Resistance Training – Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 March 9, 2014

Did you ever play the “Who Am I?” riddle game when you were a kid?  Let’s try it. I will read you three statements about someone I’m pretending to be, and you try to guess who I am. Ready?

First I lived in a garden, but now I work on a farm.
I don’t have a belly button.
I really like to eat fruit.
Who am I?

I hid my baby brother in a basket in the river.
When Pharaoh’s daughter found him, I helped her get someone to take care of him – that someone happened to be our mother!
When he grew up, I helped my brother lead our people out of Egypt.
Who am I?

I have killed lions and bears and at least one giant.
I like to sing.
I started out as a shepherd, but grew up to be a king.
Who am I?

I know the scriptures really well.
When I was baptized, my father was very happy with me.
Lots of people follow me around, but I only have a few really close friends.
Who am I?

How did you do? Could you guess them all? Did you recognize Adam or Eve, Miriam, David and Jesus? At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he had to figure out the answer to that question, “Who am I?” Last week, as we read the story about the Transfiguration, we heard a voice come out of the dark cloud, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ This same voice out of heaven had said the same thing after John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan.

But what does it mean to be God’s beloved Son?  Before Jesus could begin to heal the blind and the lame, cleanse lepers and make the deaf to hear, before he could raise the dead or preach good news to the poor[1], Jesus had to figure out just who he was, and how his identity was connected to the identity of God, the Great I AM.

Not only did Jesus need to figure out his identity as the Son of God, he needed to prepare for the ministry he was about to undertake. He had spent thirty years getting ready for this moment, studying scripture, praying constantly, living an obedient life – but he was still new to the actual work of ministry. And before he could begin, he had to be tested. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 4, verses 1 through 11:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’  Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” 
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’  Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Jesus needed to be strong for the work he was about to begin, and he needed an identity for completing that work. So the Spirit of God led him out into the wilderness, where he could get in shape for what was to come.

In the fitness world, there is a form of exercise called “resistance training.” The premise is simple: muscle strength and endurance develop by pulling or pushing against an elastic band or hydraulic system. As muscles get stronger, increasing the level of resistance encourages even greater strength and muscle tone. This process pushes the muscles to their limit, without pushing them to the point of damage, so, unlike bodybuilding that increases muscle size, resistance training builds strength without building bulk.

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days and nights of preparation before Satan came to tempt him. For forty days and forty nights, Jesus was building spiritual strength, and toning his spiritual muscles through the disciplines of fasting and prayer. For 40 days and nights, Jesus was engaging in “resistance training” that would help him get through the temptations Satan presented to him.

Our 40 days of Lent are meant to correspond to this time of spiritual training that Jesus experienced. But that number “40” has significance throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, as they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. When we hear the phrase “forty days and forty nights” in this passage, we may think immediately of Noah, but Matthew probably had Moses more in mind. Moses met God after he had fasted 40 days and nights on a high mountain, and it was only then that he could receive God’s commandments for his people.

The wilderness is significant, too. The wilderness is where we are most vulnerable. There are no resources to sustain life. It was in the wilderness that Moses met God, and it was in the wilderness that the Israelites wandered, and learned to depend completely on God for food and water. The wilderness is nearly always a place of struggle in the Bible.

It’s lonely in the wilderness. And loneliness is one of the devil’s favorite tools for working his way into our lives. When we are lonely, we are more likely to feel sorry for ourselves, to look for pleasure and human connection in places we shouldn’t go, to feel that God has abandoned us. When we feel isolated and unloved, Satan steps in at just that moment, to take advantage of our vulnerability, to prey on our weakness.

Notice that Satan waited until Jesus was hungry, at the end of his 40-day fast, before he made a move. But Satan apparently didn’t realize that the very thing he’d counted on to make Jesus weak had actually made Jesus strong. Jesus had spent forty days and nights in resistance training, and Satan didn’t stand a chance. Jesus had spent forty days and nights figuring out what it meant to be the beloved Son of God, and he was ready. Hungry, but ready.

First, Satan appealed to the very human condition of hunger. Satisfy yourself, he told Jesus. Make these stones into bread. C’mon, you can do it, if you are the Son of God! This is the same taunt Jesus will hear as he hangs on the cross. Prove that you are from God by doing something no one else can do. But Jesus answered from Deuteronomy, “We don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”

Then, Satan appealed to the desire for fame. It would have been pretty spectacular to jump off the tallest building around, in front of crowds of people, and not even sprain an ankle. But Jesus had his resistance training on full alert. Satan sought to undermine Christ’s identity by tempting Jesus with power and glory for himself, but Jesus resisted by relying on God’s power and glory. “Don’t test God,” Jesus said, remembering the way the Israelites had tested God in the wilderness when they had begged for water, after receiving manna and quail.

