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Hunger is Not the Problem

A sermon on Matthew 4:1-11

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Siegfried Poepperl on Unsplash.]

At our ecumenical Ash Wednesday service this past week, Reverend Kim challenged us all to come to the time of Lent hungry.

It is a metaphor she used to convey the difference between a form of worship that is about rote performance of expected actions, verses a soul-deep worship that springs from our experience of need for God.

The rote worship is what the prophet Isaiah and Jesus both reject in the traditional Ash Wednesday readings… they make it clear that doing religious things for appearance or because that is what is expected is NOT what God wants from us.

God wants us to be hungry… to long for a clean heart, a renewed spirit, and the joy of our salvation in the words of the Psalmist that we repeated in our Ash Wednesday litany.[1]

I know that in my typical preaching, I tend to shy away from this language, because the metaphor of spiritual hunger was perhaps a bit over-used in my religious upbringing within the subculture of certain Evangelical and Pentecostal communities.

My teen years included a lot of highly emotionally-charged worship experiences with altar calls and hour-long praise-chorus sets in which I was trained to regularly question whether or not I was sufficiently “on fire” for God.

In my experience, that kind of social expectation about “spiritual hunger” can be just as performative and toxic as the “burnt offerings” that Isaiah and the other prophets decry.

But Pastor Kim’s words were a good reminder for me that there is also a heathy, genuine, non-manipulative kind of spiritual hunger.

The simple, pure experience of our need for God… a need that is not about performative righteousness, but about honest longing for connection with our Creator.

It’s a kind of hunger that I do want to nourish in my life and in our church community.

Which makes today’s texts feel a bit… inconvenient, at least at first glance.

Because, they aren’t really making a strong argument for hunger… rather the opposite.

The whole forbidden fruit motif from the Garden of Eden story has been used for centuries to warn people to keep a tight rein on their hungers, and to link experiences of longing with original sin.

And Jesus’s 40-days of wilderness fasting is the whole foundation for the church’s long tradition of the Lenten fast, as we imitate Christ’s deliberate self-denial.

If there is a hunger-related theme in these readings it is: “WARNING- DANGER! Personified evil (either in the form of a mythical snake or a devilish deceiver) is plotting ways twist your hungers into temptations and trap you with them!”

Of course, these stories are not warning us against longing for God, per se… but they are often read as a lesson of the slippery slope… the Eden story shows how easily the joy of being with God can be poisoned by the desire to be like God… so it’s probably better to just tamp down any and all sense of longing.

Learn the secret of being content…

Replace the hunger for bread with the satisfaction of being nourished on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”…

Follow Jesus’s example and learn to control your hungers before the Devil uses your hungers to control you…

Or so the argument goes – because that argument is simple and easy to understand.

It takes stories that reveal human hungers – of various varieties – and turns them into cautionary tales whose lesson is that longing, leads to vulnerability, leads to sin… so to avoid sin, avoid longing.

It seems so clear, especially considering that the devil believed even Jesus could be controlled by his hunger.

As theologian and teacher Audrey West explains:

“Talking advantage of Jesus’ hunger (emphasis added), the devil tries to entice his opponent to grasp after domestic security for its own sake …, demonstrate his close association with the powerful …, and secure the glory of political leadership.”[2]

In other words, the Evil One sees Jesus’s natural hungers as his weak point – the way to manipulate him.

As West further explains, “The temptation is not that food, power, and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.”[3]

Because hunger, longing, an awareness of our wants can be used to manipulate us.

But that simple, moralistic reading of these stories misses a fundamental truth present in BOTH the Garden and the Wilderness:

The truth that our human hunger is part of God’s design.

The scene of the Garden is a scene of the goodness of God’s creation, and in that scene God’s instructions to humanity highlight that eating is part of the design.

God puts limits on it, of course, but the human need to eat, to take in the good gifts of God is essential to Creation.

And the scene in the Wilderness shows us a different facet of this truth: in taking on our humanity, Jesus took on our hungers… on purpose.

He is led – on purpose – by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where his hunger will be tested.

And in that testing, he teaches us that our hunger is not wrong. It is part of what it is to be human. It is an experience that he deliberately shares with us.

Audrey West offers one more observation that helps us the understand this important nuance in the portrayal of hunger in today’s gospel. She reminds us that,

“Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For forty days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.”[4]

Jesus’s hunger is not a WARNING to us, it is a PREPARATION for him.

So, how does hunger prepare him, and potentially prepare us?

Well, first, in precisely the way that Reverend Kim exhorted us to experience in her Ash Wednesday sermon: by calling us into our longing, into our recognition of our own need for God.

When we reject the truth of our hunger, we lean into the lie of our own self-sufficiency.

We cultivate a false veneer of contentment that requires us to shut down any inner honesty about our state of longing.

But OF COURSE we have longings – we are made for perfect community with God, and we don’t have that and our souls know it.

When we let ourselves instead experience the truth of our hunger, when we reject the fear of our hunger and let it be our teacher, then we can follow it into a deeper understanding of the thing we long for MORE than food, or safety, or power: we long for God – who alone can meet our deepest need for wholeness, and love, and meaning.

That is the trust that Jesus learns in the wilderness… when his hunger is real, but it DOESN’T control him because God is there with him.

Trust in God – in the midst of our vulnerability – is one lesson we learn from our hunger.

The other lesson is that our hungers teach us the needs of the world around us.

Jesus experienced physical hunger in the wilderness – and then he was called to feed the hungry who followed him;

He experienced the longing for protection from physical dangers – and then he saw the people on the margins who were left unprotected by their society;

He experienced the pull for power – and then he recognized the falseness of those who clung to power by accusing him.

It was by sharing in human vulnerabilities that he was prepared to minister to those very needs.

And so it is with us.

Our hungers, our longings, our awareness of our vulnerability and need are God’s GIFT to us this Lenten season.

They draw us into trust in the only one who can ultimately fulfill our longings.

And they teach us how to recognize the needs of those around us, and offer them the hope of the God who truly knows our hunger.

Thanks be to God.


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