Lent rolls around every year, but for most Christians, it is less like a birthday and more like a flu vaccination. We know Lent is necessary, that it’s good for us in much the same way vegetables might be. We’ve heard all the preachers’ clichés as to how it makes the joy of Easter possible, but the truth of the matter is that Lent never comes naturally.
Lent is hard to explain, because, to tell the truth, we don’t fully understand it. We engage in it without ever asking why we are doing what we are doing. We do it because, well, we’ve always done it.
We lay off meat but seafood is OK, cut out chocolate, maybe we stop drinking adult beverages for forty days, all to declare ourselves better prepared for the resurrection. To any outsider, it looks more like a diet.
But if we don’t have a good explanation for our Lenten behavior, if we don’t seem to fully understand the focus of the season, it’s not completely our fault.
Year after year when the first Sunday of Lent rolls around, we watch as Jesus wanders off into the wilderness. And while the Bible is full of spiritual retreats, this one isn’t typical.
As a refresher, let’s set the scene a bit. The people—Jesus’ people—the Jews, have waited impatiently for their Messiah; and while there were some rumors awhile back about a birth in Bethlehem, they’ve seen no evidence that anything has changed in the world. A few months ago, we heard the beginning of the story. That one bright day on the banks of the Jordan, Jesus shows-up, seemingly out of nowhere. He’s come to be baptized, though it feels more like a coronation ceremony. The Spirit descends on him like a dove, God speaks from on high. It is good stuff! It’s the sort of positive event you build on; maybe you follow it up with a reception or a press conference.
Unless you’re Jesus. If you’re Jesus, you do none of those things. If you’re Jesus, you show up out of nowhere and then immediately move on. To nowhere!
Now, we’ve been told that he goes to the wilderness after his baptism to prepare for what is to come. Like Moses, Elijah and other spiritual leaders before him, Jesus has to spend some time alone with God before he can carry out his mission. And as everyone who has read the Old Testament knows, it takes at least forty days before you can hear what God has to say. But unlike all those other folks who spent time in the wilderness, Jesus does not go there to listen to God, at least that’s not his primary purpose. He should have heard God, loud and clear at his baptism.
No, Jesus doesn’t come to the desert to hear God more clearly. Jesus comes to the desert in order to hear from Divine-Enemy-Number-One. This is not the typical retreat on prayer or building a healthier marriage. It is a Spirit-inflicted dark night of the soul.
I say “Spirit-inflicted” because the gospels all agree that this detour through the desert wasn’t Jesus’ idea at all–Jesus is led into the middle of nowhere by none other than the Holy Spirit.
The very same Spirit that descended at his baptism like a cooing game bird calls Jesus out into a place where human life cannot survive. The good news, I suppose, is that Lent did not come naturally to Jesus, either. It took the Spirit to get him there. Jesus may never have gone on his own.
So why does the Spirit lead him into the desert? Luke tells us that Jesus, the newly crowned Messiah, has a “date with the devil.” The tempter doesn’t show up as a serpent offering fruit; there is no red spandex, no horns, no pitchfork–in other words, temptation enters unannounced and unrecognizable. We need to move away from the early-church myth that someone else, the devil, Satan, can be blamed for everything that is bad, and acknowledge that the fully-human Jesus was led by the Spirit to face temptation.
No one is exempt from the power of temptation, not even the best of us–maybe especially not the best of us. We are all vulnerable to temptation, though what tempts each of us is different.
The tempter’s taunts are gussied up in the noblest of intentions–these are truly temptations worthy of Jesus. They prey on his goodness, and they tell us something about his own heart. He doesn’t have a copy of the script, he’s not reciting canned responses, there is no protective force field reserved for “God’s Beloved”.
For Jesus and for all of us, the voice of evil sounds an awful lot like the voice of good.
“Take care of yourself.” “Save the world.” “Prove your faith.”
Jesus’ temptation is not about his personality, but about the shape and nature of his ministry. We know what evil is and we are all capable of perpetrating evil. The choices offered Jesus are not obviously evil. Turn stones to bread. In a world of chronic hunger, why not? Leap from the pinnacle of the temple. In a world cynical to religious claims, why not shock and awe people into believing? Take over the kingdoms of the world. In a world of slavery, war, oppression and disregard for life, why not impose justice and mercy?
