Way back in June of 2021, I participated in the Fast for Freedom that was sponsored by Congregation Action Network and Faith in Action. It was a communal effort with different groups of people from across the country coming to DC to fast over four weeks. We were fasting for citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in this country. My own commitment was to fast for five days, with about 25 other folks who were mostly local. We drank only water with electrolytes.
Those days of fasting at the Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill were a lesson in the importance of companionship and community. Fasting is hard and it is always better to have companions when undertaking something difficult. The community that was gathered wasn’t just the other fasters. There were organizers, medical professionals, friends and even passersby, who accompanied us. Some of you came to pray with us, to march with us, to bear witness to the stories of undocumented people and their families who have been dehumanized and traumatized by the immigration policies of this country.
It was new for me to take on this discipline of fasting. And it was not lost on me that most of the fasters have many more struggles in life than I do. As a relatively wealthy white person, with stable paid work, and citizenship by birth, my choice to give up food seemed one dimensional compared to most of the other fasters. For many of the fasters, the decision to stop eating for several days added to worries they already carried in their body – like the fear of family separation and deportation, lack of health insurance, low paying jobs that demand too many hours, no space for isolating in their homes when someone gets Covid. For me it was an opportunity to begin to understand what true hunger is like. For those who have layers of life struggle, the experience carried a weight of a different magnitude.
Five days was enough for me. Antonia, who came from Minnesota, fasted for 2 weeks. Antonia practices fasting regularly as a way to raise awareness of the plight of immigrants in this country; three of her own children are DACA recipients and she is sin papeles, undocumented. Civil rights leader,Joe Madison, recently fasted for more than 70 days to show his commitment and concern about voting rights in this country.
And then there is Jesus and his 40 day fast in the wilderness. We are not told Jesus’ intentions for fasting, just that the Spirit led him out to the wilderness where he was tempted and didn’t eat for 40 days. (Let’s pause to recognize that 40 is biblical hyperbole for a long time so it may not have been quite 40 days – or maybe it was longer.) The choice to stop eating connects us to our humanity, and our place in the larger world. That Jesus made this choice to live into the fullness of the pain of humanity’s hunger seems important, even formational, for the way the story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
In Matthew’s version of Jesus in the desert, Jesus has the companionship of angels. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is accompanied by angels and wild beasts. In Luke’s version it is just Jesus all alone, by himself, out there in the desert – until the devil shows up.
Fasting without the support of others sounds like a recipe for all kinds of visions and imaginings. After fasting for only five days, I understand better how Jesus would start to see the Devil and be tempted. The temptations that Jesus faces are the same kinds of things that we all face as humans – the temptation to be in control, the temptation to grab onto power and the temptation of carbohydrates. Maybe Jesus’ fasting helps us to better understand his humanness.
The text says Jesus is led to the wilderness by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, that blessing that we think of as gentle, all-loving, ever-present, leads Jesus to the desert and then seems to disappear. I wonder if Jesus knows what he is being led toward.
Jesus does not resist the desert experience. Jesus is learning about himself, learning to understand if, how, he is truly God’s Own. When the Devil appears, churning up turmoil, Jesus begins to define himself and what he believes. In Luke’s gospel we see how Jesus understands, even interprets, the Psalms and the tradition. The scriptures are familiar to Jesus – and the Devil. It is the way they each use the scripture that points toward who they truly are.
The devil is always looking out for themselves, always has an eye toward gaining power and control, toward sating the hunger that makes the belly growl.
“If you truly are God’s Own, command this stone to turn into bread.”
Jesus somehow ignores the rumble of hunger in his own body to remember that
“Scripture has it, ‘We don’t live on bread alone.’”
When the Devil promises the power and the glory of all nations if only Jesus will give himself over to the evil one, Jesus recognizes the fleeting nature of this kind of power.
He says, “Scripture has it,
‘You will worship the Most High God,
God alone will you adore.’”
The Devil recognizes that Jesus is famished and delirious. It could all be resolved if he just flung himself down from the top of the temple. After all, “If you are truly God’s Own,
God will tell the angels to take care of you:
“Scripture has it that the angels will carry you in their hands. Go ahead and jump. The angels will catch you.”
Jesus has a more complicated understanding of scripture. He understands that the Divine Love in which we rest is as real as we claim it to be. But he also knows that though the Psalm says no evil will befall you, there is no way that evil can always be kept far away. There he is, talking to the Devil face to face after all. Jesus’ response is, “Scripture also says, don’t put God to the test.”
It is ironic and paradoxical that we start this liturgical season with Jesus fasting in the wilderness – while our theme for Lent is Full to the Brim. As individuals, we may be experiencing some desert time. With the war in Ukraine, and the violence that is ever-present around the globe, it may feel impossible to focus on fullness. The stark and stony desert may feel like all there is. How do we acknowledge the wilderness and yet live into fullness?
Two years ago today was our last service in the church building. Despite 22 months of being only online, my sense is that as a congregation we are full to the brim. We are overflowing with good will, good worship, good work, and soon $466,000, our congregation’s portion from the sale of the International Guest House. I wonder how this story of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days might help us as we begin to think about how to use this money, more money than our annual budget.
I wonder if there will be temptations as we navigate and negotiate with each other to make decisions about this money. Jesus was tempted by his own hunger, by the opportunity for power, and control.
Will we be tempted to use all the money to fill ourselves and our immediate needs here on church property? Scripture has it, “We don’t live on bread alone.”
Will we be tempted to use the money to make ourselves look powerful and magnanimous, to have better standing in the community, especially amongst social justice organizations? “Scripture has it, God alone will you adore.”
Will we be tempted to think that it is really not us that makes the decision, it’s God? If we are hesitant to take the time to speak clearly with each other, if it takes too long, if it gets too hard to decide, if we start to have some conflict, will we just hope that God will make it happen, that it is not up to us anyway? “Scripture has it, Do not put God to the test.”
I wonder if these 40 days of Lent could be a first step in listening carefully to each other and the Spirit for how this money, that is pure gift, might be put to good use. I wonder ultimately how long our 40 days will be; I hope it will be much longer than 40 calendar days. Will we be hungry and clear headed and ready to make a decision? Will angels or wild beasts minister to us? Will we decide that we really should fast as part of the process of decision making? Fast from food or maybe as Pope Francis suggests, fast from pessimism, fast from grudges, maybe even fast from words and be silent for a while.
Fasting seems to be in such opposition to the idea of Full to the Brim. But I can tell you that though I was famished at the end of five days of fasting, I was also full – full of energy and gratitude, full of enthusiasm and commitment to the work and the community.
Luke writes that after 40 days in the desert, Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and his reputation spread throughout the region. It was after the time of fasting in the wilderness that Jesus went to his hometown synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah. And he knew that he was reading about his own mission and ministry:
The Spirit of our God is upon me:
because the Most High has anointed me
to bring Good News to those who are poor.
God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those are held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison –
to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.
I wonder how much the 40 days in the wilderness has to do with how Jesus understands his ministry and his calling to bring good news. I wonder how the time of struggle with the Devil informs Jesus’ commitment to struggle against the Roman empire and side with those who are poor and held captive. I wonder how Jesus’ time of fasting ended up filling his soul with such conviction.
I wonder how our “40 days” will inform our ministry as a congregation. I wonder how we might structure those 40 days. I pray that we will eventually have the kind of clarity that Jesus has, that we will know that we too are called to bring Good News, to proclaim liberty and release to those in prison and proclaim the year of our God’s favor.