Lent 1 (Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13)
What is it about the story of the temptation of Christ that makes it so important? So important that we start our observations of Lent with this story every year. Well, of course the pattern of our observation of 40 days of Lent before our celebration of Easter is, in part, echoing Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. It is a time of preparation, even of hardship, for those who observe a strict fast in Lent – and some people do. But I think we have to beware making too strong a comparison between Jesus’ time in the wilderness and our Lent.
For one thing, the temptations Jesus suffers are hardly the ones with which we wrestle – turning stones to bread, seeking world domination, proving
our power by death-defying feats. We should beware feeling that the temptations Jesus faces are nothing to do with what we face in our lives and that therefore this story tells us lots about Jesus but nothing about our own lives or our relationship with God
On the other hand, we should beware relating too strongly to the story and looking to make Jesus our example, saying ‘Jesus gave up food and drink and suffered for 40 days and therefore so should we’.
If Lent becomes about what we do, or don’t do, or give up, or suffer, we are in danger of becoming trapped by a piety which would take our focus away from God and back onto ourselves.
And if Lent is about anything, it needs to be about focusing on God.
So let’s look at this story again.
The lectionary writers suggest we hear the reading from Deuteronomy alongside Luke’s account.
The Deuteronomy reading takes us back to the time when the people of God, led by Moses, were wandering in the wilderness, looking to find God’s promised land. The passage we heard is laying down an act of worship, a kind of harvest festival, to be celebrated by God’s people when they finally enter the promised land. They are to offer the first fruits of their harvest to God and to state
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, who went down to Egypt but was brought out of slavery by God..”.
After not 40 days but 40 years in the wilderness, the people of Israel claim a promise from God that the wilderness years will end, the promised land years begin – that all will be well. God’s people are shaped by their experiences of a God who will not abandon them, but who will lead them to freedom.
So what is Jesus doing out in the wilderness? Seeking to be shaped in a similar way.
Away from the distractions of friends and family, the newly-baptised Jesus spends time in the wilderness listening for God’s word, and choosing. Jesus needs to choose how to build the kingdom, how to enter the promised land - how to do things God's way not his own way. Each of the temptations Jesus faces are not about resisting bad things (like sin and vice and greed) – they are about Jesus resisting doing things in his own strength and by his own power and forgetting to trust God, because it matters not only what we do but how and why we do them.
At the start of his ministry, Jesus must choose whether or not to use his power to sway the crowds, to win adulation, to wield power as he chooses.
Jesus squarely chooses the way of the Lord. He will trust God for his food, his well-being, his power.
Jesus has emptied himself of the power of heaven to live an authentically human life, and he will trust God, not magic tricks, to show him how to bring the message of love to his fellow human beings.
It is Joshua, the leader of God’s people who actually took them into the Promised Land, who states this choice clearly:
"And Joshua said to all the people [of Israel], . . . choose you this day whom you will serve; . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord"
(Josh. 24:2, 15).
Jesus, in the quiet of the wilderness, chooses to serve the Lord, to listen for God’s whisper in his life - and we must do the same. So giving something up for Lent (if that’s what you choose to do) is not just about losing weight, toning up or being pious, it's about stilling the competing little voices in our heads and listening for God's way to be clear.
We must choose God’s way:
- in our spiritual lives, choosing how to spend our time in prayer or study or service of others;
- in our home lives, choosing to balance time for family, friends, work and ourselves
- in our church lives, choosing how we will use our resources of time and money to serve God and serve others.
This Lent may God give us the wisdom to choose well, and to faithfully follow Jesus Christ. Amen.