“This Is My Hunger”

A sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 2/26/23, initiating a Lenten series about embodied spirituality. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find a recording in the full service via this YouTube video.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a season of reflection and self-discipline that helps prepare us to encounter Jesus in the good news of Easter. Before we get to Easter, though, we follow Jesus on the long road to resurrection, a road that includes, of course, his death. 

The night before he died, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples. He took a loaf of bread and told the disciples, “This is my body.” We hear these words every time we share communion, and it’s possible that repetition has dulled us to the strangeness of Jesus’ statement. “This is my body.” What does it mean that Jesus had a body, a body that he shared with us? This year as a church, we’re going to spend the season of Lent reflecting together on the implications of that phrase: “This is my body.” It’s the name of our Lent series, the one starting right now.  

Here’s why: Starting with the scratchy solemnity of Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season in which we’re more conscious of our limitations as embodied creatures. We tend to be a little more aware of our senses and our habits and the kind of space we occupy in the world. That stirs up a lot for us! Each of us has a different relationship with our physical selves, and for so many of us, that relationship is complicated and fraught. (I know that it is for me.) We have different abilities. We each have our own health history. We carry different traumas.  

So often what complicates our relationships with our bodies is bad teaching or inadequate theology that we picked up along the way. 

Our hope is that following the stories of Jesus in the lectionary for the next several weeks will help us to understand down to our bones that God created us in these bodies and called them good. We want to experience the love of God for us as embodied creatures, whatever form that takes. If God created us to be this strange combination of spiritual and physical, then our bodies might be key to how we participate in repentance—turning back to God, being changed, and discovering who we are in God. 

Today we begin that journey with Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11 tells the story of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. If you slide your finger just a little earlier in the gospel of Matthew, to the last few verses of ch. 3, you’ll find the story of the baptism of Jesus. It’s this miraculous moment when the heavens open up and, in v. 17, “A voice from the heavens said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” “This is my Son”—hold onto that phrase. 

If you slide your finger a little further ahead in the book of Matthew, past the testing in the wilderness to 4:12, you find the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He starts preaching, he calls disciples, and soon he’ll deliver one of his most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. 

It’s important to understand what happens before the wilderness and what happens after the wilderness, because I think that framework helps us to understand exactly what is being tested in today’s passage. 

Nothing about this encounter between Jesus and the devil goes the way I would have expected. Think of any adventure story you love where a hero and villain finally meet and confront each other. Compared to so many heroes we admire, in this story Jesus comes across as passive. He seems…modest.  

The text says that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And once the devil enters the picture, it seems like he controls the steering wheel, dragging Jesus to Jerusalem and up a mountain. Jesus winds up playing a defensive role, merely replying to what the devil brings up. The entire encounter is relatively peaceful and conversational, with Jesus calmly expressing himself until he finally tells the devil to get lost. 

It makes me wonder what exactly is being tested here. Remember what happened just before Jesus went into the wilderness: God’s voice from the heavens name Jesus as a beloved Son. Evidently the devil overheard it, because his first two temptations for Jesus take that new identity as a given: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple.” The devil doesn’t seem to doubt that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God. It seems that what he is testing is how Jesus is going to live out that new identity. 

When you think about the life and ministry of Jesus, it seems pretty important for him to work this out, right? It seems crucial for Jesus to be resolved within himself about what it means that he is God’s Son. Jesus needs to know what he is capable of, what he has power over, what he’s entitled to. I say this in part because you don’t have to look very far to find examples of how badly things can turn out when someone in a position of religious authority does not know how to steward that authority well. 

Jesus has all this back-and-forth with the devil about bread and miracles and authority, but I want to add one more layer to the story. There’s a huge detail hiding in plain sight. Verse 2: “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished.” 

Jesus was hungry. He was famished. He was, quite literally, starving. I don’t think the author of this gospel included this detail for no reason. 

Jesus had been fasting forty days and forty nights. When the original audience of this Scripture heard that phrase, their eyebrows would have shot up. Fasting for forty days places Jesus squarely in the tradition of the two most important figures in the entire Old Testament, Moses and Elijah. Exodus 24 describes this mesmerizing scene where Moses spends forty days on Mount Sinai with God, receiving the Ten Commandments, and he takes no food or drink the entire time. 1 Kings 19 describes Elijah traveling forty days through the desert, apparently with no food, to meet God at the same place, Mount Sinai. 

