Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17,
[Think of the style of the “Tall Man” and the “Middle Man” children’s books]
There is a man named Bill Cox. Bill Cox—in addition to being well versed in the Brethren and assorted Anabaptist genealogies of Lancaster Pennsylvania and in addition to being quite conversant in the various styles of prayer coverings of the same region—in addition to all this Bill Cox made glorious cinnamon rolls. Bill Cox was a baker and Bill Cox had compassion—we were high schoolers going to non-mandatory school on Sunday morning (commonly called Sunday School) and Bill Cox made us glorious cinnamon rolls. If you were being cynical in a very unjustified way you could have claimed, Bill Cox was bribing us—or buying votes (since the class nominated and voted in the teachers). Of course, these votes didn’t mean much since wasn’t really anything in it for him expect more work. More baking—which was his job and not simply a fun hobby. And more preparation of a lesson. Bill Cox could have used his power of the glorious cinnamon roll to gain followers. Bill Cox was not that sort of guy. Bill Cox had compassion and Bill Cox had glorious cinnamon rolls which proved it.
Jesus is tempted. He is tempted by a Bible quoting Devil. He is tempted to misuse his power to make a scene, to gain power, and to provide food for reasons other than compassion. In the face of great pressure and dire circumstances Jesus stood firm.
He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert and then was tempted.
It says he was led into the desert to be tempted.
And then after 40 days the actual tempting began.
Commentators note that these temptations parallel those experienced by Israel while wondering in the wilderness (Hare, Matthew, 24). 40 days in the wilderness echoes 40 years in the wilderness. Not only are the literary similarities with forty but the location and the type of testing. The temptation to create bread in the desert closely resembles the provision of manna—heaven bread—for the people exiled and wondering in the wilderness. Jesus’ response to this suggestion—“one cannot live by bread alone”—closely resembles the description of this in Deuteronomy 8:3. This is in the middle of an extended teaching by Moses. After leading the Israelites from Egypt and then around in the wilderness for 40 years Moses is told that he is not able to enter the land with them. He then recounts God’s commandments and teaches concerning the years in the desert.
2 Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3 He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Though we are now in Lent and more likely to be thinking about spiritual practices which prepare us for Holy Week and Easter. This passage is read on the first Sunday of lent which includes, traditionally, 40 days of fasting. However, the going into the desert is more likely related to being a parallel experience to Israel’s 40 years in the desert than to particular spiritual practices. (Twelftree, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 825). Though through the history of Christianity people went to the desert for reasons of spiritual purification.
Laura Swan in The Forgotten Desert Mothers writes, “Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity—simplicity grounded in the possession of little—and the abundance of God’s presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to the deepening of this relationship…The desert ascetics’ relationships were non-possessive: They cared for others while leaving them free…Desert spirituality was expressed in compassion…was nonconformist: Ammas passed on their living example. ” (Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, 21-22).
Simplicity, not being focused on possessions, non-conformity—Other than the desert part this sounds pretty much like traditional Brethren. Though I don’t do much on Facebook I happened to see an article posted by Dana Cassel from a website called “The Daily Bonnet.” The website seems to be dedicated to spoof articles, a bit like the Onion, but based on Mennonite culture. This particular article essentially makes a joke of my observation that the description of the ascetics sounds like claimed Brethren ideals. The article was called “Reverse Lent.”
On Ash Wednesday, Mennonites across the world cease their regular practice of abstaining from anything pleasurable and instead take up a wide variety of unhealthy habits. Local woman Patricia Voth, 65, of the small Mennonite town of Dallas, Oregon, has been practicing Reverse Lent for almost fifty years.
“The rest of the year we’re told to dress modestly, never to smile or laugh, not to dance or drink and so on,” explained Voth, “but for these 40 days of Reverse Lent we can finally let loose a little. This year for Reverse Lent, I’m going to start smoking a hookah.”
Reverse Lent is part of a long-standing Anabaptist tradition of doing the opposite of whatever the Catholic Church does, and this includes breaking all the rules in the days before Easter.
Mennonites are also encouraged to get tattoos and body piercings during these forty days, provided that they get them reversed or removed as soon as the lenten period is over.
