Vacations in the Desert - Read or listen to last Sunday's sermon here

A sermon based on Matthew 4:1-4, preached on February 18, 2018 at First United Methodist Church.

A sermon based on Matthew 4:1-4, preached on February 18, 2018 at First United Methodist Church.

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There was once a hermit who said, ‘I would rather be defeated and humble than win and be proud.’”


This particular hermit was one of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, one of the 4th-century disciples who went to live in the desert after Emperor Constantine made Christianity an officially recognized religion of the Roman empire. The Desert Fathers were the original hipsters – terrified that Christianity had become too mainstream. Now that everyone wanted to be a Christian, they decided that getting away was the only way to make sure they were following Jesus for “the right reasons.” Better to be defeated and humble than to win and be proud.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers had all kinds of sayings. One of them, named John Cassian, said:

“It is a bigger miracle to eject a passion from your own body than it is to eject an evil spirit from another’s body. It is a bigger miracle to be patient and refrain from anger than it is to control the demons which fly through the air.”

Another of these radicals named Clement said a word that has been an incredible comfort to me, in the face of temptation:

“If you are not tempted, you have no hope; if you are not tempted, it is because you are sinning. The one who is sinning in his flesh has no trouble from temptation.”

Oh, and here’s one of my very favorites:

”Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.’ The other answered, 'I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, “That’s mine.” Then you say, “No, it’s mine.” That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, ‘That’s mine.’ The other said, ‘No; it’s mine.’ He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’ They were unable to argue with each other.”

Now, there’s no getting around that the Desert Fathers and Mothers were pretty radical. That was their whole point. They didn’t want what Brian Zahnd likes to call an “easy, cheesy cotton-candy” kind of popular religion. They wanted to be part of something bold and radical. They wanted to be on the front-lines of the mission of God — and they understood that one of those battle lines was in their own heart. In fact, when asked why he went into the desert, where there was nothing to be done, one of the Desert Fathers said, “I went to do battle with the devil.”

Now, where would he have gotten an idea like that? Three out of our four gospels take particular time while telling the story of Jesus to let us know that Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism, and then Jesus immediately went into the wilderness to fast for forty days, during which he was tempted by Satan. Needless to say, Jesus never gave in to the temptations he faced, and when Jesus walked out of the desert undefeated by evil, it was like the Lexington and Concord of the Revolution of heaven.

You remember the battle of Lexington and Concord from your elementary school days. Paul Revere and the Minutemen prepared themselves for the British forces, and they gathered their power at the North Bridge and with “the shot heard round the world” they announced that there was a new power on the scene. They fought with muskets and hatchets, and in Jesus’ day, many of his countrymen were looking for a leader who would bring a revolution against Rome with spears and swords.

But Jesus launched his campaign in the stillness of the desert. It would culminate three years later in a victory parade, but rather than riding a war horse, Jesus came to conquer Jerusalem on a donkey. And his inauguration would not take place in an imperial palace. Instead, he would be crowned as king with crown of thorns, and he would hang from a cross with a sign above his head that said “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” It was meant to be a joke, but we know it was true. We know that the cross was Jesus’ final and decisive act of faithfulness; on the cross Jesus offered the perfect faithfulness that no other person could, and on the cross he showed us the perfect faithfulness of God that had been fighting for us all along.

It all began in the desert, where Jesus looked at the best things Satan had to offer and said to each of them “I know something better.”

And we are his disciples.

We are the ones who follow Jesus.

So sometimes, we follow him into the desert.

There is a particular beauty in the desert, a beauty that comes from the sharpness and the starkness of the landscape. I’m sure there are some of you here who know a lot more about the desert than I do. I’ve lived most of my life in the woods — even when I’ve lived in cities, those cities have been surrounded by the pines, oaks, and all the other trees of the American South. I didn’t think much of it growing up, but one of the unique qualities of the woods is that so much of it is hidden. The woods are a place where shadows get layered on top of other shadows. Turkeys and deer and bobcats and snakes can be right on top of you before you know they are there.

I’ll never forget being 15 years old and passing through the Badlands of South Dakota. It was an entirely alien landscape to me. There was no vegetation. You could see for miles. Cliffs and ridges stood out with sharp silhouettes, and nothing was going to sneak up on you. It’s a harsh place, a challenging place (it’s right there in the name, the Badlands). But I also remember thinking that it was an unforgettable place. You couldn’t forget what it looked like, because nothing about it blended in to anything else. To this day, everything about the Badlands stands out in my mind’s eye in stark relief.

