From the Series “Behold the Man,” Edited by Rev. Michael J. Coons for use at Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 (Ash Wednesday—Behold the Man!)
“A God Who Hungers”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
March 6, 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“When you fast,” Jesus says, “do not be like the hypocrites.” When, not if, you fast. This is from the Sermon on the Mount, by the way, everyone’s favorite good teachings from Jesus that they’ve never read. Because once you read it, you realize that Jesus isn’t a good teacher. He’s an unyielding taskmaster. Sure, the Beatitudes are nice. Maybe. Until He starts talking about the Law. And warns His disciples not to relax the Law by even one tiny dot. So, to avoid relaxing the Law, Jesus launches into a six-fold intensification of the Law—“You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you”—that leaves you and everyone else slack-jawed and stupefied that anyone could be such a legalist, such a hard-nosed dictator with the Commandments. And that culminates in this standard of just how well you need to obey the Commandments: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That’s what precedes “when you give to the needy . . . when you pray . . . when you fast.” Do not be like the hypocrites.
Prayer you can get behind, maybe giving to the poor too. But fasting is just weird. It seems too physical to be spiritual. It’s too concerned with what you eat—or don’t eat—to be a Christian activity. Weight Watchers clients, yes. Christians, no. Not Lutheran Christians, anyway. Not people liberated from the Law, basking in the glorious freedom of the Gospel, having severed their ties from the works-righteous, earn-your-ticket-to-paradise Roman Catholics with their fish fries and their days of fasting.
And yet, “when you fast,” Jesus said. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask why they fasted and the Pharisees fasted but Jesus’ disciples did not fast, Jesus answered, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (9:15). Then they will fast. After Jesus the Bridegroom is taken away. Like now. “When you fast,” Jesus said.
Fasting, peculiarly enough, involves hunger. Fasting means abstaining, not just from diet sodas or chocolate bars for forty days, but from food. Properly done, fasting leaves your belly aching for another helping. This is why fasting seems too physical. What does a rumbling belly have to do with your piety, with your Christian devotion?
“Behold the man!” Jesus, the God-man. As Pontius Pilate presented before the jeering crowds a freshly flogged Jesus wearing a crown of thorns designed to inflict suffering and a fake-royal robe intended to invite ridicule, he preached an unintentional, yet profound, sermon: “Behold the man!” (John 19:5). Taking his advice, that is what we will do throughout this season of Lent that begins today. “Behold the man!”
In Jesus, God is man. The Word has become flesh. Like you. God is your Brother. The One begotten of the Father from all eternity is now the One born of the Virgin Mary. And your Lord. Behold the man! Just like you, He has skin and bones, blood vessels and lymph nodes, teeth and hair, heart and lungs, blood and saliva, hands, feet, eyes, lips, tongue, stomach, and spleen. Behold the man! He eats. He breathes. He walks. He sleeps. He prays. He weeps. He laughs. He bleeds. He dies. He rises. He ascends. He sits. And He will come. He is completely human and completely divine, two perfect natures in one indivisible person. He has fingerprints and DNA. Behold the man, Jesus, your Brother.
Unlike you, though, He has no sin. His human nature is perfect, unspoiled by Adam’s rebellion. Because of sin, you are subhuman. But not Jesus. Oh, He was tempted in every way, just as you are, yet He is without sin. His desires were never distorted into lust, greed, coveting, or idolatry. Behold the man! Like unblemished Adam at the close of the sixth day of creation, when God declared His handiwork “very good,” Jesus is as human as human can be, as human as He intends to make you in the resurrection.
So why fasting? Behold the man! Jesus fasted. The Gospel for this coming Sunday places Jesus in the wilderness, following His Baptism, fasting for forty days, being tempted by the devil. This is not the artificial fasting or giving up some pet vice for the season. For forty days, Jesus ate nothing. Matthew and Luke understatedly report that He was hungry. You don’t say!
