It’s my sincere prayer and hope that during this season of Lent that we will draw closer to God and seek to do His will.
Here we are: It’s the season of Lent, and I’m wondering if I should tell you the truth about it. Most of us pastors agree that this is the most important season of the church year, seven weeks that come to a grand climax with Easter Sunday. Church attendance is traditionally at its best in this season. The most loyal believers look for ways to deepen their faith, and even those out on the periphery often acknowledge that during this period they hope to do better than they’ve been doing. But as we gather on this Sunday, I keep asking myself if I should tell you the truth about it all. <!–split–>
Perhaps I should begin by telling you where Lent comes from. For many hundreds of years, Christians have set aside 40 days before Easter as a time of preparation for Easter. These 40 days have been counted in a variety of ways, but for many centuries they have been the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, except for the Sundays.
Why 40? Because through the Bible, 40 has been the number for testing, or in some cases, the solitude that provides a setting for testing. Thus, Moses was alone with God for 40 days as he received the Ten Commandments, and the prophet Elijah traveled for 40 days and nights without food to reach Horeb, the mount of God.
But the number 40 came to its highest significance in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the story in our Scripture lesson of the day. Jesus had just been baptized by John. It was an electric moment, for as Jesus was coming out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Into The Wilderness
Then, the very Holy Spirit that had so signally recognized Jesus led him “into the wilderness,” where he was tempted by the devil. There he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. It must have been a time of very intense seeking of God. Some of us know what it is to fast for a meal or for a day. Once, long ago, I fasted for three days. But 40 days! I can’t even imagine it. More than that, they were days of utter solitude. In such a wilderness, the sounds of human life are lost in silence, and in the subtle, usually unheard, voices of nature.
I’m told that after several days of fasting, one’s desire for feed begins to diminish. At the same time, a person’s spiritual sensitivity is greater. The barrier between the soul and God slowly fades, until at times the divine is more real than the natural. I suspect that Jesus was enjoying just such communion with his Father. Still fresh from the waters of baptism, eager to begin the ministry that was the purpose of his being, Jesus must have felt as if he would burst with the excitement of what lay ahead.
Then a discord shattered the ecstatic beauty. It was a quiet voice, but a demanding one. There was no escaping it. The voice that so long ago had intruded on the perfection of Eden now invaded Jesus’ holy solitude. “You’re hungry, aren’t you?” (He had almost forgotten that hunger existed.) “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”
Temptation is always complex, probably because you and I are such complex creatures. There was the very real, natural fact of hunger. When one hasn’t eaten for 40 days and nights, the insistence of appetite may have diminished, but the need is crucially real. There’s a limit to how long the body can go without fuel, and now that the suggestion had been made, natural need must have come on like a flood.
But more than that, there was a challenge to Jesus’ very identity. The baptismal voice had said, 40 days earlier, “my Son, the Beloved.” Now the devil snickered, “If it’s so, prove it! Goodness knows you need bread, so put your supposed powers to some good and practical use.”
As the gospel writer tells the story, Jesus met the temptation quickly, easily, succinctly. I wonder, though, if the Master’s answer came slowly, perhaps even haltingly, out of a huge wrestling of the soul? We can never know. In any event, when he gave his answer, the enemy moved to a whole new playing field. This time the temptation had to do with the power and goodness of God. The devil reminded him of a promise in the book of Psalms, and suggested that he should leap from the pinnacle of the temple, because God’s angels will watch over those who trust him.
As temptations go, this may well be the most popular one these days. We live in a culture where people expect to get what they want, and to get it fast. So we treat God the way inconsiderate people treat a table server. “I want healing. A better job. A bigger house. A growing church.” “And why shouldn’t I ask it?” someone says. “Doesn’t God want the best for us?”
God does, indeed, want the best for us. And the truth is, in many cases if we got the things we ask for, right at the moment we request them, it would be like casting ourselves from the pinnacle of the temple; getting what we want would destroy us. The promises of God are very wonderful; so wonderful that we’re sometimes tempted to worship the promises rather than worshiping God. Our power-hungry, give-me-what-I-want age needs desperately to know that God is God and we are not, and that God can be trusted to know how our prayers are best answered.
The devil tried again. (You may have noticed that the devil is persistent.) He held out before Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” and offered them if only Jesus would fall down and worship him. I believe the most important thing Jesus knew about himself was this, that he had come into the world to die, and that the course he must take would lead eventually to a cross. On the surface, the devil’s offer was appealing. Jesus gave a clear, fierce answer. “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Now here’s the part I’ve hesitated to tell you. This wilderness experience ― the 40 days and nights of fasting, that concluded in such incisive temptation ― this is the basis for our Lenten season. Hundreds of years ago our Christian ancestors, led by the Holy Spirit, set aside 40 days of preparation for Easter, and they built the whole idea around Jesus in the wilderness.
Which is to say, Lent is really big business. Big soul-business. So it’s no wonder that we’re inclined to cut it down to size. We like to put easy chairs in our Lenten wilderness, with refreshment centers and frequent reminders that God will bless us for what we’re doing. I know, because that’s the way I like to go about it. We mean well, but we want a manageable wilderness. Some of us have planned to give up something for Lent, especially if by doing so we might also reduce our waistline. Others of us intend to begin, or to improve, a habit of daily devotions. Still others have promised God that they will make a special Easter offering.
And bless your hearts, all of this is good. I don’t want to discourage you from it. But I’d like so much if we would remember that the idea of Lent was born in a wilderness. I’m troubled that our culture has influenced us so to the point that the only cross some folks can imagine is one we wear as a necklace or a lapel pin. We have forgotten that Christianity is a heroic religion, one that produces spiritual giants. And it does that because some of us choose, voluntarily, to go into a wilderness of true discipline, in the hope that we might become the kind of people God intends us to be.
Free But Not Cheap
There’s one more thing, to be honest, that I must tell you. I hesitate to do so, because it might sound as if I’m softening the hard truth I’ve just described. But it’s part of this Bible account, so here it is. Matthew tells us that after Jesus had resisted the devil, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
This Christian life is a magnificent way. It does, indeed, include angels, and bread for life’s journey, and God’s power and glory. But these things are too real to be cheap. Mind you, they’re free, because they’re gifts of grace, but they’re not cheap. They’re most likely to be found by those of us who are ready to follow our Lord into the wilderness of a high discipline.
I invite you, this very day, to join me in that Lenten commitment.