I dare not promise 6 reflections for the 6 sundays in lent, but I can pass on the first one. Offered today at the community of St Matthews Anglican Church in Ashburton.
You may like to follow the links to read the readings for the day, or you may be familiar enough with the story of Jesus’ temptation to read straight on: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13.
Here we are, standing on the edge of another metaphorical desert. Another year of Lent where we practice the disciplines of restraint and resistance. On the other side of the Lenten desert is the green lush of new life, the Day of Resurrection.
Christians are not the inventers of this kind of desert spirituality. Indeed, the Lenten journey deliberately echoes the much more ancient journey of the Jews, the forty days of desert after the exodus from Egypt, the story of which is recalled in the reading from Deuteronomy 26.
More generally, periods of ritual denial and testing often precede traditional rites of passage, like young boys being sent out into the wilderness to become men, or year 12 leavers travelling overseas for a year before they commence University education. And in the passage of a human life, the old and wise tell us that long periods of drought are normal, in journey of a lifetime. Furthermore, they tell us that in hindsight, these times of testing are seen to be forerunners to blessing, as we learn hard lessons of loss, love, grace and forgiveness.
The Temptation of Jesus
The temptation of Jesus is more than a model of human suffering of course. The story of Jesus’ 40 days stands in the gospels as evidence of his authority and authenticity. It invites us to trust in Him, as He trusted in His Father in the desert.
But following the invitation of the early Christian leaders who chose Jesus’ temptation as a model and inspiration for Lent, let us consider the nature of Jesus’ temptation as a model for how we ourselves might transgress both the desert of Lent, and the deserts of life as they come along.
Straight after Jesus is baptized, that is after he publically declared his trust in God, the Spirit sends him out into the desert where he does not eat for 40 days. Along comes ‘diabolou’ – literally ‘the slanderer.’ We get ‘Satan’ in some translations for the Greek work diabolou is equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘Satan’ – literally meaning ‘the adversary,’ one who obstructs or resists. Diabolou, the slanderer, is perhaps more relevant here as we hear the repeated citation of scripture from Jesus, and even a word from Psalm 91 slips from the lips of the devil himself, tempting Jesus to distort the word of God for his own purposes.
Jesus resists the slanderer, and is left to rest and recover from the test, though Luke suggests ominously that the battle is not over and that the devil will return at another, opportune time.
The Temptation of Israel
The three tests set by the slanderer remind us of three most significant tests faced by the ancient Israelites in the desert after they exited Egypt.
First, there is only so long one can walk about in a desert without food. Can we truly trust God to provide for the needs of the body in all circumstances? The slanderer invites Jesus to use his power to circumscribe God’s provision, but Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 8:6,
“one does not live by bread alone.”
In the stories of the Israelites in the desert, almost immediately after they had crossed the Red Sea into freedom, they began to fear that they would die of starvation. God provided for them with the miraculous provision of bread or manna rained down each morning. Gathering the manna became like a spiritual practice, for the Israelites had to trust that God would continue to provide.
The second temptation brings to mind the struggles we all have with making our way in the world. A thirst for glory and authority might indicate that this is a test just for the overly ambitious, but that would be a mistake. On an ordinary, every day level, we all need to know our place in the world. Sometimes it would be enough for me just to have a predictable rhythm to my weekly diary! To feel like I have some control over my life! Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 6:13,
“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
When Moses had ascended into the clouds on top of Mount Zion, drawn into a private conversation with God from which the ten commandments would emerge, the Israelites gave up their faith in God’s ability or willingness to provide for them. Before Moses could return from the mountain top, the people had built a god for themselves, an idol designed to make themselves feel safe. A life plan they thought they could control. What a mistake that was, and always is: to expect that we can control the unfolding of the universe and eliminate the unpredictability of God.
The third temptation of Jesus by the slanderer had an more explicitly religious theme. The slanderer takes Jesus to the place of wisdom – the Jerusalem temple – and quotes scripture at Jesus, inviting him to prove himself with what would be a miracle. Jesus responds with words recorded in Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The original context in Deuteronomy expands to say,
“do not put the Lord your God to the test as Israel did at Massah.”
In the desert journey of the Israelites, having dealt with their fear of hunger, they soon turned to the issue of water security. At Massah, the people complained of their unending thirst, and like before, God provided. Moses struck a rock and water poured out. But God was not pleased that Israel still refused to trust in God’s provision for them, so Massah became known as a place where God’s people stubbornly tested God.
The Fruit of Temptation: Steadfastness
What does resisting temptation do for us? In the gospel narrative, the temptation of Jesus proves his trust in God alone. Proves that Jesus is single minded about his ministry, his message and the manner in which he will conduct himself.
For us, resisting temptation develops a similar characteristic. It trains us in having a single focus and staying on track. For example, the spiritual practice of fasting in Lent, is a type of resisting temptation, but as anyone who has developed a discipline of fasting will testify, it is not at all that straight forward. Rather, refraining from food for certain hours in the day, or certain types of food for the whole season of Lent, invites us to pay more attention to our food intake, and then redirects our attention.
When we fast, we discover what we really hunger for. We discover how often we eat to satisfy an emotional hunger rather than the physical need of the body for sustenance. Our attention is also directed to the sources of nourishment. Are we grasping for more food than required at the detriment of others? Are we dependent on sustainable methods of producing food?
Paying attention to the process of eating allows us to let go of things that do not bring life – whether that’s a certain type of food, or a certain type of anxiety, that does not trust that there will be enough.
Letting go of things that do not bring life includes more than food that is bad for us. It even includes, as the slanderer has shown us, the letting go of beliefs or interpretations of the word of God that are not life giving! That is why silence is another spiritual practice of Lent. In silence we let go of words in order to sense what our words are hiding. Slightly distorted teaching that justifies our own prejudices perhaps. As for fasting, refraining from words focuses our attention, and creates an opportunity for us to examine the way we construct our stories of truth.
The way of the desert is the way of fasting and silence. Perhaps ‘testing’ is not the most positive way to view these two great spiritual practices. For they are simply disciplines that invite us to pay attention to what is truly life-giving.
What is truly nourishing? What is truly purposeful? What is truly wise in your life?