This first Sunday in Lent is always marked by the story of Jesus’ Temptations in the wilderness, his 40-day fast, upon which our season of Lent is based. Years ago, I did a sabbatical at our Anglican College of St. George in Jerusalem and spent some time in the very Judean wilderness we heard about in our Gospel this morning.
The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem. In fact, it’s positively startling to drive, or walk, a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and to find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in the world. This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow white sand drifts like we sometimes picture it.
It is bleak, barren, rocky ground so hot and dry that you have to wear a hat at all times and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry. My assumption is that Jesus fasted mostly from solid foot during those forty days (as a matter of fact, others have done that) but that he did drink water.
And, during those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have been more like midlife – struggled with just what his life and ministry were going to look like from this point on. He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John, but immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat, a time apart to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead.
And Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he had to wrestle with several primary temptations. First of all, Jesus was tempted to try and meet everyone’s needs by turning miles and miles of rocks and stones and boulders into bread enough to feed the known world. And, as wonderful as that would have been, Jesus came to see that not even ending world hunger would satisfy what we are really hungry for. Deep down, we’re hungry for God’s Word. We want to hear from God, and to know that we are loved and cared about. And so Jesus said, “It is written: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)
Then, Jesus was tempted to do something even more dramatic, to do something spectacular to prove that he was God’s Son and that God would come through for him by sending angels to protect him just like Psalm 91 had promised. Actually, we’re told later that Jesus was ministered to by angels, but not in the showy, egocentric way the Tempter had in mind. So Jesus said, “Again it is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7)
And, finally, Jesus was tempted to “sell out” for this world’s goods. “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours, Jesus, if you’ll just worship them…and me…instead of God.” But Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord our God and serve only him.” (Matthew 4:10) (Pause)
I don’t know what your specific temptations are, but if you’re anything like me, they may not be all that different (in substance) from those Jesus faced. The temptation to try and meet everyone’s needs…the temptation to do something spectacular to draw attention to yourself…and, maybe above all else, the temptation to “sell out,” to forget that we cannot serve God and Mammon and to cave in to the values of the world rather than the values of the Gospel. But, you know, you can ward off those temptations too — in much the same way Jesus did. By being attentive to God’s Word…by refusing to put God to the test…and by rededicating yourself to put God first in your life – and nothing else! (Pause)
We’re entering more fully today into the season of Lent. Like Jesus’ experience in the desert, it is a time for fasting and for prayer. A time to listen for God’s Word…a time to stop putting God to the test…a time for worship and for service. I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines to help you do some of that. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy told you what some of those disciplines are (but it’s not too late to begin today, if you missed the first days of the season!)
Those disciplines are: self-examination and repentance…prayer, fasting and self-denial…reading and meditating on the Bible. I invite you – once again – to keep a holy Lent this year. May our prayer for these days be the prayer of the Psalmist this morning…a prayer which, quite likely, Jesus himself prayed during his Lent, his forty days in the desert.
You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance. (Psalm 32:8)