In the spiritual battles that every Christian fights against Satan and his minions, God has given us a little-used weapon in our aresenal: fasting. If Jesus needed to fast to prepare for his testing by Satan, what makes us think that we don’t? This sermon begins by addressing the real and present threat that Satan poses and makes the case that, in order to face that threat, we Christians should fast.
Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Did you ever see The Exorcist? I have not. But I know that this 1973 horror movie is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—and one of the scariest and most influential. The director was William Friedkin—who is still around. In last month’s issue of Vanity Fair, he admitted that until recently he had never witnessed a real live exorcism. He is himself an agnostic, he said. But he wanted to see an exorcism for himself, so he went to Italy and filmed one. It was an exorcism of a woman—not Linda Blair, in case you’re wondering. And then he showed the video to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California.
One of them, Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, said the following:
There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it … This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations … It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy … I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, [etc.] … and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.
The other doctor was equally baffled—saying that whatever was happening to this woman was authentic. She wasn’t faking. But he had no idea what was causing it or how to treat it.
I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.
Interesting! I hope that Friedkin’s experience shakes his agnostic worldview and enables him to believe in the reality of the spiritual realm—and God, and his Son Jesus.
I am a scientifically minded person—not many pastors have an engineering degree from—if you don’t mind me saying—one of the world’s best engineering schools. And in the past I’ve certainly been a naturally skeptical person. But I’m telling you: I believe in Satan. I believe in the reality of evil and personal spiritual forces at work in the world, forces which oppose God and his kingdom and are working against individuals and against the church. The best reason to believe in Satan and his fellow demons is because this is the clear teaching of scripture and because Jesus himself believed in them. One theologian, Michael Green, points out that if Jesus was mistaken
on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else?… ¶ It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us… The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.
So I believe in the devil. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”
There’s no question that in our United Methodist Church, we tend to fall into the first error: We tend to not believe in Satan and his minions. Or even if we say we do, this belief makes no practical difference in our lives. We fail to see the devil as a clear and present danger. We fail to heed the apostle Paul’s words that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The funny thing about Paul’s words here is that if you read the Book of Acts, you see Paul seems to “wrestle” plenty against “flesh and blood”—flesh and blood people oppose him everywhere he goes; people try to kill him; people beat him; people abuse him; people throw him in prison. How can Paul say he “wrestles not against flesh and blood”?
Because he sees a deeper, more powerful struggle underneath the surface of reality. One that’s invisible to the naked eye. Yes, people do all kinds of evil, awful, sinful things all the time—and God will hold us responsible for our role in these things. But the Bible teaches that we’re not doing sinful, evil things on our own. Unfortunately, we have a deadly spiritual enemy who is all to happy to help us. In fact, we often make it all too easy for him.
Do you remember a couple of years ago, when kids in elementary schools were playing this game called “Charlie Charlie”? They would make something like a Ouija board, stack pencils on top of it, and call upon a demon named Charlie to answer questions. The Vatican issued a warning to kids and their parents not to mess around with this. And many people scoffed: “Oh, it’s just a harmless game,” people said. “It’s not real.”
Who’s to say that’s not something the devil could use? Why take the chance?
As many of you know, I’m a big music fan—I’m always looking for new bands, new artists I might enjoy. Recently, I was reading about a rock band that was getting great reviews; they sounded like something I might like. Only… The critics who reviewed their albums said that their music was great, but their lyrics were really silly—always singing about demons and witches and occult stuff. But of course they’re not serious about that! It’s all a joke. Besides, you can just disregard the words and pay attention to the music. And I started to download one of their albums off iTunes—before my conscience spoke up: “You can’t do that, Brent! The devil is hard enough to resist when you’re fighting against him. And here you are, practically inviting him into your front door! You can’t do that!”
But you know… demon possession, Ouija boards, the Charlie Charlie Challenge, devil-worshiping rock bands… These are kind of obvious examples of ways that the devil works in the world. Most of the time, he’s much more subtle, much more discreet, much more invisible.
Even in today’s scripture, notice that we’re not told in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. If we’re picturing the Underwood Deviled Ham figure—a red guy with cloven hooves and a pitchfork… Well, we’re certain he doesn’t look like that. Was he visible to him? If he was, I’m sure he was very beautiful to look at. Maybe he came in the guise of a person. Or maybe he came to Jesus the way he so often comes to us—through our own thoughts. By planting ideas in our minds. By sowing seeds of doubt. Lying to us. Exploiting our weaknesses.
Keep in mind: Jesus is not a superhero. He is God-made-flesh. He is fully human. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that these were real temptations. That means he had to consider each one; he had to think about it. He doesn’t just brush them away like they’re gnats. In fact, the Book of Hebrews says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The point is, these temptations are really tempting; they challenge him. And why wouldn’t they?
After all, why not turn a stone to bread? Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days—that’s about as long as anyone can go before starvation sets in. A messiah who dies before accomplishing his mission and going to the cross and dying for our sins isn’t going to do anyone any good. And notice that Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is reminding the Israelites that after God delivered them from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, they immediately started grumbling—“Did Moses bring us out here in the desert to starve to death?” So what does God do? He gives them bread from heaven, called “manna.” God feeds his people with miracle bread. So when Satan tempts Jesus, he’s really just reminding him, “Hey, you did this before, Jesus—when you were with Israel back in the wilderness. You’re God, alongside the Father and the Holy Spirit! You fed them when they were starving in the wilderness. And guess what? Now you’re in the wilderness as Israel’s representative. Are you going to let yourself starve, Jesus? Feed yourself with miracle bread, just as you fed the Israelites with miracle bread so long ago.”