Jesus’ temptation is not a sign of his personal weakness, but rather of his strength. He is capable of doing everything he’s being challenged to do. The temptations are a test of his loyalty to the God who has claimed him as the beloved Son. These temptations are a necessary part of discerning how Jesus will use his God-given capacities.
Will Jesus’ life and ministry be shaped by God’s will or by human appetites and aspirations? Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is the bridge — the transition point — between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry.
We’re used to temptation being described as “the irresistible urge to do something that we already know will destroy us”, the kind of stuff that should just stay in the shadows. The kind of temptation that looks like temptation from the get-go. Stuff we know is wrong but we are drawn to do all the same.
Those of us who celebrate Lent certainly wrestle with these obvious forms of self-destruction, but the goal of the season is to help us recognize the more potent tools of the tempter–the temptations that don’t look like temptation until we see them in the rearview mirror.
The temptations that are the most dangerous are the ones that sound most like good, the ones that sound the most like God.
Jesus has every good attribute– and yet he is tempted. The antidote, then, to temptation is not strength. It’s not moral fortitude or depth of character.
When we imagine ourselves religious enough, mature enough, moral enough to be exempt from temptation, it is just a matter of time before we give into it. But our temptations will be played out on the road paved with good intentions. When we are led by our own wisdom, when we are led by our own desire to see good, when we are tempted to take shortcuts to get there, we will always find ourselves vulnerable; and the greater our moral character, the more tailor-made we will find temptation.
Jesus’ escape from the tempter is not a matter of weighing pros and cons and making the best decision; it is a willful choice to submit to God. Again and again and again.
Jesus has something powerful in his favor. He knows who he is. Whether he is fully aware of his unique relationship with God at this point, I can’t say. But he knows he is God’s chosen, he knows the reality of an experience of the Spirit. He knows that he is fully God’s, and that God has set him on a path he must walk. Jesus’ job, and he understood it well, was the relentless pursuit of who he was meant to be. The greatest temptation for Jesus isn’t food or power or even testing the hand-eye coordination of hosts of angels.
The greatest temptation for Jesus was deciding to not walk away from whom he was meant to be. Maybe it had to happen at that time in his ministry, so that he is better prepared for later temptations. This is a preview of what awaits Jesus later in his ministry. This is just a dress rehearsal.
What does this story have to do with us? How can we use it to put our lives into Jesus’ desert, Jesus’ Lent? Our job, like Jesus’ is the relentless pursuit of who God made us to be, everything else is temptation. The universe will resist our every effort to become who we were meant to be.
If nothing else, it’s inconvenient for most of us to suddenly realize that we need to stop doing some of the things we’ve been doing, and start doing other things. People don’t like it when we start saying no. I read this week that “saying no” is a more difficult practice than tithing or praying on a cold stone floor. But as we learn from Jesus’ three firm “no’s”, it’s an essential practice if we intend to engage in that relentless pursuit of becoming who God made us to be.
Which brings us back to our time in the wilderness, this mysterious season of self-denial and other things that don’t come naturally. Lent isn’t strength-training for the soul. It’s not about exercising our spiritual muscles. It’s about the awareness that every good door that opens is not necessarily the will of God. It’s about learning to be led–or if necessary, dragged–out to the desolate places within ourselves, where our hungers and our dreams and our fears all take turns trying to shut out God’s plan for us.
Lent doesn’t come naturally, even to the best of us. But that’s exactly why Lent is our only hope. If we can learn to recognize the voice of the tempter here in these forty days of self-denial, perhaps we will be wise enough to know when temptation speaks to us using a voice we can recognize as our own.
There are some places God intends to take us that we will never reach if left to our own devices. We would never go there following our own compass.
But somewhere in the desert, alone but not alone, Jesus chose to be who God made him to be.
May God grant us the grace to do the same–to choose who we will be and whose we will be in the wilderness of this holy season, and wherever the Spirit drags us.
Homily shared on Saturday, 5 March 2022, by Jerry Bauman.