On the Lenten Road: In the Desert
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 4:1–4:11
The First Sunday in Lent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“On the Lenten Road: In the Desert”
Look around you. What do you see? People, walls, and furniture? Are you looking outside and seeing the branches of trees blowing in the wind? Exercise your imagination just a little bit and consider what things would look like if you were in the desert. I’m not talking about the Sahara, with its tall dunes and seas of sand. Picture a desert more like one you might have seen in the American West, a wilderness of dry land and rock, yet still adorned with dozens of kinds of plants and bushes, with wild animals and birds roaming around the landscape. That’s where we’re at. Today, on this first Sunday in Lent, we find ourselves in the desert.
Why do we observe Lent? We Christians have this forty-day season in the Church year (excluding Sundays, which are Sundays in Lent but not of Lent), time blocked out as a lead-up to Easter. Several days ago, we marked Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the time of Lent. People gathered here at St. John’s to be marked with a cross of ashes on their forehead, a reminder that we are just dust, and to dust we will return. We shift gears in Lent. It’s not a bright and shiny time like Epiphany. Transitioning from last week’s glimpse of Jesus’ divine majesty at the Transfiguration, the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent flashes back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and his fasting and temptation in the desert, in the wilderness.
Immediately after his baptism by John at the Jordan River, the Spirit led Jesus up into the desert, specifically so that he would face temptation by Satan. Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness of the desert is the basis for our forty-day period of Lent. But maybe even more significantly, it recalls the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and called them to be His people. He chose them as His nation, His representative to the world. God considered the Isrealites His “son.” God claimed those descendents of Abraham as His own, bringing them out through the waters of the Red Sea (or “sea of reeds”), rescuing them from the hand of the enemy and “baptizing” them as a people set apart for a purpose. At Mt. Sinai, the Lord taught them what it meant to be His people; however, time and again they proved that they were more interested in being their own people than they were in being God’s people. They didn’t trust God, and that self-interest led to their wandering in the desert for those forty years.
During Lent, some Christians practice the discipline of fasting, recalling Jesus’ forty days of going without food in the desert. You might have given something up as part of a Lenten fast. That can be a helpful means towards building up spiritual discipline by practicing self-denial. However, as someone recently observed, it seems like fasting for Lent these days is less about denying yourself than it is about denying something to yourself. We’re a lot like the Israelites, even if we’ve got houses and cars and amazing technology at our disposal. When it comes down to it, we’re not all that interested in self-denial because we perceive it as a hardship, an inconvenience that makes living harder in some way. Like Adam and Eve, we’re tempted to listen to half-truths and outright lies in the pursuit not of self-denial but of self-interest. Living in the “now,” we don’t trust God’s plan for life. We focus in on our own pleasure and comfort. Like the Israelites, God’s baptized people are called to live in service to others; however, also like the Israelites, we’re more often interested in serving ourselves. In the wilderness of the desert, we’re tempted to throw God’s will out the window, thinking that we’d be making things easier for ourselves.
Why do we observe Lent? Earlier this week, I had been spending time talking with friends about Apple’s new version of its tablet, the iPad 2, going over its features and specifications, debating whether or not it’d be a worthwhile purchase. But in the past few days, we’ve gotten another reminder of how temporary life can be, and how the things that we might think are worthwhile at the time aren’t really all that important. Even now, the people of Japan and other nations are trying to cope with the deadly effects of the massive earthquakes and resulting tsunami. Like the cross of ashes, these disasters are sobering reminders of the impermanence of this life. We live in a dying world, a world which was impacted by the curse that came from our first parent’s fall into sin. The desert is dangerous territory. Like the Israelites, we’d die there if left on our own. In this wilderness world, we need a Savior.
Jesus went out into the desert for us, to be the Savior: for Adam and Eve, for the Israelites, and for you and for me. The Spirit led him up into the desert wilderness to do what all the rest of us failed to do: obey our Lord’s will, serving others instead of serving self. There, in the desert, Satan tempted Jesus to take shortcuts, to gratify short-sighted desires over and against the Father’s divine plan for His Son. Satan hoped to corrupt Jesus and thereby disqualify him as the Savior. He had repeatedly tempted God’s chosen people into disregarding their role as a light to the nations. If he could get Jesus to fall to temptation, what a victory that would be! But Jesus did not fall like all the children of Adam and Eve who had come before. As a sign of the role that Jesus is filling, he counters the devil’s enticements with passages of God’s word in the book of Deuteronomy, God’s instruction given to the Israelites before entering the land He promised to them. Jesus was indeed tempted like we are – especially at those times when we hunger for something that we think is important – to use his power to serve himself. God’s Son did not bend to the devil’s temptations; instead, he won the opening battle of his war for our freedom from Satan, sin, and death. This episode in the desert was part of God’s plan to confirm His Son as Savior, as the one who would fulfill the role of the servant that would selflessly give his life for the life of the world.
Why do we observe Lent? As we heard, Jesus was sent out to be tempted immediately following his baptism, where the Father and the Spirit gave witness to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. If you have been baptized, God has claimed you as His child, made you part of His people in the Church. As a baptized Christian, even here in our congregation at St. John’s Lutheran Church, you are daily a target of the devil and his evil schemes. But in Lent, you can especially remember that your baptism connects you with Jesus and his death and resurrection, and that final victory over Satan that he won for you as the perfect, selfless servant. You can, and should, reflect on the impermanence of life in the desert of our dying world, remembering that you are mortal; however, you can all the more give thanks to God as you look ahead to Easter and the immortal life that is yours through baptism into Christ.
This Lent, our Gospel texts will continue to take us places on the Lenten road: in the night with Nicodemus searching for answers; at the well with the Samaritan woman seeking water; at the pool of Siloam where a blind man waited for hope; at Lazarus’ grave where Jesus’ friend lay dead; in the upper room that hosted the Last Supper; on the hill where Jesus gave his life; and at the grave on that first Easter morning. At every stop along the Lenten road, we will learn more about who Jesus is and how our baptismal connection with him transforms the life of his people.
Why do we observe Lent? The forty days of Lent can be a time for reflection and repentance, daily denying ourselves and obeying our Lord’s call to selfless service. But whatever else might take place in this season, Lent is first and foremost about looking to Jesus as our Messiah, God’s self-giving Son, who defeated the devil, rescues us from death, and brings us into his kingdom. Bringing us out of the desert, Jesus gives forgiveness, freedom, and life for all.