Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
A few weeks ago, two of my youth group adult leaders and I took 10 ECT youth (our joint youth ministry among Immanuel, Ebenezer, and Unity Evangelical Lutheran churches in Edgewater) to Lutherdale Bible camp in Wisconsin for a winter retreat with the Chicago synod. There, we met up with 150 other youth and youth pastors for games, fellowship, worship, and discussions about the sacraments.
At this retreat, we encountered Jesus in a new light: we encountered Jesus when we gathered with 150 other Chicago area youth for worship and felt we were beloved for who we truly are… We encountered Jesus when we met new friends and strengthened our relationships with old ones… We encountered Jesus when we gathered with our ECT group during free-time and sang and danced to popular hip hop songs… and when we crowded onto a long bobsled, held onto each other as tight as we could, and flew down the steep hill toward the ice-covered lake, screaming and praying the whole way down. (At least, that’s what I was doing.) And we encountered Jesus when we ended the weekend in tears, as we communed together around the Lord’s Table, we hugged, and we said to one another “I love you like a chicken” and we really meant it.
And though exhausted, our group left Lutherdale Bible Camp last month on fire…
On fire for God. On fire for church. On fire for fellowship with one another.
Like the disciples who encountered the transfiguration of Jesus on their retreat to the top of the mountain in our Gospel text last week – where they saw Jesus shine as bright as the sun – we, too, had a special mountain top experience on our retreat.
… But then, as we all know how the saying goes: What goes up must also come down.
And so we, too, eventually had to come back down from the mountain top… to the realities of every-day life…
To school work. Basketball practice. ACT prep. To the struggles of balancing a job and homework and the anxieties we had about having to face bullies when we went back to school. To what seems to be the never-ending busyness of our every day routines.
And many of us may be already longing to escape and get away from all of this… to get away from work and practice, to get out of town, to go meet up again with our Chicago synod friends at Lutherdale.
To go back up to the comforts we experienced at the top of the mountain.
I’m sure many others of us here can relate to this. I’m sure many of us can relate to having a mountaintop experience in our lives and then having to come back down the mountain to the reality of our daily stress and routines that often keep us running so fast that we can’t catch our breath.
And yet here we are at the beginning of Lent… at the bottom of the mountain, being extended another great invitation to retreat. Now, this is not the same type of retreat our ECT youth experienced at Lutherdale or the same type of retreat many of us have gone on with Immanuel as a congregation or when we have attended a powerful faith conference or event.
It’s not a retreat back up to the mountaintop.
This Lenten invitation is to enter the wilderness… not just for a day or a weekend… but to dwell and wander in it. It is a retreat from the busyness of life, to empty ourselves so that we can be filled by the grace of God, and to think about what it means to be marked by the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead – to think about what it means to be human and to belong to God (and not anyone or anything else.) And this invitation is to thoroughly examine our own lives – which will not, in fact, last forever on this earth (sorry to disappoint) – and to reevaluate how our lives have and can have meaning in this world…
Because our world needs each and every one of us.
Now this might seem more like a burden and an interruption rather than a great invitation to many of us when we think about others who have gone through the wilderness before us… When think about the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long years and Jesus, who wandered in the wilderness for 40 long days and 40 long nights. And we may even be a little troubled to think that we are being invited into this wilderness, this same place where Jesus experienced a great testing by the accuser after he had already fasted for those 40 days, was famished, and was likely at his weakest.
Now, I am not going to downplay this wilderness period. There will be times when we feel tested. There will be times when we feel like we’ve already wandered through the wilderness for long enough and we are too parched, exhausted, and famished to have to take on one more thing. And in these times, at our weakest state, we may – like Jesus – still run into the most difficult temptations and times of testing.
And so in our weakness, we may wish to take the easy way out – to give into the dangerous temptations and quickly snatch up control, domination, and worldly power that our accuser taunts us with.
But this is why we are invited to go into the wilderness in the first place: to examine our lives, and to empty and prepare ourselves so that we might know how to respond to the testing of our accuser. So that in our weakest moments, we might know how to look deep within ourselves and be reminded of who and who’s we are.
You see, though we may – and most likely will – experience testing in the wilderness – in this Lenten season – the wilderness is ultimately a place and time of preparation.
We tend to forget this because when we begin Lent by looking at Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we often focus on the temptations and his withstanding of them. And yet, meanwhile, we also forget that there were 40 long days and 40 long nights that Jesus spent fasting, praying, and preparing before this encounter with the accuser even occurred.
And because we loose sight of this, we also tend to focus so much on how we, ourselves, lack the ability to resist our own temptations, that we turn Lent into a time of legalism and of beating ourselves up: through self-shaming, self-doubting, and self-hating.
And yet, I don’t think this is what the wilderness is really about. It is not about loathing over our inadequacies and our shortcomings and attempting to meet perfection.