That shouldn’t be noteworthy to say that God hasn’t eaten for forty days. Eating is not something natural to God. But, behold the man! Behold the God who took human flesh in the virgin womb of a Jewish girl. Behold the unborn baby, being nourished for nine months in His temporary, earthly throne room. Behold the crying infant, rooting for the breast to fill his newborn stomach. Behold the toddler to whom His parents introduced new foods, all of which He had created. Behold the boy, eating the Passover lamb with His extended family. Behold the man, God in human flesh, who needs to eat in order to live. And now, behold the man, who has not eaten for 40 days, 960 hours, or 57,600 minutes. And you were thinking the time since your last snack was growing a little long.
Behold the man, the incarnate God, with lips, teeth, tongue, and taste buds that have not savored a morsel for forty days. With an esophagus, stomach, and intestines that have been empty and aching for forty days. Behold the man who fasts for you. The First Adam sinned by eating. The Second Adam will fast before enduring an onslaught of temptation, withstanding every one. Behold the man who fasts and who assumes His disciples will also fast.
Like fasting, Lent is weird. Who has time or patience for a season of repentance, for subdued joy, for bottling up our “Alleluias” until we can uncork them and go crazy with Easter jubilation? Who wants to explain to the Wednesday-evening bridge club that they won’t be around for the next six weeks? Who wants to give away more money to the poor from their already penny-pinched budget? Who wants to devote more time for prayer from their way-too-busy schedule? Yes, Lent is weird.
Lent, like fasting, is also oddly physical. In fact, the Germans call this penitential season before Easter Fastenzeit, literally “fasting time.” The disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—are designed to guard you against that age-old temptation of being too spiritual. The temptation is as old as creation. When the serpent seduced Adam and his wife to give in to the spiritual desire to be like God, knowing good and evil, over the physical prohibition against eating from that one tree, they set the pattern for the rest of us, who want to prefer the spiritual over the material. So once God settled the Israelites in the Promised Land, they quickly abandoned the very physical worship of Yahweh alone by means of the sacrifices offered only in the temple in Jerusalem for the more spiritual, less-precise worship of the Baals and the Asherah. And Nicodemus cracked a joke that true religion could never be so physical as to involve rebirth. And the Sadducees concocted their ridiculous story about the woman who married one of seven brothers to prove the physical resurrection is impossible. And your children insist that they’re spiritual but not religious. And you give your “amen” when your friends tell you, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” All of that is an attempt to substitute safer, spiritual clichés for real physical, fleshly realities. And it’s all sin.
Give up your pious, hyper-spiritual pretensions. God isn’t like that. The incarnation has been in His mind from before the first words of creation. Behold the man! In Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily, you who have both a body and the complete inability to use it properly, as your Creator intended, have hope. God is like this: a man, your Brother. Behold the man!
Jesus fasted. For you. He is a God who can eat—who needs to eat—so that He can abstain from eating, enduring the pains of hunger to deny His flesh what it desires. For you. For your tendency to prefer the spiritual over the physical in a fake spirituality that leads you to indulge the flesh with its desires, both good and evil. Jesus endured temptation and never sinned so that He could be the man to redeem all other people, the Creator who would ransom His creatures, God who could give His life for sinners, for you.
So fast freely. Fast to discipline and chasten your flesh. Fast so that, as you learn to control your belly, it will give you discipline to control the other parts of your flesh as well. Fast and let the rumbling of hunger teach you that your belly is not your God. Pray until you realize that your schedule is not your God, your time is not your own, and your daily bread does not come from the work of your own hands. Give alms, tithe, give offerings, and give money until you know down in your gut that money is not the source of your security or happiness. Behold the man who fasted, prayed, and gave alms perfectly for you. His rumbling stomach, His hunger pangs, are your comfort in temptation. His flesh is your hope. He succeeded where you have failed. Behold the man!
And then break the fast. Eat. Drink. At His altar, veiled in bread and wine for His disciples to eat and drink for the forgiveness of their sins, with His flesh as true food and His blood as true drink, behold the man! Let the growling of your belly in Lent and anytime lead you here, to the place where the Lord bids you to fast and hunger no more. Here is food that endures to eternal life, drink that quenches your deepest thirst. Here at His altar is the man who gives Himself to you to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for the enabling of your fervent love for one another, for the salvation of your flesh. In bread, in wine, behold the man! Amen.