The Temptation to Eat – Reflections on Lenten Disciplines

March 5, 2017

Bible Text: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 |

Adam and Eve stared longingly at the forbidden fruit. “Eat it,” whispered the serpent.

The haggard Christ, worn down from forty days of fasting in the wilderness stared hungrily at the rock. “Eat it,” whispered Satan. “Change it to bread and eat it. You know you can, Son of God.

“Eat it. Eat it.”

The tempter’s strategy never changes, does it?

Throughout the ages – in fiction and history – the story emerges again and again: Snow White eats the apple; Ponce de Leon searches for the Fountain of Youth; the endless trade of snake oils and aphrodisiacs. Against all better judgement, we’re so vulnerable to the tempter’s voice, that there is something we can eat or drink that will make us happy and fulfilled – that will transform us into something better or more desirable.

We’re really just so primitive, aren’t we? This lure of the forbidden fruit.

Do you know what service brings the most people to St. John’s every week? I don’t think it’s the ten o’clock service on Sunday. I think it’s the nine o’clock service on Saturday, when the Men’s AA group meets downstairs in the parish hall – a room full of men who gather together because they know they need each other’s help every week to battle the addictive lie that there is a magic drink that will make them happy and solve their problems.

Just like there are many of us who need the ministry of Weight Watchers because – against all our head-knowledge – we keep choosing food that is bad for us and portions beyond our need. Why? God knows; we’re such complex people. But for one reason or another, we give in to the tempter’s voice that the food our bodies don’t need will solve some deeper emotional need.

I saw a headline I couldn’t resist the other day: a new scientific breakthrough of a diet that could cure baldness. I knew it was false, but oh how I wanted it to be true. Imagine: a diet that would grow back all my hair. You should have seen the before and after pictures. They were glorious. So appealing. So alluring….and yet so false. False because it wasn’t true. But more false because it fed my vulnerability to believe that happiness and fulfillment can be found in some caricature of handsomeness, rather than in my character as a child of God.

The tempter’s strategy never changes – from Adam and Eve to Jesus to us: “Eat. Eat. See how tasty it is. Just imagine what it will do for you.” And imagine we do. We can see that whole tantalizing mirage before us and so we consume the myth – the alcohol, the food, the dietary supplements – this primitive and elemental conviction that food and drink meant for the body will have the power to fill our souls.

And part of what makes this temptation so viable is its proximity to truth: We do need to eat. God made our bodies to require food and drink. Every day. And inasmuch as we are living out our lives as God ordained, there is something truly holy about eating and drinking, be it toast for breakfast or a holiday feast. But the tempter takes something holy and good, then perverts it into something it was never meant to be.

This is the nature of sin.

The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a fine tree. The only thing was, its fruit was meant for God, not for Adam and Eve. The garden was filled with food for them. But they wanted to be like God themselves – to know what God knew, to have the “inside information,” to be able to judge for themselves between right and wrong – and so they ate. And in so doing they received the knowledge they sought, but it wasn’t at all like they thought it would be. It’s like getting a prestigious job you’re unqualified for – it seems so exciting at first – until you discover you’re in over your head and you’re going to screw up the company and ruin a lot of other people’s lives in the process. Eating wasn’t the problem. But in a spirit of greediness and selfishness, they ate God’s fruit.

And so the tempter tried the same strategy again. When Jesus was weakened through fasting, Satan tried to lure him to be greedy and selfish: turn the stone to bread and eat it; fling yourself off the temple and let everyone see you rescued by angels; worship me and I’ll give you the world to rule. And just like with eating food, the object of the temptations wasn’t entirely bad. In fact, over the course of his ministry, Jesus would perform many miracles that were similar to what Satan bated him with:

  • He did miraculous things with food when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes
  • He was rescued by God’s providence when the crowds tried to throw him off the cliff and – ultimately – when he was resurrected from the dead!
  • Paul would later write that, in raising Christ from the dead, God seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion (Ephesians 1:21).

