Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Tonight we continue with our theme of Lenten Customs. Last week we looked at how ashes are symbols of our sin and repentance, as outwards signs of our inward state. Tonight we are going to be looking from the inside out. Another longstanding tradition of Lent is the practice of fasting. Traditionally, the term fasting refers to the act of abstaining from food for religious purposes, and we can see this practice all over the Bible as well as throughout history. This is not just a Christian practice; we see a variety of religious traditions abstaining from food for a set period of time. Most often, this is in order to merit some favor or achieve some righteousness before God. The church, on the other hand, has used fasting in a variety of forms to help refocus our attention on Christ.
Our attention is a very fickle thing. Many of us like to believe that we are efficient multitaskers, but in reality our brains can only process one task at a time. When most of us multitask, in truth we are simply switching back and forth between tasks, though perhaps seamlessly, because our brain cannot process more than one thing at a time. This is what makes magic so convincing. The other evening I was watching a show entitled “Brain Games,” and on the episode about attention the famous magician, David Copperfield, said, “If you can take their attention to another place willingly, then you’ve done your job correctly.”
Magicians exploit the fact that our brains can only focus on one thing to pull off seemingly miraculous illusions. They know that if they can get us to focus on a single object, our brain will filter everything else out and we won’t notice even the most significant changes in our environment. To demonstrate, the show set up a counter advertising the opportunity to be on the show. They positioned a clerk behind the counter and when someone walked up the clerk would hand them a release form. The clerk would then duck under the counter to get a pen and a different clerk would reappear with the pen. Since the people were so busy looking at the waiver, they didn’t even notice the clerk was different than before.
Through a variety of other demonstrations and experiments the show made its point clear: we are easily deceived into being distracted and lose sight of the world around us. But there is one who is far superior to all the magicians and con artists and hypnotists out there, and there is more on the line than just your pride or your wallet. From the beginning Satan has been known as “The Deceiver.” He has been called the “Father of All Lies,” “The Corrupter of the Truth,” “The Tempter.” While scholars and scientists have been studying the mind since Ancient Greece, Satan has been studying humanity since Adam and Eve. He knows how we work. He knows how we think. He knows just how to distract and entice us so that we lose focus on God and shift our devotion and attention to other things. Satan knows how to turn seemingly harmless objects into idols. He is so good at this that we often don’t even see our own idolatry for what it truly is.
Luther tells us in his Large Catechism a god is something from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. Luther wrote, “I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. ... Now I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.” Satan can work his deception so well that he can replace the one True God with an idol without us even noticing.
There are the obvious ways, like trusting in money or possessions, but even those we exclude ourselves from. We insist we only trust in God, but what would happen if like Job you lost everything? What would happen if your house burned down, your bank account drained, your other possessions stolen, your family murdered? Your faith would likely be hard pressed. Even more so, what would happen if your health was to fail you and you suffered from a crippling disease? Would you stand firm in your faith, confidently declaring, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away?”
But these are big things, what about the little ones? What would happen if you lost access television or the internet or a computer or a telephone? What would happen if someone hit your car and you had to go without it for a week or two? How would that make you feel? How would you respond? My guess is that anyone in here would at the very least be quite agitated. You see, Satan offers us so many distractions that our sinful natures feasts upon that we don’t even realize we are being distracted, and we are even resistant to the idea of calling these things that we depend on idols and calling ourselves idolaters.
Yet there is a way that we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to recapture our attention and refocus it on Christ. One of the ways we do this is through fasting. Though traditionally this has been done by abstaining from food, this practice has expanded to include abstaining from a variety of activities, thus the question is often asked, “What did you give up for Lent?” The “hunger” for whatever we are giving up is associated with our spiritual hunger. The idea is that when we fast, we feel that desire; that emptiness in our lives that used to be filled by these things we have given up, those idols in our lives, and it grabs our attention. This is what makes fasting from food is so effective, because the hunger pains can get so bad that they distract us from all other things. When they do so we intentionally remind ourselves that it is God who gives us what we truly need. He gives us the true bread and the living water.
When we give things up for Lent we also feel the weight of their absence, and as we are turned to Christ by the Spirit we see how we have replaced God in our devotion with all these other things. We see how much time and attention we have given to them while neglecting our devotion to God. Yes, when our attention is turned to Christ we do in fact see our idolatry, but we also see our Savior. As we confessed earlier, we know we cannot live God’s Law perfectly, but we also know that Christ already did it for us. As our attention is turned from our own false gods, we see the true God who lived and died for each and every one of us, and when we do that we also see Satan and his distractions for what they truly are: nothing but cheap magician’s gimmicks that are incapable of separating us from the love of God our Father, and Jesus Christ our Lord. So this Lent let your attention be turned to the cross and know that Christ has taken your sins upon Himself, and rest in peace knowing that even death itself is just a distraction that cannot keep us from our Savior forever.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.