Finally, Satan strips off any pretense of offering Jesus fame and fortune. He goes for what he really wants. “Worship me,” Satan says, “and I’ll give you the whole world.” I wonder if Jesus laughed at Satan at this point. He could have quoted Psalm 50 to him:

“For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” (Ps 50:10-12)

What business did Satan have, promising the world to Jesus, when the world already belonged to Jesus, through whom it was created? Just as before, Jesus resisted temptation with words from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Now, get lost, Satan. Three times, Satan tried to appeal to the very human tendency to grab power. Three times, Satan offered the same thing to Jesus that had tripped up Adam and Eve back in the garden – the promise of being the one in control, being “like God.”

In each case, Jesus answered Satan with scripture, pointing to God alone as the source of power and sustenance. In each case, Jesus affirmed his identity as the beloved Son of God. In each case, Jesus relied on his resistance training to withstand Satan’s attempts to distract him from his purpose and ministry.

So Satan gave up, and left.

In the letter from James to the early church, we read, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8a) This is exactly what happened out there in the wilderness. Jesus submitted himself to God, recognizing that his own identity was dependent on his relationship with the Father. He resisted the devil, and the devil fled.

Not only did Jesus know who he was in order to resist Satan, resisting Satan’s temptations shaped Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Adam and Eve failed the test. Every one of us fails the test. But Jesus didn’t. Only the Son of God could effectively pass the test of being the Son of God, able to resist every temptation.

Our identity is spelled out in the Baptismal Covenant. The very first question asks,
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Renounce, reject, and repent. That’s how we know who we are, beloved children of God who call upon God’s grace to renounce wickedness, reject evil, and repent of our sin.

Resisting Satan’s temptations strengthened Jesus’ focus and dependence on God alone. His resistance training continued through the temptations, and made him even stronger and more able to resist further attack, as he depended fully on God the Father. We, too, are strengthened through our continued spiritual development, through our discipleship.
Again, the Baptismal Covenant asks us:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Resistance training prepares us to rely on God when we face temptation, to find our strength and identity in God alone. Lent is all about resistance training. This season in the church year was originally designed to be a time of preparation for Easter. This was a time to prepare new believers for baptism, to grow deeper and richer in faith, to develop spiritual disciplines that would reinforce each Christian’s identity as a beloved child of God.

Maybe you aren’t ready to fast for forty days and forty nights, as Jesus did in the wilderness. But I encourage you this week, to attempt a fast of some kind. Make it intentional. This isn’t a diet plan, so don’t go into it expecting to lose weight by eating less. Maybe your health requires that you eat regular meals, so skipping one isn’t a good idea for you. In that case, try eliminating a bad habit for one week. Or, maybe, you could participate in the “40 bags in 40 days” effort to simplify your life by de-cluttering one area of your home every day for the next 40 days. Maybe you can think of another way you can “fast” that doesn’t include food.

If you have never fasted, and you decide to fast from food this week, you may want to skip dinner one night, breakfast and lunch the next day, and then eat dinner the second night. This way, you will have fasted a full day, but you will also eat something each day. If you fast from food, be sure to drink plenty of water. I also suggest that you break your fast with a piece of fruit, instead of a cheeseburger and fries. Believe me, your intestines will thank you.

Several years ago, I decided to fast one day a week for a year, to pray for a friend who suffered from depression. At the end of that year, I told my friend what I had done, and I confessed that I wasn’t sure it had done him as much good as it had done me. I discovered in that year that I only got so hungry, and then I was just hungry. Feeling hungry became my signal to pray, so my prayer life improved immensely. The time I would have spent preparing and eating food became time to focus on God’s Word, so my Bible study life improved immensely.

But mostly, I discovered that the days I fasted in my own strength were disasters, and the days I depended completely on God to get me through my fast were the days I grew in faith.

That is what I would hope for you, if you choose to observe a day of fasting and prayer this week: that you might grow in faith. Then you will have begun your own resistance training, and you will be one step closer to finding the strength you need to resist the devil, so he will flee from you. You will be one step closer to finding your true identity as a beloved child of God. Amen.


[1] Matthew 11:5; Isaiah 61:1

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