Everything that Satan tempted Jesus with would eventually be fulfilled in and by Jesus. What made it a temptation – what made it sin – was the lure to do these things for his own satisfaction and his own power. But Jesus resisted the temptation. Every time. When they were eventually fulfilled in righteousness, they were done for love. And therein lies the difference.

The tempter wants us to feed ourselves – our own cravings and egos. And Christ models for us a kind of obedience and faith in God that is motivated by love and compassion for us, his fellow humans, and all God’s creation.

And so now we have entered another season of Lent – another season to ask the elemental question: Who am I following in this life? Will I continue weakly and mindlessly in the footsteps of my ancestor Adam?  – always giving in to the false allure of promoting and securing my own ego. Or will I seek afresh to live in the hope of Christ? – the “Second Adam” who was faithful to the end in seeking, not his own salvation, but the salvation of all.

That is what the apostle Paul assured us this morning,

Just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19).

We are followers of this Christ. We live in the hope that we are no longer condemned, but justified. But if this hope – this knowledge, this good news – is truly to take root in us, then we will follow Christ by living like Christ.

My hope for us as we enter Lent is that we would choose disciplines that foster this kind of discipleship: followers of Christ who diligently seek to discard our own compulsion for self-preservation, in favor of the costlier, yet truer path, of seeking the wellbeing of our neighbor.

But on a practical level – what does a Lenten discipline look like? How do we hear this big, all-encompassing call to Turn and Follow Christ in Self-Sacrificing Love, then translate it into some puny exercise that has any meaning or relevance or substance?

Well, for starters, I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the most common examples of Lenten disciplines are fasting and giving up a certain kind of food. We’ve seen the tempter’s strategy – to lure us into eating that which we shouldn’t eat: the fruit in the garden, the stone in the wilderness, and our own proclivity to seek psychological satisfaction through what we eat and drink. Now at this point I know I’m merging the figurative and the literal and I’m not even going to try to parse between the two. Because food is such a daily necessity in our lives, it makes it both a potent metaphor for spiritual meaning as well as an easy target for abuse.

Now, to be clear, you don’t have to give up food for Lent. It’s not required. But it certainly makes sense to me why it is so deeply established in the psyche and tradition of the church.

So if we do choose to give up a kind of food or drink for Lent, what do we hope to achieve from it? Well, at some basic level, there might be some literal health benefit to what we choose. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s always a good and holy thing to move towards a healthy lifestyle. (I’m giving up refined sugar and corn syrup. I think it’s good for me to become more mindful of just how much sugar I consume.)

But, if we choose, this self-denial can also become a symbolic gesture or message – to ourselves, to God, to the evil one – a gesture that affirms, “When I say ‘no’ to this tasty, desirable thing, I am saying ‘no’ to selfishness, ‘no’ to my ego, ‘no’ to whatever way the tempter wants me to live for myself and my own pleasure and security.”  For forty days, several times a day, we repeat the exercise of saying, “No.”

And then we choose to come to the Eucharist each Sunday where the bread and the wine are offered to us, and we say, “Yes.” Yes, to God. Yes to mercy. Yes to a love poured out for us and for everyone.”

But beware of magical thinking. Just as eating chocolate is no sin, so consuming the bread and wine is no magic potion. The power of this and every sacrament is when the outpouring of God’s grace mingles with our heart’s intention and desire to join Christ in living such a sacrificial life of love and mercy.

This is why the Eucharist ends with the dismissal, “Go in peace and love and serve the Lord.” The strength of the sacrament is proven inasmuch as you leave this place with your face set towards the world in love.

Which is also why, this Lent, you may want to choose a companion discipline to adopt an act of love for your neighbor – to phone someone who is lonesome every day; to set food aside for the FISH foodbank every day; to put cash aside for a worthy charity every day; to pray for your enemy every day. There is no end to the ways we can love, for we are followers of a Christ whose love is without end.

I wish us all a most holy Lent.

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