Studying Jesus’ wilderness travels can teach us a lot about persevering through Lent in this uncertain season.
Posted in , Feb 25, 2021
Who comes to our rescue when we’re lost? Who nurses us back to sanity and peace of mind when we have been stressed and tempted and asked to do what we think we can’t do? How do we get back to where we want to be and belong, back to the godliness inside of us?
These are the sort of questions that come to mind when I think about Lent, that wintry season before Easter, when we honor Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and look for ways to fast as he did. People ask me, “What are you going to give up for Lent this year?” Good question. What am I going to do for those 40 days? (Slightly nerdy aside: When we count those 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we don’t include Sundays, which technically are feast days.)
Over the years I’ve given up things like wine, steak and chocolate—even limited my time on social media and my cell phone use. I’ll never forget when my wife, Carol, gave up worrying for Lent. Turned out that was the year our two then-college-age sons decided to take their spring break trips south of the border—just as news of a Mexican drug-fueled crime wave splashed across the airwaves. Talk about being tested. Carol could have used some angels to intervene that week, but alas the boys traveled (and returned safely). Who knew that worry could be such a big temptation?
And yet, when I go back and read the Gospel accounts of Jesus being tempted in the desert where he fasted, I find myself more intrigued with the wilderness part. After all, he could have fasted closer to home, as most of us do. He could have given up food and drink in a more comfortable setting. But before launching his ministry, to be ready to do the miraculous things he knew he was going to be called to do, he took himself to the Judean desert—bleak, empty, inhospitable, lonely, forbidding.
The idea of testing myself this Lent doesn’t appeal to me, especially after the year we’ve had. Hasn’t there been enough of wilderness living already? Going into quarantine for long stretches, limiting our contacts with friends and family, attending church or Bible study by Zoom, coping with financial uncertainty, fighting our fears with no relief in sight. And not just for 40 days! Jesus, I ask while I struggle, is there nothing to rescue us?
Take a look, though, at the biblical sources. This is exactly when angels came into the picture. The Gospel of Mark, as always, puts it most succinctly: “He was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Angels waited on him. Remember that, but first let’s explore the details of those temptations as offered in the Gospel of Matthew.
The devil didn’t dip into his bag of dirty tricks until the end of those 40 days, when Jesus would have been famished. How to lure a hungry man? Offer him some food. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan says. “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus responds with Scripture: “ ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Next, in a scene that I wish could be captured in a Spielberg movie, the devil flies Jesus through the air to the holy city of Jerusalem and puts him on the pinnacle of the temple, telling him to jump, quoting Scripture right back at him. “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’” Satan says, using words from Psalm 91. “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus comes back at him with more Holy Writ, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” (Note to self: When someone is hurling Bible verses at you like weapons, look more closely to their motives. Are they listening and talking with love?)
Last, in the greatest temptation of all, the devil takes Jesus to a mountaintop where they can look down on all the kingdoms of the world. There Satan makes his final offer: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” The message is pretty clear: Infinite worldly power comes with an exacting price. Even for the Son of God. I tell myself I wouldn’t be tempted by such a thing. Until I think about how nice it would be to have just a little bit more money, a little bit more prestige, perhaps…
Jesus’ final answer sends Satan packing. More Scripture, this time one of the Ten Commandments: “For it is written,” Jesus says, “ ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
Now it never really occurred to me how much this whole battle must have cost Jesus until the end of the scene described in Matthew 4:11: “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
Jesus needed the help of the angels? Well, yes. Because at this moment and throughout his time on earth, he is one of us. Human. And despite the ability of the enemy to pull Jesus hither and yon, and his supreme ability to resist and argue back, he needs care, the sort of inner healing that only God can provide. Angelic comfort and rest.
Have you had enough of a wilderness experience this year? All that social distancing, all those scary headlines? Do you keep asking yourself, When will things get back to normal? The message I take from Jesus’ wilderness travails is that what follows is a whole new normal. You might feel spent. You wonder how you even survived. That’s okay. This Lent, I’m going to give up doubting that angels are right here, right now. And Easter is just around the corner. Always.
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