Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan (where he was baptized) and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days and when they were over, he was famished.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord, your God, and serve God only.’”
Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “God will command angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. Matthew 4:11 – “Then the devil left him and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
Let us pray: Dear God, in our vulnerable suffering, in the wilderness times grant us your angels and grant us a true appetite for you. Amen.
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So if I am really honest at first glance the Devil’s proposals seem reasonable. First we have food. I mean come on really, if Jesus was able to change a stone into bread to avoid starving to death I would be okay with it! Why risk Jesus starving and ending the whole gig right then and there – we wouldn’t even be standing here today.
And the second temptation was for Jesus to harness power & glory to command all the kingdoms of the earth. And that makes some sense to me, think about how much good Jesus could have done if he could have had that kind of power! If anyone could have handled it well – it would have been Jesus, right? It certainly would have gotten attention for his vision pretty quickly and this was the kind of Messiah everyone was looking for anyway = one who rides off into the sunset on a chariot with armies at his beck and call.
And lastly the devil offers him protection from physical pain. If you think about it Jesus was living in the wilderness for 40 days and so inevitably he was exposed to harsh elements of nature – think windstorms, extreme heat/cold, rain, thunder/lightning, creepy creatures, howling animals, the works! And so this temptation would certainly resonate with me – no more fearing creatures in the night or bearing extreme cold or heat. Think about what an awesome and fearless leader Jesus could be if he felt no pain. He could have literally ruled the world forever – completely invincible – here I imagine some sort of Jesus & Zeus like God with all power and all glory and invincibility.
But there is one other reason that these proposals from the “devil” seem so reasonable. They seem reasonable because they are so familiar – because we orient our own lives around these things! Think about it – food, sleep, physical needs are the foundation of wellness and wholeness. We spend a lot of energy around basic needs –and we take them for granted, hot meals, showers, and physical comforts. And these things are obviously necessary but we have taken what we think we “need” to the extreme. We cushion our lives with material, comforts and addictions. And we have withdrawal when the power goes or when our phone falls in the toilet.
And our culture is absolutely oriented around power, fame & glory. Climbing the ladder of success is normal – everyone does it – it’s assumed. Some people do with a nastier ethic than others but the ladder itself is never questioned. What does life look like if we toss the ladder of social and professional success out the window? Can you imagine it?
And lastly Jesus is tempted to avoid physical pain to have some sort of divine protection from suffering. And if we take a long hard look in the mirror we spend so much money, time and energy and worry around avoiding pain and suffering – for ourselves and our kids and our loved ones – who is going to sign up their kids for unnecessary suffering when you love them!? So we pile on the instant hand sanitizer, invest in a really good security system, and hover around our kids to make sure they don’t get hurt. And this hovering is also an anti-spiritual practice that we incorporate in our own lives. We ask ourselves, “how can we dance around this confrontation to avoid hurt feelings, how can I control and manipulate my surroundings to avoid physical and emotional pain.” It’s natural – it’s primal! We take note of what hurts us and we run like hell when that situation presents itself again.
So here’s the thing, what’s so wrong with a little food, and power, and self-preservation? If you are bearing the elements of a cold stark wilderness you are going to need some of these tools – right? Obviously Jesus opts out of this survival plan, but why? What would have been the big deal if Jesus ate a little bread, conjured up some powerful miracle to show off, and gave himself a little break from physical pain?
Here’s the problem with our addictions to what we think we need. We think, we westerners, we upper middle class, we new jerseyites, we humans, – we think that food, power & protection are vehicles of salvation. That we can get by in the wilderness, actually in good times and in bad, that we can get by in life with this formula, good food, a little power, and insurance to protect us from the suffering edges of life.
When the reality is that there is no formula to avoid the desert times. There is no insurance plan to get us out of that one. Sooner or later life takes us there. So we might as well get comfortable with the idea.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent & this is what Lent is about – practicing little deaths so that when the big one comes we can die well. Practicing letting go, so that when things that we love are stripped from us we still have a reference point for faith and hope and love. Lent is the spiritual practice of losing control and being vulnerable to the life’s elements. Lent helps us to accept what is before us instead of grasping at what we think we need to get by. Lent is God saying to us – I will be with you in the fire and the rain and in the desert – but that thing – that thing that you worship, that you think protects you, that person, the job, the status symbol – that will not always be with you. And so Lent the practice of relying on God alone.
So just like the wedding of Cana can be a metaphor for trusting that there is enough, and that indeed we are enough… Lent, the story of Jesus in the wilderness at the end of his rope, that story can be about trusting and really really living, like God is enough.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in one of her Lenten sermons writes about a “wilderness exam.” She writes:
“It would be a mistake for me to try to describe your wilderness exam. Only you can do that, because only you know what devils have your number, and what kinds of bribes they use… All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the desert this Lent is a great way to practice getting free of those devils …-not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again, ready to worship the Lord your God and serve no other all the days of your life.”
I love this idea. I love it because we are all suffering from something. We are famished spiritually, emotionally, some in the world are literally starving in their spaces of suffering. And there are so many bad diets to fill up that emptiness. We consume stuff to fill it up, we climb the ladder and pretend that we are safe, avoiding pain and suffering such that one day we wake up and we have lost our appetite for real life.
So here’s the lesson of lent – it’s learning what kind of appetites to pay attention to and cultivate. We are trained to pay attention to our need for new gadgets and fashion trends. We are really good at attending success and our position on the ladder of life. We whet appetite for money, which we disguise as some sort of noble effort towards financial security and protection of our children. These temptations in themselves aren’t entirely bad – it is when we make them our entirety that they become bad. And here’s the truth – we have. They have become the litmus tests for happiness and wholeness and that is a lie.
And in all of these ventures we lose sight of the things that really feed us. The things that really sustain us. And lent is about rediscovering that it takes more than bread to really live. It takes more than success, and money, and power, and cushy comfy suburban life to REALLY live.
This lent, how could you tap into your appetite for beauty, and truth and goodness? How can you whet your appetite for God? How can you re-discover your need for connection with the divine with the human with your own self? How can you take up a practice that REALLY feeds you spiritually, emotionally & physically?
And one of the most beautiful thing about Lenten seasons is that when we stumble onto our wilderness, we are surprised to find ourselves surviving without that thing that we thought that we needed to survive – even if it’s something as simple as chocolate. We find that there are angels – spiritual provisions, internal stuff inside of ourselves, and external miracles that carry us. Just like the angels carried Jesus out of the desert, God is enough. Period. Let us trust this day that the spirit who guides us into the wilderness is able to lead us out again.
Let me leave you with this poem to guide your Lenten season from Jan Richardson’s blog the Painted Prayer Book.
I am not asking you
to take this wilderness from me,
to remove this place of starkness
where I come to know
the wildness within me,
where I learn to call the names
of the ravenous beasts
that pace inside me,
to finger the brambles
that snake through my veins,
to taste the thirst
that tugs at my tongue.
But send me