Sermon - Matthew 4.1-11
Several years ago I met several friends who were vegetarians. Growing up in the south, this was a foreign concept where beef, pork, and chicken are staples for meals. However, I found myself drawn to knowing more about just what it meant to abstain from meat. The ethical and political issues involved in some aspects of the meat industry were something that interested me. I also was keenly aware of the health benefits of such a lifestyle. So, I tried it on several occasions, once even going an entire summer without meat. It was difficult at times, and I eventually went back to my previous eating habits.
Then one year I saw an ad in the newspaper for an inaugural meeting for a vegetarians= society that was forming. I thought I was would at least check it out for myself and thought perhaps this would give me more motivation to try again and this time stick with it. I attended the meeting and it was on the Friday before Ash Wednesday of that year. So I decided to make this my Lenten commitment: give up eating meat for the forty days of Lent. For the first time, I realized the significance of this season, and my commitment took on a spiritual dimension that I had not experienced previously. I realized the profound sense of dependence on God. I discovered that though food is essential to my existence, in light of my relationship with God, it became secondary. That is, I discovered that the temptation to exist in a habitual pattern of excess and over abundance was something I took for granted. In my period of giving up meat, food took on a spiritual dimension. Each morsel was a cause to give thanks. Slowing down and savoring each bite helped me enjoy the flavors and tastes that were too often lost in quick meals in the midst of busy schedules. And for the first time, I realized that doing something like this was indeed a spiritual discipline. That year, my Lenten commitment didnÆt end with the season, but lasted for almost six years.
This text, I think, is not so much about a cosmic struggle between Jesus and the devil, one in which Jesus wins. It=s not so much about a proving of his divine ability or powers. Rather this text says to me that the nature of these temptations is what=s important. They point us to something on a deeper level. The story is known as the temptation narrative, not the proving of Jesus' nature. What I think it does point us to is the nature of the ministry of Jesus, and to the nature of our relationship with God in Christ. It=s not about meeting our physical needs, or drawing attention to ourselves, or about gaining power and prestige. It=s about getting in touch with the source of our existence at a very basic level B God. My personal eating habits were a window into some of the ways I was had not connected myself to God, and it changed my life.
Now, I=m not saying that a vegetarian lifestyle is for everybody. I know that is both unrealistic and nave. What this experience did for me, however, was to encounter how my deep hunger and need for God=s presence was met. Food had become such a luxury that I realized that I had forgotten what it really meant to be thankful. I saw the indictment on our world that often equates affluence with the excessive ways we eat and waste our food. In fact, there is a direct relationship with affluence and wasting in our culture. I began to ask myself difficult questions like: who prepared my food and under what conditions? How much of this food do I really need? Who are the people in my own community who go hungry on a daily basis? These are difficult questions indeed. And these questions find their way into our churches. How many times have we had those sacred events called "potluck dinners," where everyone was filled and much was wasted? Or how many times have we paused in our times of thanks over the food and remembered the poor and hungry in our own communities? The image of affluent and righteous church people leaving such a dinner only to see homeless people on the streets in front of the church building and doing nothing is a haunting one. The temptation to forget from whence our food comes B both our physical and spiritual food B is one that haunts us still. Jesus reminds us that even if we did have an abundance of food B every stone turned to bread B that would not fill our hunger at a deeper level. That level is our hunger for God. Matthew tells us later in chapter 6.25f that even the desire for the basic needs of life B among which are food B not to worry. God provides all our needs. My experience that year at Lent continues to haunt me because I still give in to the temptation that I will be filled by physical food instead food that comes from God.
At another level the temptation of Jesus reminds us that recognition was not a part of his ministry. One of the things about vegetarianism that I didn't like was vegetarians. Too often I witnessed a vegetarian ordering food at a restaurant in a way that everyone within ear shod distance could hear, "No meat please. I'm a vegetarian." Self-recognition was a trait that too many vegetarians seemed to wear proudly, and it was something that didn't resonate with me. The temptation to draw attention to ourselves B whether it is in our eating habits or the way we do church B is still with us. Sometimes itÆs not so much that we give in to the temptation, but it miss it altogether and continue to exist as the world does. I am a part of an ecclesial system that is in part based on a corporate model for advancement. The goal for ministry is to advance to a higher steeple, a higher salary, and a higher image among peers. I would not be totally honest to say that this does not appeal to me at some level. But I am also troubled by this model because I know that it is so grossly inequitable. If I benefit from this system, it also means there others who, for whatever reason, do not. Sadly enough, we know the reasons why some do not benefit B racism and sexism. Jesus reminds us that the temptation to gain recognition is in some ways testing God. ItÆs as if weÆre telling God that weÆre more important than others. We want God to give us preferential treatment. And the reality of that is that it always comes at the expense of others. As I struggled with my newly found eating habits, I tried to not draw attention to what I was doing. My close circle of friends knew, but hardly no one else knew. As ministers and Christians, we are asked a fundamental question regarding our discipleship: are we doing this for our own benefit or for GodÆs glory?
Finally, when Jesus was tempted with the power and riches of the world, he knew that such a worship comes with a huge price. When we buy into the notion that these things will lead to fulfillment, we find ourselves on a slippery slope. ItÆs so easy to fall prey to things of the world. The tempter knew the right kind of bait to use on Jesus and itÆs the same bait that we are tempted with today. Our media plays such a huge role in the propagation of wealth and power. One commercial from Mastercard comes to mind. It shows several items that come with a high price tag. Then it shows one other outlandish purchase and says, ôFor everything else, thereÆs Mastercard.ö What a lie! So many people buy into this thinking that the price is not too high or that they can always pay for it later. The result is a downward spiral into debt and deceit that literally claims peopleÆs resources and lives. One need not look far in today=s headlines to make analogies with what has happened with the Enron company of Houston.
Jesus reminds us that the lure to such things is real, and the tempter is still alive and well. But the Lenten season calls us to examine our lives in a new way. ItÆs not only a time to ôgive upö things like chocolate or coffee. It should be much more than that. Patricia Farris reminds us of such an approach to the season: But lest we imagine that Lent is only ôfor someone else,öour own fasting and listening and reflection should lead to self-examination and penance as well. The false gods of vengeance, self-righteousness, arrogance, isolation and blood-lust are right by our side, ready to lead us to notorious sin.
The temptation of Jesus serves as a clue to the nature of who he was. His ministry and teaching were not about the lures of the world, but on God. God=s realm is not about food or materialism. It=s not about prestige or personal recognition. And it=s not about riches and power that the world touts as standards for success. It=s about being obedient to the God who supplies all our needs and then some. My experience with becoming a vegetarian helped me see this more clearly. The problem is that it was temporary. I could see a difference when I ôfell off the vegetarian wagon.ö I began to eat more, I gained weight, and oddly enough, I found myself not being thankful. I didn=t savor the gift of food as sustenance, but began to enjoy the lavishness and excesses. This sermon is not a polemic against meat-eaters, but about one pilgrim=s journey with temptation and with Lent. Like most of us, I enjoy my steaks B I prefer mine well-done. But this year during Lent, I think I=ll enjoy my salads and try to reclaim that deep feeling of a penitent heart and thanksgiving for all that God brings my way to nourish me both physically and spiritually. This is what works for me. Like Rev. Farris said, it=s not just ôfor someone else.ö But it is for me. Based on past experience, I know that with God=s help, the tempter will not win. In fact, the good news of Easter is that the tempter will never win! Thanks be to God.
1 Farris, Patricia . ôBedrock Truthsö The Christian Century, January 30 ¡ February 6, 2002, p. 18.