Wednesday of this week was Ash Wednesday, which means the season of Lent has begun. In many denominations, people go to church and receive a cross of ash on their foreheads. The ashes are made by burning the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The pastor who gives the blessing typically says something like, “Dust are you, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a humbling blessing, a reminder of the importance of repentance, a call to remember our desire to make things right with God.
Often as a way to participate in the season of Lent—which spans the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter–people give up something as a way to help that humility along, so they are less driven by their desires and more aware of God. The tradition of moving toward simplicity, or “giving something up for Lent,” is a way of participating in Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, when he was tempted and tested, right before he started his public ministry. Even though Jesus must have been starving, and lonely, and perhaps bored, he didn’t fall for temptations that came his way. Each time something tempted to distract and lure him toward ideas of personal gain—even though his hunger pangs must have been calling loudly—Jesus was able to turn his mind and heart back to God.
Think about how much resolve that takes, how much clarity, not to get derailed from your original focus, however small it may be. So many times in life we set our sights on something new—maybe starting a new diet, or setting a goal for exercising–only to see our good intentions fall apart in the first few days. This is why no one takes New Year’s resolutions very seriously. We know our tendencies. We set a goal, we make a plan, but most of us—sooner rather than later—get distracted, derailed, or just give up not too far down the path. Time and again we choose comfort over discomfort and ease over effort, and that’s not going to take us anywhere near our goal.
But that’s not how it was with Jesus. The goal before him was so big and so important and so lasting that he needed to be able to withstand temptation—for us. And how did he do that? He held fast to his relationship with God throughout the whole ordeal, keeping his mind focused and God’s promises close. Matthew tells us that Jesus had four important things in the wilderness with him: (1) he had the comfort of knowing he’d been led there by Spirit; (2) he knew experientially to turn toward God for his needs; (3) he trusted in God and God’s belief in him; and (4) he had perfect clarity about what he was really choosing.
First, we’re told that the whole experience begins with Jesus knowing that Spirit was the one leading him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. There was no guesswork about it—Jesus knew this was an important time and an important task. He had to know his heart and mind were clear and that he would be able to keep God first, no matter what life would bring. Knowing that Spirit was leading had to be a comfort—and an anchor–when the temptations began.
When we face our own personal wilderness times—maybe an illness or an injury; the loss of a job, heartache, loss, uncertainty, confusion—we often resist whatever’s happening, pushing back and trying to make it go away, make it end. Whatever it is, it’s probably uncomfortable and maybe painful and scary. We can’t see far down the road ahead, so we don’t know how it will all turn out. Usually, when we’re in that kind of place, we don’t think it as being Spirit-led. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “If God leads you to it, God will lead you through it,” but we struggle with that idea that God has led us to or allowed a time of difficulty. There may be a purpose unfolding that we can’t yet see.
In my own case, when I broke my wrist last summer, I was really trying to go with the flow as I waited for my arm to heal. But inwardly, especially at first, I was militantly resisting. I was determined not to let it get me down. In fact the day after I broke my wrist, I was outside trimming the bushes, right arm all wrapped up and in a sling, using only my left hand to clip off the tiny branches with hand-held pruning shears. My neighbors laughed at me, but I was resolute. I was going to do what I had planned to do, even if it took me all day. That kind of jaw-tightened resolve stuck around for about a week, when I started to fight less and soften more. As God gradually brought more good into my circumstance, I started to see that God was working in even the tiniest details of it all. I began to feel blessed and cared for. And today, almost 10 months after the surgery, I look back on that whole ordeal and it’s all wrapped up in a warm and wonderful feeling of being loved by God.
In his first temptation, Jesus was visited by the devil, who tried to catch Jesus up right where he was most vulnerable in that moment: his hunger. After fasting for 40 days, Jesus might have been feeling weak and perhaps sick and dazed from a lack of food. The question the devil slips sneakily in here—tucked inside his suggestion that Jesus turn the stones into bread—was “Will God really take care of you out here in the wilderness? Are you sure you’re not forgotten? Maybe you’d better do something to feed yourself, if you’ve got the power to do it.”