Jesus follows in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, fasting in the wilderness for forty days. But of the three, only Jesus is explicitly described as hungry. Read Exodus or 1 Kings, if you don’t believe me—we can assume Moses and Elijah were plenty hungry, but the author of those stories doesn’t take the time to point it out. 

What does it mean that the gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry? 

If I can be honest, there’s a lot about this story of the testing of Jesus that I don’t identify with. I’ve never been tempted to put myself into a physically dangerous situation in order to test God’s miraculous saving power. I face temptations like all of you, but the devil has never explicitly offered me authority over all the world (thanks be to God!).

Hunger, though, is something I can identify with. Hunger is simple: It’s my body communicating to me that it is time to eat. It isn’t morally good or morally bad, it’s simply physiology. 

And, of course, hunger is not simple. When we talk about hunger, we’re talking about something deeply personal and profoundly political. Hunger is about our own complicated relationships to food and diet and our bodies, the values we’ve learned and unlearned, all the endless stream of messages we receive every day about what we should and shouldn’t eat. Hunger is about access to food—who has access, who doesn’t, who should have access, and all the people who will go hungry tonight. Hunger is about memory, all our histories with food and meals, like how I derive immense pleasure and joy from peanut butter in part, because, when I was young, my mother would give me a spoonful of peanut butter to tide me over until dinner was ready. Hunger is about stigma and privilege and judgment, the way we talk about health and thinness and fatness and beauty. 

I imagine that hunger has profoundly different meanings and implications for each of us. I was exploring perspectives on hunger and discovered two very different voices. The first is Mike Evans, who recently published this book Hangry, which we’ll be discussing with him right after service today. Mike has this amazing angle on the food industry and how we ordinary consumers acquire food to eat. Some of my favorite passages in the book are when Mike describes his experiences with hunger and food. Take this scene from the first few pages, when he’s waiting for a pizza delivery in a hotel room. He has spent all day riding his bike, and the longer he waits the hangrier he feels. Here’s his internal monologue: 

I’m desperate for the [pizza] that I ordered to get here… I’m hangry. And getting hangrier by the second… Back home, there is food in the refrigerator. Or, if not, at least there, pizzas arrive in less than two…hours. But I’m not at home. I’m here, hungry, lonely… Finally, there’s a knock on the too short door and the long-awaited pizza arrives. My grindingly empty stomach doesn’t allow the luxury of waiting for the ‘za to cool. I don’t even slow down to add the pepper flakes. About half the still-melty cheese from the first piece remains stubbornly stuck to the pie as I pull it off too quick and take a bite. Glory! Taste buds erupt. Saliva flows. Angels sing. This might be the best slice of pizza I have ever had! 

Another of the voices that formed my perspective on hunger is Roxane Gay, a prolific writer. In 2017 she published a book called Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, a gripping and vivid exploration of her experiences with food, her body, and trauma. In a moment of raw honesty, Gay describes how “The story of my life is wanting, hungering, for what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have.” Elsewhere in the book she gives a profound description of the experience of hunger: “My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul.” 

I can identify with a little of what she’s describing here, you know? Hunger can feel all-consuming, overriding all our other mental and emotional processes. It’s why it’s so hard for a kid to behave at school if they don’t have access to consistent meals. It’s why an infant can cry and cry and then immediately calm down the moment the bottle touches her lips.  

Hunger is not so different from the experience of waiting. It is this physical, aching sense of knowing exactly what we want or need and not having it, at least not yet.  

Jesus was hungry. Jesus was waiting. To say that Jesus was hungry is really just another way of saying that Jesus was human. What other feelings do you think this human person experienced after forty days in the wilderness? Do you think there were stretches in the mornings when Jesus got bored? Do you think sometimes as the sun was setting, he felt lonely? Jesus was hungry. 

We know that many of the stories in the New Testament about Jesus involve food and wine. We talk so much about the politics of table fellowship and who Jesus chooses to eat with, the sort of statements he made with his dining choices. That’s all important, but I wonder if sometimes Jesus sat down to eat with people not because he was trying to make a point because he was hungry. Maybe what brought him to the table was the same thing that brought all his neighbors to the table: A need for food and drink. Jesus shared in our need. 

Jesus was hungry. Let’s return to the wilderness, where he is being tested, and I want us to keep it top of mind that Jesus is hungry, because it will help us to remember that Jesus is human. 