“‘Reverse Lent’ is the favourite time of year for most Mennonites,” explained Voth. “For those who aren’t already participating, I strongly encourage you to join us in this sacred time.”
There is already talk of expanding Reverse Lent to last 100, 200, or maybe even 365 days sometime in the future.
While there is not full correspondence between Jesus’ testing and our Lent it has provided rich material for reflection.
Point #1 Lent is a time where we intentionally focus toward God—this has often taken the form of abstaining from something or perhaps engaging in a new spiritual practice.
The first temptation of Jesus—very appropriately after such fasting—is food.It is suggested that he make himself something to eat—fancy food (fancy because it would have been made from stone by a miracle—and not because bread is particularly fancy).
It might be merely incidental that the first temptation was food or it may simply be the logical thing since one would be hungry in such an ordeal. (Of course, as we are all quite aware one doesn’t even need to be hungry to be tempted by food. For many of us many occasions of eating are not particularly tied to being hungry—and what we eat often exceeds what we need to address this hunger and survive, which is why this is so relevant for Lent and as a spiritual practice). Additionally, to be tempted by food literarily points back to the first instance in the Bible of temptation. In the 3rd chapter of our Bible we read of the one who tempts coming to the first people and tempting with food. (Which is notably more notable than Jesus’ bread—fruit which is exotic and can induce wisdom!)
Whereas sin is to have arrived via one person and food; redemption was brought by one person who was also tested by the lure of food.
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
Sin came through one person and redemption also comes through one person—Jesus. Through the sin of Adam all are affected. Because all are touched by one negative event all are also touched by Jesus.
It has also been rightly noted that though this passage often shows up in Lent in the lectionary because of thinking about fasting and overcoming temptation. Though this makes sense it feels rather hard to fully see ourselves in this story. Jesus is whisked here and there by the Devil in person who suggests ruling nations, stunts with God functioning as a safety net, and a sort of divine catering service. Most of my challenges are much more mundane. (When I fall it is usually while trail running with no one to see and I just hit the ground. When I’m hungry I just am hungry or I find something to eat.) This is the sort of stuff that Jesus teaches about a few chapters later and we just preached a sermon series on. Being angry and speaking harshly, not being perfect like God, worrying about tomorrow, thinking too much about this or not enough about that.
Point #2 In Jesus’ temptation and the surrounding scriptures we see an intentional rejection of forms of power and seeking fame that are not in line with the way of God—the Kingdom of God. In this we not only begin to learn what sort of king Jesus will become but start to see the redemption he will bring.
There is an interesting relationship between doing things as spiritual practices which impose a restriction and needing to live in that restriction. When Jesus is led into the desert and fasts, this is in some way chosen and an act for spiritual focus or reflection. There have been throughout history communities who have either fled to and hid in the desert or who have been driven there. I visited a Navajo community in New Mexico in the fall. While this was actually their traditional area they are now quite isolated and there are many other tribes surrounding them. Desert, or isolation generally, can both be imposed as oppression or taken on as an intentional practice. Think of the desert mothers (and more commonly referred to desert fathers) I mentioned briefly earlier.
The same also with food. While some people fast as a spiritual practice many have an imposed lack of food because of war, environmental destruction, particular economic or trade structures, and any number of other travesties. The taking on of fasting then becomes a spiritual practice in part because it reminds us of those who lack food while also reminding us of our dependence on God. Somewhere in scripture it even links fasting with having more food to be able to give to others.
The temptation of Jesus is not solely, however, with getting him in the right frame of mind. His turning away was an act of not gaining followers or power through improper means. Jesus could buy loyalty with bread. Jesus could demonstrate his relationship to God by a public stunt which he forces God’s hand to save him from a gruesome death from jumping. Jesus could gain power over nations by worshipping the wrong thing.
It is interesting that Jesus seems to do variations of these acts later in his ministry. He feeds many in a miraculous way. He declares himself king by riding into the city on a donkey, and demonstrates radical trust in God throughout (though never by jumping off tall building). Lent is a time to examine and clarify purposes. However, a call to introspection might not be entirely on point. If we feed people for wrong reasons is it better to stop or to purify our reasons?