FPC Sermon March 5, 2017 Matthew 4: 1-11
Here we are in the first week of Lent. Thanks to everyone who braved the snowstorm to turn out at our Ash Wednesday service. Our youth are at Spring Hill Camp this weekend, an amazing place with rock-band worship that inspires them and games that bring them together. They’re in the “broom ball” semi-finals today.
Today is also Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday. I’m afraid that one slipped by me this year. Otherwise, we’d have more women leading worship today.
Last Sunday, I asked if anyone planned to watch the Academy Awards. One of the highlights of that event was a special celebration and acknowledgment of Katherine Johnson, one of the women who inspired the movie “Hidden Figures,” which many of us have seen. I’d like to share some of that with you.
That NASA genius, mathematician Katherine Johnson, is a lifelong Presbyterian, a member of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia.
As was written in this week’s Presbyterian News, “The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, former pastor at Carver Memorial and now Union Presbyterian Seminary’s president and professor of New Testament, called Johnson ‘a true space heroine, but one of the people you rarely hear about.’ Blount spoke of Johnson’s humility, saying he had been the pastor at Carver Memorial for three years before he ever heard about her early work at NASA.”
The article continues, “A NASA mathematician and aerospace technologist from 1953–1986, Johnson’s computations have influenced every major space program from the Mercury launches through the space shuttle program. Johnson was initially hired as a research mathematician at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the agency that preceded NASA, after they opened hiring to African Americans and women.” Last year, NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at its Langley Research Center, still in Hampton, Virginia.
Most likely, all of those women pioneers who helped the United States go into space were strong Christians.
Today, we heard about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. I can only imagine how NASA’s black and female geniuses were tempted to behave when faced with racism and condescension. Their strong faith helped them to get through those trials, to keep their cool, and to remain steadfast in the face of adversity.
Jesus too faced adversity when he went into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days. That’s why Lent lasts 40 days.
Fasting has a long history in the Bible. The list of those who fasted reads like a “whos who:” Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, the apostle Paul, and of course, Jesus. All major religions recognize the merits of fasting.
In his book about spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster emphasizes the difference between spiritual fasting and hunger strikes.(1) Spiritual fasting isn’t dieting either. When scripture talks about fasting, it means abstaining from food but not from water.
At the end of this period, says Matthew, Jesus was very hungry. As we all know, being hungry can lead to confusion and vulnerability. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was very vulnerable at the end of this fast.
Not surprisingly, then, that’s when Jesus was tempted. In Greek, it’s the diabolos who tempts Jesus. That’s the word we usually translate as “devil.” It also means “accuser” or “slanderer.” In other words, this is a being that wants to get Jesus into trouble, to get Jesus to sin, and to divert Jesus from his mission. To prove that comfort, safety, and power triumph over faithfulness to God. Jesus faces adversity, and Jesus triumphs.
When we read Matthew’s words, we must conclude that the devil didn’t understand spiritual fasting. The devil was thinking only of Jesus’ likely physical hunger.
While many people find spiritual fasting helpful in bringing them closer to Jesus, Jesus never called fasting obligatory. However, he did say that once he was gone, fasting would be appropriate.
Not just any kind of fasting, however. It has to be God-centered fasting. In Matthew 6, which we read on Ash Wednesday, Jesus comments that the most important fasting is done in private. It’s not fasting for social prestige. It’s fasting in order to walk more closely with God. To promote our personal relationship with the God who loves us, each of us, as individuals.
This discipline of fasting, then, actually turns into feasting, because we are strengthening our relationship with our Lord and Savior. It strips away the cumbersome loads of our complicated lives and replaces them with the simplicity of a one on one relationship with our God. I urge each of you to incorporate fasting into your observance of Lent this year.
The devil also offered Jesus two other propositions. The first was to jump from the highest point of the Temple. Presumably, this would impress everyone with his preeminence in the sight of God. It didn’t interest Jesus at all. Because Jesus was not focused on his own safety. He had no interest in impressing anyone with death-defying deeds. He was focused on you and me and our relationship to God through Him.
Finally, the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – vast, limitless power if only Jesus will bow down and worship him. Jesus doesn’t need that either. Jesus already has the power. You and I know about all the temptations confronting us today. The vain things that charm us most, that detract from our faith. Jesus isn’t calling us to a part-time faith. Jesus wants our hearts and minds each and every day.
I saw a very profound film this week called Silence. It’s all about what happens when two young Portuguese Jesuit priests insist on going to Japan in 1670 to find their mentor. A priest in Macau has written that the priests’ mentor, a man named Ferreira, has turned against Jesus, has apostasized, in the midst of widespread Japanese persecution of Christians.
This film Silence is full of moral dilemmas. It challenges us to ask ourselves “what does it mean to be a Christian?” How can we discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us?
Remember that Jesus told his disciples they must be prepared to give up everything for him. Are you and I prepared to do that this Lenten season? Where does our faith rank on our priority list?
Jesus did not let himself be distracted by the world’s temptations. He is calling you and me to do the same. May this Lenten season lead all of us to a deeper, more profound faith. Amen.
[i] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Disciple: The Path to Spiritual Growth (Harper San Francisco, 1978), p. 49.