended with the temptation of Jesus.  After all, the twelve disciples do not fast.  Unfortunately, Jesus continues on.


            And Jesus said to them, The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.


            So, let's summarize the three passages we have read this morning.  Passage one in the wilderness, we saw Jesus, himself, fasting.  In the second passage with the Pharisees, we saw Jesus clarify the purpose of fasting, and here in this third passage we see Jesus saying that his future followers, after he ascended to heaven, would fast. 

            At this point, however, you may be asking, "Why?  Why fast?  What does fasting do for us?"  Fasting for the average Presbyterian, really for the average mainline Christian in America, is seldom practiced.  Why should we resurrect it today?  One reason.  It's the same reason Jesus fasted.  Fasting concentrates our spiritual energy.

            One of the more remarkable things in the bible, if we trace it through the scriptures, we discover fasting used at critical junctures in the lives of the saints.  If the saints were struggling to find God's will, they not only prayed but they also fasted.  If they needed to atone for some serious wrongdoing, they confessed and fasted.  If they were desiring God's protections from an enemy, they dropped to their knees and they fasted.  Fasting for the saints was like industrial strength prayer and meditation.

            The practice of fasting reminds me of the times as a boy when I set fire to a leaf.  I would take a magnifying glass, hold it over a leaf, and the sun's rays would hit the glass and the rays would join together in a powerful beam and set fire to the leaf.  That's the sense with fasting.  It centers our spiritual energy in a concentrated way.  Therefore, if we are struggling with something major in our lives, we might want to consider fasting for portion of a day, maybe missing breakfast and lunch to concentrate our mental and spiritual energy. 

            Let me close by quoting James Packer, a theologian and an author.  We defined fasting as "abstaining from food for spiritual reasons," but Packer expands the definition to include more than food.  Let me leave you with his words. 


            We tend to think of fasting as going without food.  But we can fast from anything. If we love music and decide to miss a concert in order to spend time with God, that is fasting.  It is helpful to think of the parallel of human friendship.  When friends need to be together, they will cancel all other activities in order to make that possible.  There's nothing magical about fasting.  It's just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him, sorting out whatever is necessary, and you have cancelled the meal, party, concert, or whatever else you had planned to do in order to fulfill that priority.


            In other words, it's hitting God with our best shot.  Amen.