As we begin the discipline of Lent we are reminded in the Gospel on this Sunday, our first Sunday of the season, of the weaknesses of our human nature and with of our being prone to temptation and failure. Even Jesus, in his humanity, faced temptation, though he overcame it by his professing and believing the word of scripture.
The readings today reveal a sharp contrast to human weakness in the awe and power of the Almighty who delivered the Hebrew people from the land of Egypt with “strong hand and outstretched arm,” and with terrifying signs and wonders. The lesson for us is that we, like Jesus, may overcome temptation by professing and believing the word of God. We are to incorporate Christ into our lives, but to do this we must be aware of who Jesus really is. We must be aware of what Jesus is about and who he truly stands for in our world today.
I suppose it’s fitting to begin the season of Lent by considering the 40-day fast of Jesus and his temptation during that time. Each year we begin a journey in Lent in which our goal should be to come through it somehow different than when we began. We should come through Lent spiritually stronger and ready to take on greater tasks. We should come through with a closer and more intimate knowledge of the person and work of Jesus.
We might not ordinarily think of Lent as being a goal-centered time, but when we consider it as such it has much in common, by analogy, with an athlete’s intensive training for a championship event. Certainly Jesus in his withdrawal and departure into the desert experienced a time of purification and strengthening. It is not that he had need of purification, or that divinity wasn’t strong in him already, but that he was willing to submit his humanity before God in order for God’s will to be accomplished in his ministry.
It’s not enough that during Lent we merely go through the motions or pass through the season taking in the purple color and yearly themes, whether they be our annual giving up of something, or our fasting, our abstaining from meat on Fridays, or even our prayer and almsgiving—all of which are good things in themselves—rather, Lent should effect in us a reality that transcends religious observance and ritual repetition. Lent should help us come to terms with that which hinders us from being the people that God wants us to be. In Lent we must be willing to identify our weaknesses and to struggle with them. We must find that which will allow us to overcome those things that prevent us from identifying our true role and mission.
We tend to experience Lent as individuals, which is a natural outcome of the introspection of self examination. However, rather than experiencing Lent as something that is ultimately individual or personal in nature, we should perhaps see it from the viewpoint of our identifying with the mystical Body of Christ. The 40 days of Lent have much more in common with Jesus’ 40 days in the desert than we may realize, and in that Jesus’ retreat into the desert becomes our retreat as well.
I think what today’s lesson really stands to teach us has to do with how Christians—including all denominations—practice being Christlike in the world: in our relation with every person and every thing in the created order. The goal of Lent, then, is to become more like Jesus, but it may be that we are in need of clarification as to what being like Jesus really means. There is a phenomenon in the world of our remaking Jesus in our image. We see it in the way that Jesus is portrayed in art, which shouldn’t be cause for concern. However, where it is present in a way in which we must be cautious is when we remake Jesus to fit our preconceived ideas of what is morally right in terms of how we deal with others, especially with those who may at variance with our traditional values and self identity.
For example, if we somehow get it in our heads that Jesus came into the world to establish a staunch or judgmental religiosity with an attitude that rejects others as outsiders, sinners, or otherwise somehow unworthy of our embrace, then it may be that we’ve been listening to the wrong voice in the world. It may be that we are not hearing Jesus at all.
The message today is very much about what we hear, but it’s about hearing God’s voice; hearing it in the scriptures, and in the times in which we live, and in the events that unfold each day. The message today is also about allowing the word to be in our hearts, and what that means isn’t that we have to have the bible memorized but that we have to believe the word we hear; we have to internalize its significance so that it becomes an automatic response in us, just as Jesus responded to the tempter, and so that we may judge every situation with prudence and mercy, and at the same time to be courageous when we encounter that which is opposed to the true meaning of Christ among us. Consider Jesus’ responses to the tempter.
Our most serious temptations in the world today are very much like the temptations that Jesus faced in his 40 days in the desert. They are the temptations to abandon the mission of Christ in favor of a false mission. In many ways the tempter wanted to see a magical display of power from Jesus. Perhaps sometimes we would like to avoid hardships magically and see easy answers to life’s trials. However, faith, even Jesus’ faith, is not about having magical powers that make everything right at the snap of one’s fingers.
Jesus came to establish a rule of justice and righteousness on earth. In that he came to the hungry of the world. He came to those without food. We have to be concerned about hunger in the world. While an omnipotent or magical being might use his power to turn stones into bread, doing so would remove all solidarity with those who experience the reality of hunger on a daily basis and have no way to do anything about it. So, rather than turn stones into bread, Jesus turns to the word of God saying, “One does not live on bread alone.”
Jesus came to the powerless of the world, and while an all-powerful being, or even a powerful human being, might take earthly riches in his hands and sit the throne of every kingdom and bask in glory, to do so would be to leave the poor and powerless of the world alone to die in misery without hope. So, rather than take power Jesus chose to submit to God’s power and serve the one to whom the poor little ones cry out in their agony. He chose to serve the God of the destitute and unwanted, of those judged as sinners, slaves and children of slaves, aliens and outcasts, those branded as illegal or illegitimate people, prisoners, refugees, the sick and dying, and those who felt that for too long their lives had simply not mattered. For Jesus these poor ones mattered more than all the earthly kingdoms. He did not succumb to a temptation that would have left them alone.
Jesus came to proclaim the word of God knowing full well that too often prophets and saints meet with a violent end. Indeed the angels could have protected him but he chose to walk the path set before him even though a cruel cross awaited him at the end. He chose to reveal truth to eyes blinded by illusions even though he knew truth would be rejected and that he would be despised and ultimately killed.
Jesus spent 40 days getting ready to accomplish God’s will. Lent is our invitation to spend 40 days with Jesus. This year instead of experiencing Lent as just another passing church season, let us make a commitment to meet the real Jesus in it.