It’s no wonder that Christian disciples have found deserts to be helpful places for learning to reject the evil that is in our hearts and resist the spiritual forces that haunt the world. Our sins can be very subtle, even sophisticated. Sin loves to hide, it loves to sew together leafy costumes to make itself presentable. For example, Sin loves it when we have the right opinion because we are rarely as proud, stubborn, and slow to listen as we are when we are right.

The practice of fasting is a kind of spiritual desert. It's the place where learn to see our own heart in stark relief rather than layers of shadow. It used to be that when I would think about maybe "giving up something for Lent," I would always try to give up something bad for me: sweets, TV, etc. But one year, I chose to fast for Lent the old-fashioned way. I fasted from food twice a week during Lent, and I used that time to pray.

And in my prayers, I discovered something that was really obvious, and that Christian disciples have known for years: food is good! It's so good. Food is on the very short list of things that make me happiest every day! Food, to paraphrase one of America's founding fathers, is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Food keeps me in a good mood! Food makes my brain work better! And in the process of re-learning how good food is, I also learned something about fasting. Fasting is not primarily about giving up bad things. It's about recalibrating our relationship to the good things of this world so that they can serve their highest and best purpose — giving glory to God. Fasting is about me realizing that I can't decide in advance to give up something bad, because it's only after I've spent time in the presence of God that I can distinguish what is good from what is not.

Or, as I like to say, our superpower as humans is that there is no gift, no matter how good, that we can't turn into an idol.

Over the next few weeks, all the way up until Jesus’ victory parade on Palm Sunday, I am going to invite you to follow Jesus into the desert. Each week, we are going to look at a different form of fasting - we are going to talk about silence and solitude; we are going to talk about keeping a night watch like we see in the book of acts and fasting with our money… and yes, we are going to talk about the most popular and newest kind of fast — one that doesn’t have an exact precedent in scripture. We are going to talk about fasting from social media.

In each of these fasts, we are not merely going looking for something “bad” in the things we are putting away; we are going to be looking for the good. We want to distinguish what is truly good from what only looks good. We don't just want to know God's good gifts; we want to know what they are good for. We want to know how we can open our hands to accept every amazing gift that God gives us without clinging to them as an idol.

But before we go deep into all these various deserts, I want to close by making my pitch on behalf of the original fast, the food fast. Throughout Christian history, it hasn’t only been Jesus who fasted, and it wasn’t only a few radicals in the fourth century. To this day Orthodox Christians fast from meat and alcohol every Wednesday and Friday, and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement was so inspired by their example that he took to fasting from breakfast and lunch on those same days every week. The scriptures and the church are full of witnesses who have fasted from food as a sign of repentance, or of preparation and prayer before a big decision.

As for myself, I am an intermittent faster. One reason I am grateful for Lent is that it reminds me to do something I’d probably put low on my priority list otherwise. I’ll confess I’ve never had any ecstatic revelations or visions or even transcendent moments of peace in my fasting. But I can share two things I have gained from fasting, two things that stand out to me like the mesas and plateaus of the Badlands in stark beauty. These two things are enough to keep me going and looking for more.

The first plateau I remember seeing in the spiritual badlands is the need of other people. Right now in this country, the most economically developed in the history of the world, 34.8% of children in poverty will average two meals a day. You know how you feel when you skip lunch? That’s every day for them. Even with the benefit of school lunches and breakfasts, 5% of impoverished American children will average only 1 meal per day.

Globally, one out of every 10 men, women, and children lives on less than $2 a day.

When I reach the end of a day-long fast, and I think, “Man, it is hard to focus. How am I going to finish what I know I ought to be doing,” I have the faintest glimpse of some people’s daily reality.

The second plateau I’ve seen in my fasting is my own spiritual need. When I fast, I quickly discover how much of my “goodness” is just a full belly. I can be cranky, and quick to anger — and it won’t do to say “I’m just hungry.” I have to admit that those things that come out when I am fasting are a part of who I am; I’ve just managed to hide them for a while. This week, I want to encourage you to consider fasting — not for 40 days, maybe not even from all foods. I want you to consider fasting from one or two consecutive meals, and consider what the experience reveals to you. We’ll be posting some instructions and guidelines for fasting on our website, and it’s important that you recognize your medical needs as you consider where you might start.

The point is not to turn yourself into some hero or champion, the greatest faster ever. In fact, it might be best if your fast is a more humble one, one that you can't be proud of. After all, we’d rather be defeated and humble and than to win and be proud. That, also, is part what we are learning.

We find joy in discovering that we have no reason for sinful pride. We’ve discovered that if we walk with Christ, even a desert is a great place for a vacation.