Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into! – Ash Wednesday Worship at Christ the King – Febuary 14, 2024

Preacher:Phil Schmidt

Today on Ash Wednesday, the tradition of 40 days of fasting begins. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Accordingly, Christians throughout history have followed his example by abstaining from meat and wine during the season of Lent.

With regard to the fasting of Jesus, one of the biggest understatements in the Bible can be found in Matthew’s gospel:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 

When I fast for 4 hours I get hungry. I cannot imagine the hunger of a person who has fasted for 960 hours. This hunger apparently made Jesus vulnerable, because it led to the first temptation:

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 

This temptation is a good focal point for understanding the season of Lent. The first temptation can help us understand why abstinence during Lent can be a good thing.

I think that Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright, can help us recognize the appeal of transforming rocks into bread. One of his most successful works was “The Three Penny Opera”, produced in Berlin in 1928.  In this theater piece there is ballad entitled “What does man live from?”  This song contains a sentence, which is provocative:

“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”

This statement can be translated in various ways: “First comes the grub, then the morality.” The exact meaning is open to interpretation. “Fressen” means to devour food like an animal. So, the sentence might be translated:

      • If you want people to behave in an ethical manner, you first have to let them gorge themselves with food.

Since Brecht was a socialist, this sentence has also been understood as a political statement:

      • You cannot expect conventional morality from the working-class if they suffer hunger and deprivation”

Perhaps Brecht had an old German proverb in the back of his mind, namely:

      • “It is hard to preach to an empty stomach.”

So, when Jesus encountered the temptation of turning rocks into bread, he was confronted with a pragmatic idea.  It is as though the voice of the tempter was saying:

Hungry people cannot listen attentively and are not interested in God. If you turn rocks into bread, you could eradicate hunger for all people. Feed all of the hungry and they will listen to you and believe what you say. You could save the souls of people by filling their stomachs!

A person who satisfies his hungers does not automatically become a better person. The desert sojourn of the Israelites demonstrated that full stomachs do not lead to full hearts.

The 40 days Jesus wandered in the desert reflects the wandering of the people of Israel for 40 years in the desert. God provided the people of Israel every day with manna, a bread-like substance, which appeared in the morning dew.  He also provided them with swarms of quails in the evening. Regarding manna, the book of Exodus reports:   

      • Each of them gathered as much as he could eat.

 So, everyone had a full stomach.

However, having enough to eat does not make people contented, peaceful or righteous. In the book of Numbers (11:6), it is reported:

      • And again the Israelites grumbled and said: “We have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

The main theme of the desert sojourn was expressed with the word “grumbling”, and this grumbling was always about food. In Exodus 16 “grumbling” occurs 8 times within 8 consecutive sentences.  Just listen to this redundancy in Exodus 16:

      • And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled.
      • he (the Lord) has heard your grumbling
      • what are we, that you grumble against us?”
      • the Lordhas heard your grumbling that you grumble against him
      • Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”
      • Come near before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.’”
      • And the Lordsaid to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel.

“Grumbling” could also be translated “complaining”, “griping”, “whining”, “moaning, “bellyaching”. Martin Luther used the German word “Murren”, which sounds like the English “murmuring”. If Luther were alive today, he might have used the word “Meckern”, which is also the sound which a goat makes.

On the one hand, complaining can be a healthy thing. Of course, we should not bottle up our frustration but express our complaints in a constructive way.

However, complaining becomes malignant when it is connected with finger-pointing. Grumbling becomes self-destructive when it invents scapegoats. The grumbling Israelites invariably blamed Moses or God for ruining their lives. The grumblers did not appreciate that they had been freed from slavery and degredation in Egypt; they never learned to accept responsibility for their own behavior.

In the desert-sojourn a basic principle of Biblical faith was revealed: The opposite of faith is not atheism, it is blaming others for our problems, expressed with endless griping. The opposite of trust in God is believing that we have been victimized and have a right to feel constant grievance.

In this context I have to think of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a legendary comic duo who became a team in 1927. Whenever Hardy got himself into a predicament because of his own stupidity; he invariably blamed his partner by saying: “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” He never blamed himself for anything. The grumblers in the desert never accepted responsibility for their situation but said to Moses again and again: “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” Moses was in danger of being stoned to death by these complainers. All deadly violence in this world is carried out by people who consider themselves victims of injustice.

What is the answer to this culture of grievance and blame? At the end of the desert sojourn, Moses said to the people of Israel:

And he (the Lord) humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna,… that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

These are the words which Jesus quoted when he was confronted with his first temptation. If Jesus had transformed stones into bread and fed starving humanity, it would not have made people grateful or inspired them to be kind and patient. Bellyaching cannot be eradicated by filling bellies. We human beings need to learn again and again that life is more than what we have stored in the kitchen or by what we do to satisfy our desires.

This is a reason why Christians fast during Lent. Abstaining from certain foods, alcohol or chocolate is a symbolic gesture which reminds us that satisfying our yearnings does not make life meaningful or good. It is the grace of God – revealed in his word – which fills life with meaning and purpose. The season of Lent features fasting, penitential prayers and ash crosses as reminders of our mortality. With fasting, penitence and ashes we humble ourselves before God.  Christians have experienced that these forms of humbleness can help us appreciate that we are totally dependent upon the grace of God as revealed in Biblical history.

So, we could rephrase the words of Bertolt Brecht by saying:

      • Zuerst kommt Verzicht auf Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.
      • Zuerst kommt Demut vor Gott, dann kommt die Moral.
      • First, we humble ourselves before God, then comes ethical behavior.

May the Lord help us to live not from bread alone, but from every word of grace which God wants to say to us – in worship, in the Bible and in every encounter with our fellow human beings. Amen.