At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Matthew we read: “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” The chapter goes on to describe the temptations to which Jesus was subjected; the lures of the world which Jesus would encounter in his ministry.
“Change these stones into bread”, the tempter tells Jesus, knowing his great hunger after forty days of fasting. And Jesus responds with words from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deut. 8:3)
Next the tempter taunts Jesus, telling him to prove his identity as Son of God by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. If he truly is the Son of God, the tempter reasons, God will send angels to save Jesus from injury. But Jesus tells the tempter he may not put the Lord to the test. (Deut. 6:16).
Finally the tempter takes Jesus to a mountaintop and shows him “…all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” The tempter will give it all to Jesus if he will but worship him. And Jesus tells him, again from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”.
Forty days and forty nights of hunger and heat, scorpions and dust, rocks and rubble…forty days and forty nights of being honed to a point of brilliant clarity and soul-deep wisdom…forty days and forty nights of such misery and pain that he must turn to God, rely on God, trust in God, utterly and completely, simply to survive.
Jesus was fully human as he was fully divine – and his humanity meant that he would be buffeted by temptation, exposed to the lures of power and place, wealth and opulence. He would need clarity and wisdom, and he would need to be absolutely grounded in the Presence and strength and grace of God, if he were to resist those temptations – those lures of the world.
The forty days in the desert were his preparation. They were a time set apart – a season of rigorous self-denial and prayer. The Spirit knew that the humanity of Jesus would need that preparation if he were to do the work of God undaunted by temptation, and so Jesus was driven into the desert.
We are no less human, and we are no less tempted than Jesus. We encounter the lures of power and greed, pride and hubris throughout our lives. So often we miss the mark and wander off the path that leads us to God – to holiness. If the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert that he might meet his temptations strengthened and empowered by the grace of God, then we, too, can set aside this time of Lent to be so strengthened and empowered. By the grace of God, I pray that this time of Lent will be a time of humility and prayer, strengthening and grace for each of us. Amen.
Rev Dr. Lynn Sinnott, Priest-in-Charge, Christ Episcopal Church, Xenia.