Christ is baptized!
And immediately after his baptism, he was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. This is the gospel we heard yesterday (Matt 4:1-11). The 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism foreshadows for us the coming 40 day Great Fast before Pascha. The Great Fast before Pascha is also the Great Fast after Theophany. When Pascha is very early, the Triodion starts almost immediately. This year, however, we have endless days of feasting – well, until the end of February.
Jesus endures his fast in the desert in preparation for his ministry. Though he is perfect and unchangeable in his divinity (and so you might think he doesn’t need any preparation), in his perfect humanity, he does change and need preparation. He grows in wisdom and in stature, as Luke tells us (2:52). In the desert, Jesus experiences hunger, which is very human thing to experience. He fasts and then he is hungry (Matt 4:2). And he is tempted by the devil to eat bread.
Fasting weakens us. At first, it makes us more susceptible to temptations, not less. Anyone who has made a strenuous effort at the Great Fast knows it has a tendency to produce irritability, short tempers, and the easy formation of resentments. This is why some of the fathers point out to us that it does no good to fast from meat if we were only going to turn around and bite the backs of our brothers and sisters.
Fasting also weakens Jesus. Here is God in the wilderness weakened in his humanity and hungry.
But we submit to this time of weakening as a necessary training. It’s a bit like when an athlete undergoes a strenuous workout. You know that when you lift a lot of heavy weights it actually, in the short-term, weakens you. That same day, you’re wiped out. The very fibers of your muscles are torn apart by the effort. However, they respond to this by healing over time and coming back with greater strength so that, next time, they can lift that weight more easily.
The same is true of the spiritual effort of fasting and other ascetic labors. They train us in self-denial. Then when we’re tempted to do things that really are evil, unlike eating food, which is not evil, we have the strength to resist – like Jesus resisted his temptations in the desert – because we’ve practiced not giving into our desires. Habit is a powerful thing. And we’re going to need good habits and great strength because greater temptations are coming to us then we have so far experienced.
The same thing is true in the human life of Jesus Christ. He comes out of the desert, which he entered to be tempted and strengthened in his humanity, only to walk straight into adversity. Today, we hear in the holy gospel that, immediately after he rebukes the devil in the desert, he hears that John has been arrested (Matt 4:12). John, his Forerunner and his Baptist, the servant to whom he had bowed his head and from whom he had received baptism only 40 days or so before.
This arrest bodes poorly for Jesus, you understand. He and John were publicly affiliated with each other. The authorities that had arrested John would likely be coming for Jesus next. This is one of those adversities for which Jesus trained in the desert. This is a moment of spiritual discernment by our Lord. He has a decision to make, and in making it he must not be rattled by difficult circumstances.
He could rail against those authorities that have arrested John and heroically be arrested with him. He could witness to the gospel by bravely facing the false accusers right away. But Jesus is able to respond to the adversity dispassionately and with wisdom. He knows that first the gospel must be preached to the people before he is given up, or rather freely lays down his life for us.
First, he must preach. For our faith, as Paul will teach us, comes by hearing – and hearing the preaching of Christ (Rome 10:17). If the word was not preached, it would not be heard, and we would have no faith. So, Jesus does not stand at this time and rail against the wicked persecutors of John. Rather, at this time, he withdraws into Galilee and leaves Nazareth and goes and dwells in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.
By this example he teaches us, St John Chrysostom says, that “it is not blameworthy not to throw oneself into peril.” This was shown to us also when Jesus was a baby. When Herod ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in his effort to destroy the Christ Child, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream and the Holy Family flees into Egypt (Matt 2:13).
Knowing of coming peril and destruction, it is at times good for us to withdraw for a time. This is not to say that we are to be cowards. Far from it. Jesus embraces the cross and commands us to do the same. We are to be courageous, but not necessarily foolish. (Though perhaps some of us are called to other kinds of foolishness – to the ascesis of folly – to be fools for Christ’s sake). But Jesus is no fool. He reserves his passion for a better time. It is necessary, as I say, for him to preach the gospel first.
It is interesting to note, as Matthew does, where this adversity sends him and where he consequently first preaches the gospel. To the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali. It will help to know something about this place. Where are Zebulun and Naphtali? Or, maybe, who are Zebulun and Naphtali? Well, first of all, they were two sons of Jacob, according to the Book of Genesis. They are two fathers of two of the 12 tribes of Israel. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled in the North. It was here that the Jews experienced their first captivity by the Assyrians. It was here that they first forgot the Torah and descended into idolatry.
When Isaiah describes them as a people who sat in darkness, it helps to have some understanding of what he’s talking about (Isaiah 9:2). These are the people who have forgotten the Lord – and it is to them that the Lord comes. For those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light as dawned (Matt 4:16). That light is Jesus Christ and his preaching of the gospel.
Isn’t this remarkable? Those who first forgot the Lord and abandoned his law and turned to other gods – it is to them that he first of all comes! It is among them that he first preaches! We are never abandoned by the Lord, even if we have abandoned him. Very much to the contrary, he comes to seek out and save those who are lost, confused, mired in sin, and idolatrous. Us, in other words. The beautiful shepherd leaves behind the 99 sheep on the mountain to go and find the one who has gone astray (Matt 18:12).
And listen to the first word he preaches to them and to us, the first word he preaches ever to anybody: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
This is the good news! His first words are not, “Repent or go to hell!” even though the impenitent are indeed the damned. But Jesus is calling us into his kingdom. He is calling us into life, not just away from death. He is calling us to, not from. He is attracting us to himself, not repelling us from others. Repentance is movement toward our good and loving God and life in his kingdom, which does result in moving away from sin and death and hell. But the only way to do that effectively is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
I recently learned that, in the gospels, οὐρανός – the word for heaven – occurs 284 times. βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (kingdom of God) occurs an additional 54 times. Meanwhile, the words for hell, γέεννα occurs only 12 times and ᾅδης occurs 11 times. It’s clear where the emphasis is here. Heaven isn’t just a way out of hell – it’s the whole point of life – it’s growing union with our good and loving God.