Grace Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2017, Lent 1A
Don’t Eat First
“When going to hide, know how to get there.”
“And how to get back.”
“And eat first.”
That exchange comes from the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s highly popular Broadway musical Into the Woods. In that show, a mashup of numerous fairy tales, “the woods” are clearly a place of trouble, danger, and even (in the case of one character) death. In the course of the show the characters – the likes of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel (and her mother the witch) – have gone into the woods twice, each time facing the challenge of giants making their way down the aforementioned beanstalk. Whether simply for comic effect or as a demonstration that these characters really didn’t learn much, those lines slip in amidst the patter of a number of similar bon mots of supposed wisdom gained from going into and coming out of the woods.
Taken on their own, those lines suggest that success in the woods is all about preparation: make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back when it’s all over, and make sure your physical needs are well supplied beforehand – “eat first.” By such fairytale standards of wisdom, Jesus’s journey into the wilderness in today’s reading from Matthew was doomed to be a spectacular failure.
Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and we do mean “immediately.” If there were such a phrase as “very immediately,” it would apply here. He certainly didn’t “eat first,” and by the standards of that fairytale wisdom he paid for it, not eating for forty days and forty nights.
And waiting at the other end of that forty days and nights is none other than the Devil, the Accuser, the Tempter as Matthew calls him here. And of course the Tempter goes straight for the hunger: “If you are the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Our fairytale folk might just be tut-tutting by about now: “See, there you go, you didn’t prepare and you’re right into the trap. Shame about that Jesus boy, he had potential.”
Except, of course, Jesus was prepared after all.
However hungry Jesus might have been he could still remember Deuteronomy 8:3, and thus shut the devil down. The Tempter tried again, with the temptation of putting on a great show amplified by his own biblical allusion (thus giving us the quote “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”), only for Jesus to refute Psalm 91:11-12 with more Deuteronomy, this time 6:16’s injunction against putting God to the test. Finally the test of ultimate power is all that the Tempter has left, which of course isn’t really all that tempting to one who, well, already has ultimate power. With one more Deuteronomy verse (6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”) the Tempter is brushed aside and angels appear to minister to Jesus, who, after all, still hasn’t eaten in forty days and forty nights.
We get confused about wilderness experiences. We tend to use that phrase “wilderness experience” when we are facing the consequences of our own actions, of our own falling into temptation, rather than for the act of facing that temptation. We have relied on our own preparations (“know how to get there…and how to get back”) instead of letting our preparation be in our reliance upon God, our immersion in God’s teaching to us, our trust in the Holy Spirit. It does make a difference.
These trials Jesus faces in the wilderness speak not just to immediate temptation to fill immediate need, but they reflect temptations or challenges that were repeated throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry: how to meet the needs of those to whom he ministered (he wouldn’t make bread out of stones for himself, but he’d feed thousands off a few loaves), how to save himself (ultimately, not; Jesus did not flee even the cross), how to draw all people to himself (by being lifted up on that cross, not by bowing down to that Tempter). The wilderness experience was less a moment of temptation, as we often tend to experience it, than a preparation for a lifetime. God’s preparation for us is not our way of preparing for the worst. Yet Jesus comes through, and in just a few verses is healing multitudes in Galilee, even if he didn’t eat first.
Yes, it’s a little ironic that this sermon comes as we will be coming to the table in just a few moments. Here, though, the bread broken and the cup shared point us to that Jesus who faced the wilderness armed with the teaching of scripture and trust in God. The bread here comes as gift and sacrament, not as temptation, that indeed we together might be fed on the stuff of eternal life rather than relying on empty processed foods for our spiritual fortification. For indeed, real wilderness experiences will come, whether we have “eaten” or not.
For the wilderness, and a God who would prepare us for it, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#392 Jesus, We Are Here
#833 O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
#525 Let Us Break Bread Together
#167 Forty Days and Forty Nights
Credit: agnusday.org, and yeah, I feel this one...