Do you see how tempting that must have been? Satan is so close to being right. And he’s counting on Jesus not being able to think clearly, so he thinks, it just might work.
But this verse—“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”—means not only are we not supposed to live by bread that we make by hand, it also means that we’re not supposed to live by miracle bread, either. We’re not supposed to live by anything other than God himself. Satan loves miracles because he knows that they can distract people from God. In John chapter 2 we’re told that crowds are seeing Jesus work miracles, and they’re impressed with the miracles. And they start following him because of the miracles. But what does John say? “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” He knew that the people weren’t falling in love with Jesus; they were falling in love with miracles. They didn’t have genuine faith in God; they were just captivated by the miracles that God performed.
God is telling us in Deuteronomy 8:3 that the purpose of the miracle bread was not to feed hungry Israelites; the purpose was to get hungry Israelites to fall in love with the supplier of this miracle bread—to fall in love with God; to place their faith in God; to trust in God—and not in the things that God provides, be it earthly bread or heavenly bread. The purpose of the manna wasn’t to satisfy their physical hunger but to awaken within them a hunger for God! Jesus knows the meaning of Deuteronomy 8:3. That’s why he won’t feed himself with miracle bread. He’s got everything he needs to survive in his heavenly Father.
Consider John chapter 4: When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Remember what happens? Jesus’ disciples leave him at this well in a Samaritan village while they go into town to buy food and bring it back to him. John tells us that Jesus is hungry. In the meantime he has this long conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the end of it, she comes to believe in Jesus as her Lord and Savior—and she rushes back to town to tell everyone about Jesus. When the disciples show up with food for Jesus, they urge Jesus to eat. But he doesn’t. They’re confused. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”
Jesus somehow has so much of his heavenly Father—he finds so much pleasure in pleasing his Father and glorifying his Father and doing his Father’s will—that somehow it satisfies even his deep physical hunger. How is possible? I don’t know. But I would love to find out.
I would love to be so filled with God’s love, to be so filled with Jesus, to be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that I don’t need anything else this world has to offer. I would have God and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t need more money. I wouldn’t need other people’s approval. I wouldn’t need recognition. I wouldn’t need trophies. I wouldn’t need popularity. I wouldn’t need to be liked. I wouldn’t need to measure up to other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t need to please other people. I wouldn’t be enslaved to the things of this world. My only “food”—my only sustenance—would be to please God, to glorify him, to do his will.
Don’t you want that? I do! How do we get it? How do we get more of God?
God is showing us one important way in today’s scripture. He’s actually showing us more than one way, but I’m going to focus on this one—because frankly, we’re failing miserably at it. Me included.
I’m talking about fasting.
When I was ordained as a United Methodist elder-in-full-connection six-and-a-half years ago, I lied. Because one of the promises I made to God, to my bishop, and to the North Georgia Annual Conference is that I would teach my people to fast. I’m serious. It was a question: “Will you teach your people to fast.” And I said “yes.” If I said “no,” I wouldn’t get ordained, so I said “yes,” like everyone else.
Have I said a word about it to you? Nope. That’s got to change.
Before beginning his ministry on earth—before facing and overcoming these three temptations and many more besides—Jesus prepared for it by fasting. This means he went without food for a period of time. He drank water, but ate nothing. Now, forty days is really extreme. On the other hand, Jesus had to accomplish by far the most difficult task that anyone has ever had to accomplish. So in order to get ready for it, what did he do? He fasted. Of course he prayed, too—prayer and fasting should always go together. But his spiritual preparation included fasting.
Here’s my question: Why doesn’t ours? If the Son of God—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed to fast in order to overcome the trials and temptations that he would face, what on earth makes us think we don’t?
Jesus fasted. In the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll get to soon, he teaches about fasting and says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… But when you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face.” He doesn’t say “if” you do it; he says “when” you do it. In Luke 2, we’re told that Anna, the prophetess who blesses the baby Jesus in the temple, prays and fasts. The apostle Paul fasts for three days after his conversion in Acts 9. Later in Acts 13 he and the rest of the church at Antioch fast just before the Holy Spirit anoints Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries to the Gentiles. In 2 Corinthians, he says he fasts often. And of course, the roll call of people who fast in the Old Testament is a Who’s Who of heroes of the faith.
Fasting is a means of grace. From at least the late first century, many churches instituted a twice weekly fast. John Wesley fasted twice a week for most of his adult life. When he grew old, he only fasted once a week.
In 1756, King George II called the people of England to a national day of prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by France. On February 6, 1756, the day of the fast, John Wesley wrote in his journal, “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God hearted prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” In a footnote, he added: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”
Fasting teaches us the kind of “bread” that we live by. [Richard Foster, unmasking what’s already there in our hearts—like anger.]
[Talk about the “130” goal. Good plans to accomplish it. But you know what we need? We need power. By not fasting, it’s as if we’ve taken an arrow out of our quiver and thrown it on the ground—“we don’t need that one.” Without fasting, we could be missing a weapon in our arsenal that we need to fight the devil and wage successful spiritual warfare.
We need all the power we can get. Because as our church turns the corner and marshals it resources to reach 130, we can expect that the devil will fight back hard.
Will we be ready for that fight?]
1. Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.
2. Ephesians 6:12 KJV
3. John 2:24
4. John 4:32, 34 ESV
5. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 50.