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Lent & Wilderness

This morning, I led a hospital ecumenical service, and gave a short message on Luke 4:1-13 and its significance for those of us who are observing Lent. 

I decided to post it here because I'm planning on sharing some Lenten poetry in the next few weeks, and I know that many of my readers are from Christian traditions that don't observe Lent, or from traditions that aren't exclusively Christian. I hope this helps set Lent into a specific context and a narrative - and I'm always happy to hear what doesn't make sense, or dialogue around any of the content. If you're unfamiliar with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, click on the link above so you can see what story I'm referencing!

For many Christians around the world, we are now in the season of Lent.

And when Christians talk about Lent, there are a few other words that are very often heard:

Each of these words is present in the Scripture story we just read, and they are important both in the story of Jesus and in our own lives.

First of all, the wilderness. This story is set in the wilderness - Jesus is alone, isolated, and far from civilization for forty days. Generally, this setting is seen as symbolic of the Old Testament exodus,  an echo and re-working of the time when the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert after being freed from Egypt.

Deserts are not easy places. They are short on many of the necessities of life, and for the Israelites, it led to deep fear, complaining, anger, and disbelief in God.

I imagine many of us can relate. We have wildernesses in our own lives. Illness is often a wilderness of sorts; we feel out of control, trapped, unable to access the things we are used to having as part of our lives. And we, like the Israelites, quickly become discouraged, afraid, and angry.

If you are from a Christian tradition that observes Lent, you are probably familiar with the idea of fasting. Historically, Christians fast from or give up something important to them during the season of Lent - often, it is a type of food - meat, or sugar, or coffee. Today, fasting from technology is becoming more common. We do these things not because fasting itself makes us holy, but when we are deprived of our usual habits and supplies, we make space to encounter God. The time that the Israelites spent in the wilderness, isolated and without any resources, is a time of very unique interaction with God. God led them by a pillar of cloud and fire. God came down and dwelt in the tabernacle. God spoke with Moses and gave them the Ten Commandments.

But with fasting, there is also always temptation. I can sneak just one little bite of a chocolate bar, right? It’s okay if I turn on the TV just for the news… It’s no big deal if I have one coffee…

In our story today, Jesus is faced with that same temptation. Having had no food for 40 days, Satan comes to him and says, “You can turn this stone into bread.”

And here is where Jesus is different than us: he doesn’t do it.

Satan tries again, and raises the stakes. “I’ll give you everything you want, if you worship me.”

Jesus refuses. So Satan tries a third time. “Throw yourself off the temple. God will send angels to save you.” But Jesus chooses instead to trust God.

I want to point out a difference between the Israelites in the wilderness and Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus didn’t encounter God. He encountered Satan. But he trusted God. Even in the perceived absence of God, even when Satan was so close, so real, Jesus trusted God’s words to be true, and God’s goodness to be enough.

Sometimes our deserts are more like Jesus'. We may encounter God in mysterious and wonderful ways, but more often, it seems that God is silent and Satan all too near. We are tempted to give in and give up.

And here’s the really wonderful part of our story: because of Jesus’ story, because Jesus faced Satan and walked away, because of Jesus' death and resurrection, we don’t have to trust in our own ability to stand firm.

The beauty of the Christian story is that as Christians, Jesus’ whole life is given to us. All of the things Jesus has done are on our behalf. Jesus resisted Satan on our behalf. Jesus went into the desert on our behalf.

So when we are in the desert, Christ is with us. When we cannot resist temptation, or we feel like giving up, giving in to the doubts and the lies and the offers that Satan holds out to us, Jesus is our hope. Jesus is true. Jesus is present. And Jesus loves us.

For Jesus, the wilderness was a time of preparation for his upcoming ministry, for the difficulties he would face, and ultimately, for his death and resurrection. And it was a time of victory; the passage ends with Satan leaving, waiting for an "opportune time." But that time never comes. Christ's victory over Satan begins here, in the wilderness.

For us, the time of Lent, or our wildernesses that have nothing to do with the church calendar, are a time of preparation too. They prepare us to let Jesus closer. They prepare us to let Jesus work on our behalf. And they are a place of victory, because even when we come face to face with our own failures (I didn't even last four days without failing at my lent fasting!), the grace of God meets us. It is a place of victory because Christ is always with us. Christ will always conquer. And Christ will always love us, even in our failures.



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