In our lives, we are often fuzzy on our answers to the question. “Will God take care of me or not?” The kind of rock-solid faith that says, “I am depending on God for my answer,” doesn’t get as much play as the old saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” These two approaches to solving problems may sound like opposites—you either choose to wait on God or choose to do it your way-, but in fact they work together if we will listen to God throughout. Then we can act to help ourselves as we are so led by Spirit.
This is what the psalmist was getting at when he prayed, asking that God would help him know God’s ways. “Lead me in your truth and teach me,” the psalmist asks. He’s done taking the matters of the world into his own hands; he wants to know what God wants for him, how God sees things—and he is willing to wait to act until he gets the clarity he needs.
In Jesus’ second temptation in the wilderness, the devil sweeps him up and takes him to the holy city and places him on the pinnacle of the temple. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? In the blink of an eye. Some commentaries offer that this trip was made so quickly because the entire temptation was happening in Jesus’ head, in his thoughts. In that view, the temptation was mental, causing Jesus to doubt and struggle. We have all felt as much—picturing scary outcomes, worrying about things that never come to pass, feels we’re all alone and forgetting that God cares about us and wants to help. (It reminds me of this quote from Mark Twain: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life. And some of them actually happened.”)
This temptation aims right for the heart of belief—Jesus’ belief in who he was, and his belief and trust in what God had told him about himself. Right before this point in Matthew’s story, Jesus had been baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. You may remember that when Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove. If you and I had a moment like that, it’s hard to imagine that we’d ever doubt it, for the whole rest of our lives.
But perhaps this is where the human part of Jesus kicks in. And maybe struggled with his humility a bit. Did he really know, really accept that he himself was the one foretold in the scriptures? Did he know without a shadow of a doubt that he was the Son of God? We don’t know, one way or another. But this is where the temptation hooks him. If there were any uncertainty within him, any need to know for sure, the idea of having proof would feel like a relief, wouldn’t it? The devil tries to entice him into proving it for himself once and for all. “If you really are the Son of God,” the tempter says, “angels will come and protect you—nothing will happen. Use your power and let’s see.”
We too are vulnerable to doubt—it is a part of everyday life in this world. We may question whether God can or will act when we need help in our own wilderness times. We also may find it hard to see “that of God” in ourselves. We may wonder what we have gifts to offer or doubt that God has a special plan for our lives. That’s where we need the psalmist’s prayer—“God, help us see what you see; help us know your ways and plan.”
The final temptation in the wilderness takes Jesus up to a very high mountain, where he can see all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. For most people, that type of sweeping power and success—especially in the presence of someone who is promising “all this can be yours!”—could have been a great temptation. This is success as the world determines it: property, power, and prestige.
“You can have all this…” the tempter says, “If you will fall down and worship me.”
Can’t you just imagine Jesus’ face in that moment, when the devil’s real motives are revealed and Jesus sees that his choice is quite literally, the Light of God or the prince of darkness? It may have even been a relief to have it put to him so plainly. There was no trickery, no mind games here for him to sort out. The choice was right before him: It wasn’t about choosing to be powerful or powerless, between wealth and poverty, fame and obscurity. His choice—the million-dollar, eternal question, for him and for us—is “who will you worship?”
We are asked the same question by life a thousand times every day, each time we read a new headline, whenever we interact with others, as we make choices about our finances, our families, our future, our present. When God comes first, our options get clearer and they will typically have something to do with love and trust and peace, building up rather than tearing down. And those old reactive feelings that used to have such power over us—things like doubt, and fear, and judgment—they can just become unnecessary energies we easily give up for Lent.
In closing, I’d like to share something I saw online this week that was attributed to Pope Francis:
“Do you want to fast this lent?
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
- Fast from worries and have trust in God.
- Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
- Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.”
May it be so—for each and all of us.
- OT Psalm 25: 4-7
- NT Matthew 4: 1-11