Ways of Life Abundant - I
Passage: Matthew 4:1-11
Date: February 13, 2005
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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The sixteenth century Catholic Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine (1542-1621) wrote: "If the body goes without food and drink for even one day....it immediately weeps and lets out a roar, and there is a great rush to bring it help." We know that roar sometimes about 4:30 in the afternoon, or about now, if we skipped breakfast. Bellarmine continues: "But, the soul fasts for whole weeks from its food, or languishes under wounds received, or even lies dead, and no one takes care of [the soul] or shows it pity. Therefore, visit your soul more and more often...." (Weavings, XIX 5, p. 2) These heavy purple weeks are marked for the adventure of soul-visiting. Another more contemporary word says: In our culture, "far more attention is given to life-styles of abundance than to ways of life abundant. (Practicing Theology, p. 16) Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly."
Ways of life abundant. Visiting our souls more and more. Between now and Easter, we want to explore ways to do that. We propose to journey through a variety of spiritual practices, disciplines of faith. We all long for a life that matters, that in the best sense is good for oneself, for other people, and for all of creation. How do we as people of Christian faith nurture such lives, in ourselves and in our families? Throughout our history as Jews and Christians, people have shaped and been shaped in faith by certain spiritual practices. What am I talking about? Well, practices are things Christians do individually and together over time in response to God's active presence in the life of the world and in our own lives. They are disciplines, exercises of being and doing which focus on God in Christ and the ways our lives might be lived in consonance with this wondrous deity. As practices, they are done over time, like regular exercise, or telling our children through the years that we love them, or walking the dog every day. They become part of us, and in the process we are shaped in new ways. God gets in us, and with some practices, through us to others.
There are many ways to do spiritual formation, to grow spiritually. Being regularly present in worship and participating in Christian education classes are two. We grow differently from each other. Some of us use our heads more than our hearts. Some use action more than meditating. Some use emotion more than study. It is important that we affirm this rich variety of avenues that people connect with God, and that we celebrate them. Knowing this is also freeing. I don't have to beat myself over the head for being such a terrible Christian if meditation just doesn't work, doesn't draw me closer to Christ. I can be grateful that it is an avenue for someone else, and at the same time seek other ways to grow in Christ for myself.
These lenten weeks, we will explore several of the many avenues toward life abundant that people use. Touching on traditional and not so traditional disciplines, our sermons are intended to be invitational. Life in Christ is an adventurous journey we can do together. So, explore. Try out something new spiritually this season. Our serious prayer is that in these weeks, through even one of the disciplines, each of us will visit our souls more.
Lenten scripture begins with Jesus' temptation according to Matthew. Remember, Matthew was written for part of the early Christian community. So, it is within the context of Jesus' prayer, the church's prayer, "lead us not into temptation," that this episode is heard. The tempter, the personification of evil which is larger than the individual, evil we all know and experience, the tempter approaches Jesus. The voice seeks for him to become other than he is meant to be, to talk him out of being faithful, to have his words and his life not be internally consistent. The church, when it listens carefully, knows these same tempting voices. So do we--the attractive, helpful, powerful pressures which push us to be other than who God calls us to be.
The story opens with Jesus led by the Spirit into the wilderness to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. Click. What connections did you make with those "40" numbers? Moses, up the mountain for 40 days, fasting. Rained for 40 days and nights. And what about the "wilderness?" The people of Israel spent 40 years there. Elijah the prophet went there to pull himself back together, to reclaim his vocation, or be claimed by it. John the Baptist did his thing in the wilderness. The apostle Paul, after the Damascus Road experience, and before he began ministry, spent time in the wilderness. A disciplined withdrawal, a regular retreat, "in order to break the familiar linkages and dependencies and loyalties." (Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text, p. 36) Jesus withdrew there, and fasted, to focus, to be strengthened, to wrestle with the meaning of being God's beloved, to get the voices straight, to discover the voice of life abundant dominant. Surely his temptations were real, else they were not temptations. His hunger was real. In it he knew the suffering of those who had not enough, and could have made enough bread for all to eat. One messianic hope said the savior would provide sufficient food. He might have wondered if he could actually trust God to be faithful. Should he risk himself to see if God would save him? Believing he was to bring in God's new order, he could have flirted with the idea of displacing Caesar, or Herod, of taking that popular route. The voices came when he wanted to do his best, to be faithful to his calling, to succeed. Not in his weakness, but in his strength they sought to entice him. They usually do, by the way. They are very subtle. In the face of each, he looked to his grounding deep in the scripture and practice of his people. His fasting ended, as he was sustained by God.
Fasting, a religious discipline present from Zoroastrians to Socrates to Buddha to Calvin to Native Americans. This season, we would normally speak of it differently. We'd ask, "What are you giving up for Lent?" Fasting is a particular and specific act in which we remove something from the normal routine of life for a particular period of time, and for a spiritual purpose. That is, fasting is not in order to lose weight or to save money or to break an addiction. Scientists tell us that for some, fasting from food can be a way for the body to remove accumulated toxins, to cleanse itself. While any of these may be beneficial, none is the fast's first purpose. Rather, Christians fast in order to be able to focus more on our relationship with God. Fasting from something can regularly remind us of why we are here and to whom we belong. In our culture, fasting is extremely difficult. We are told thousands of times a day that it is our right, even our duty to satisfy every desire, every appetite, every need whenever. The spiritual practice of fasting is deeply counter-cultural. It contradicts that fundamental underlying economic and social value.
In one of our adult classes last fall, a Muslim speaker had a raspy voice. Someone got him a glass of water. Graciously, he received it, and then placed it in front of him, and everyone else. Even though drinking it would have helped his voice, he did not. It was Ramadan, fasting from sunup to sundown. Not even water. Several people told me they were profoundly moved by the religious symbol before them. Few of us would consider such a religious discipline.
Some of you know that I regularly fast from caffeine and chocolate and desserts during Lent. Chocolate is not dessert-it is one of the basic food groups. Having grown up in a family where lunch and dinner were not complete without something sweet, and enjoying dark chocolate, this is not an easy discipline. I do it I hope for reasons of faith, not false martyrdom. We believe Jesus was incarnate, in flesh, just as God made the wholeness of humankind, body and spirit together, one. To fast from these things gives me a chance to become more in tune with my body's normal rhythms and needs. Caffeine and sugars mask my natural times of weariness. They take the place of health giving foods. To fast from these I hope is to honor the wonder of my physical being, this marvelous gift God has given to me. At its best, my resistance, my doing without can become a vehicle for remembering my amazing Creator, and a time for giving thanks.
For the most part, fasting is the renunciation of an otherwise good thing, in order to focus more on God, the source of all good things. "Have it your way" is our culture's mantra. John Mogabgab asks, "Can we have it our way without the risk of forgetting God's way? Can we hunger for Christ, the Bread of Life, when we are full of dishes enticingly served up on the steam table of a prosperous consumer culture? From what do we need to fast today so we may develop strength of soul tomorrow?" he asks. (Weavings, same, p. 3)
Fasting is for remembering that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Fasting is for remembering that we worship the Lord our God and serve only that God, no other master. From what do you, from what do I need to fast these days, so that we can visit our souls more and more often? Fasting is not an appropriate spiritual practice for all of us. But, as some of us are urged by the Spirit to fast, may we be drawn closer to our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.