In the story of Jesus being tested, the devil presents him with three specific temptations: to transform stones into bread, to leap off the temple (with the expectation that angels will rescue him), and to receive “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” in exchange for bowing down and worshipping the devil. Many people have pointed out that none of the rewards the devil offers are inherently wrong or sinful. Indeed, Jesus will eventually obtain all of them, one way or another: Later in Matthew, he will feed crowds of people through a miracle of food multiplication. Later in Matthew, he will miraculously walk along the surface of the water, facing no physical danger. And one day, we believe, Jesus will reign as the king of all people and nations. 

None of those outcomes seems to conflict with what is being tested here, namely, what it means that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is hungry, and he has this prolonged conversation with the devil, and over the course of their conversation it becomes clear that what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God is that he demonstrates unwavering trust in God. Jesus is human, and he’s divine, and he models a life lived in a posture of trusting God. He can do this when he is hungry, or lonely, or bored. He trusts that God will provide these outcomes when the time is right. He knows that he does not need to use his position of power for selfish gain or to assert his will over others through dominance. 

I don’t think Jesus ever forgot how it felt to be hungry in the desert. And I don’t think his experience of hunger was ever disconnected from his identity as the Son of God. If we peek ahead in the gospel of Matthew, hunger plays an interesting role at a few specific moments. 

Here’s just one example: In Matthew 15, Jesus spends time with a crowd of people, healing them and performing miracles. And then in v. 32, he tells the disciples, “I have compassion for the crowd because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat, and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” Pay attention to what Jesus says. What Jesus doesn’t say is, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” That teaching was relevant to his circumstances in the wilderness, but it isn’t relevant here. Jesus doesn’t say, “I made it forty days in the wilderness without eating, so I think these folks can tough it out a little while longer.” What Jesus says here is, “I have compassion for the crowd.” In other words: “I know how it feels to go without food. Spiritual food is important, and fasting has its place, but what these people need right now is food-food, physical food. So let’s take action and do something about it.” 

Indeed, throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus so identifies with the people and with their hunger—their need—that in Matthew 25, he tells the disciples that whenever they encounter a hungry person, someone who doesn’t have the means to feed themselves, they’re effectively encountering Jesus. I think Jesus knows how easy it is for us to get caught up in the religious life, in church services and worship and tithing, in the “glory” side of things. And Jesus says: The place where you find me is wherever you find need. It’s wherever you find hunger. If you want to worship me, if you want to do something for me, help relieve someone else’s hunger. 

Jesus was hungry in the wilderness, and that means our own hunger can be an occasion for relationship with Jesus. As we encounter Jesus in more and more of our need, we recognize that Jesus identifies with all our suffering. Jesus knows how it feels when a friend gets sick, big sick, when his health plummets faster than anyone expected, when he dies, tragically, too young. Jesus knows how it feels to be kept awake all night with dread, wishing there were something that could change the crisis he’s facing, begging God to intervene, feeling agony. 

Like I mentioned at the beginning, we have just entered the season of Lent. This is an opportunity for us to experience union with Christ in our need. Lent is a season in which we believe that Jesus is not only present in the satisfaction and consummation of what we are waiting for, but also that Jesus is present to us in our waiting, that somehow the waiting itself is transformed.  

Is anyone here waiting for anything? Are you waiting for a new sprout of possibility to emerge in a relationship that feels stuck? Are you waiting for some pathway out of a job that is draining your life away? Are you waiting for a new Senior Pastor? Recently a friend in ministry reminded me just how much of the life of faith consists of active waiting, and Lent is a season in which the waiting is the point. 

Some of us in this church commit to specific kinds of fasting during the season of Lent as a means of drawing our attention to God and spurring our reflection and repentance. The open secret in the church is that, at one point or another, most of us will fail at our fasts. You’ll get halfway through a cookie and then remember you gave up chocolate. You’ll be especially stressed on a train ride home and re-download the TikTok app. Those failures are, themselves, an occasion for turning toward Jesus. When we do, Jesus catches us with compassion, and love, and forgiveness. That’s part of the practice, part of what we are practicing: We are learning how to turn, and turn, as many times as we need until turning toward Jesus becomes our very nature. 

Our worship team is about to bless us with a song inviting God to love us in our bodies. As they do, you might want to close your eyes to let the sound wash over you. During this song, and for the next six weeks, let’s listen for the voice of Jesus. Listen for the voice of Jesus telling us, “This is my body.” This is my hunger, this is my thirst, this is my grief, this is my delight. Let’s meet Jesus in his body and allow Jesus to meet us in our bodies: Let him love us as we are, let him remind us what he made, let him tell us what is good about us. We need only to trust him. 

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