Rather, it is about transformation. It is about recognizing that we are indeed human beings. And like all other human beings, we have our faults and we make mistakes… And yet, as humans, we are ultimately made in the image of God… and are constantly a work of God in progress.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we heard the prophet Joel call out to us to join him in a fast: “Return to the LORD, your God… with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
This is why we need to wander in the wilderness. This is why we need Lent…
Just as Jesus wandered in the wilderness 2000 years ago between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry to prepare for what was to come, Lent is also our time to return to God over and over and over again as we wander in the wilderness in preparation for the journey to the cross and to the life-giving resurrection that comes after it.
As Jim Wallis in his article, “How Fasting and Prayer can Change Us – and Our Country,” puts it:
“Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to. As Christ suffers with us in our sin and spiritual poverty, we are slowly taught how to suffer with others and mourn with those who mourn. Lent is a time for that. That’s why Lenten disciplines often contain fasting and decisions of self-denial.”
Though our Gospel text does not give us any details about Jesus’ experiences in the wilderness for those 40 days and nights before his encounter with the accuser, there is a video on youtube that provides an artist’s beautiful portrayal of what he may have encountered. The video is a slideshow of 40 drawings of Jesus, one for each day he was in the wilderness. (If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.)
Rev. Jennifer Mills Knutson describes the video on her blog. Her explanation goes like this:
“’For my thirtieth birthday,’ it begins, ‘I gave myself some time away from it all.’ Saying “no” to companionship, to food, to work, to the comforts of home, Jesus in the wilderness discovers the joy of playing with pigeons, frolicking with foxes, gazing at the moon, and watching a flower grow. Jesus embraces weakness, as his skin grows ragged and his body thinner, so that he comes to know the strength of God. He experiences fear and anguish over his own life and death as the vultures circle. He confronts his pride in the presence of the Tempter, which in this depiction appears as simply a stronger version of Jesus himself, urging him to say yes to strength and power again. The Tempter urges him to rely on his own powers, judgment, control, certainty–instead of placing his life in the hands of God. When he refuses his own strength, he knows the presence of angels, who minister to him, who lift him up and carry him back home again. ‘And now,’ he says at the end, ‘I’m back.'”
Last week during ECT youth group, we talked about the meaning of Lent and all of us decided that we would respond to our invitation to follow Jesus and enter this wilderness. That night, each of our youth and leaders made a commitment to take on the ancient practice of fasting or “giving something up.” Whether chocolate or coffee, Facebook or tv, we chose to take on this practice of fasting – not as a means to prove our willpower or to cut a few calories in our diets – but rather as a means to cut out something in our lives that we depend on or that consumes us and takes us away from experiencing the grace of God in our spiritual lives, in others, and in ourselves.
And each of us also decided to take on the practice of “taking something on” in our lives (in that newly created space) to help us return to God and to focus on the important things in life that we too often miss in our busy schedules: whether it be a prayer or other spiritual practice, a new family activity or ritual, a form of community outreach or service, or a physical activity that will improve one’s health.
And the invitation to enter the wilderness is extended to each one of us, as well.
Whether we choose to take on one of these practices, or join Jim Wallis and many others around the country in fasting on Wednesdays for families and Immigration reform and citizenship, or whether we choose to take on another practice, let us respond to the prophet Joel’s call to join the fast and be intentional this Lenten season about opening our ears to hear and our eyes to see the ways God is present in our lives and around us.
And let us return again and again and again to our God with all our hearts.
I’d like to leave you with a benediction – a charge – from d365.org, a daily online devotional:
There before you lies all the world, Given as a gift. Go into the world as a work in progress, Someone who is not yet who you will be, But someone who is on the way. The world will be better and blessed, Because you are in it, Growing, becoming, gleaming with the light reflected from above.
Additional Ideas for Lenten Practices:
Ash Wednesday Reflections and Lent Activities for Families (musingsfromabricolage)
40 Ideas for Lent (rachelheldevans)
House for All Sinners and Saints’ 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent (nadiabolzweber)
This is arich reflection. Give something up, take something on. What a nice challenge. And enter the world as a work in progress. That is good advice for me. Even in my late stages, I am a work in progress.
We all are works in progress, aren’t we? Thanks for reading and responding, Newell.
‘And yet, meanwhile, we also forget that there were 40 long days and 40 long nights that Jesus spent fasting, praying, and preparing before this encounter with the accuser even occurred.’
This startled me. I hadn’t thought about it in this manner before. I had read a little about the Orthodox fast being partly about preparation rather than penance but I needed to read your post here to really understand that.
I also felt drawn to your comments about Jesus having time to notice a flower grow.I’m feeling that this Lent. Getting up for early Mass, leaving electronic devices downstairs when I go to bed, moving from vegetarian to vegan – all have given me more time. So I’ve just been out in the garden noticing new growth and I feel like I’m part of creation shaking off the moss, pushing down new roots and sending up new growth.
Thanks for these long thoughtful posts. They make me ponder.
Juliet, tt was only a few years ago when I really started to think about what actually happened those 40 days and nights in the wilderness before Jesus’ time of testing and thus, seeing it as a time of preparation. When this change occurred, Lent became a much more spiritual and transformative time for me. It sounds lovely to be able to work in the garden and be part of this creation process!
Thanks for reading and taking the time to reflect and respond.
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