Of course, when I think about this gospel and the beginning of Lent, temptation is a huge theme. Jesus is driven by God the Holy Spirit into the desert for 40 days, and is tempted by Satan. I love the desert, but I would not want to be out in it’s wilderness for 40 days alone. While it is a beautiful place with its own unique landscape, it is also a place of great danger. And that probably gives the story even more meaning. It would be easy to be tempted in the desert. Hunger, thirst, heat, cold… it’s all there to remind us just how fragile we are and how close death is at any given moment. It’s an environment that reminds us that we are dependent upon God and upon others for our well being. We cannot even pretend to be able to make it on our own out there.
I also had another thought about this particular telling of the story. Since we don’t have the conversation here between Jesus and Satan, we don’t know what Satan used to tempt Jesus. We assume the story is the same as it is in the other gospels. What came to my mind though, is perhaps it’s a good thing that we don’t hear the conversation this time. Maybe the challenge for us who have heard the story, is to wonder about the temptations, and to think about the temptations in our own lives. We all know it we were to jump off a cliff it wouldn’t end well; I assume we all know where our next meal is coming from, and I don’t think any of us have anyone in our lives who can promise us all that we can see; those are some pretty heavy duty temptations that I think can separate us from the story a bit. Maybe if we don’t have the temptations placed in front of us, we can think more clearly about the temptations that we DO face; temptations that are just as serious that have the effect of replacing God in our lives with the thing we are tempted by. We can still practice idolatry in ways that are more subtle; things like addiction, unhealthy relationships, over working, holding power over others, money… the list goes on. And good people are often tempted by things that at first seem innocent enough until suddenly we are in over our heads wondering how it got to be out of our control.
Jesus indeed knows what being tempted is like; unlike us in those times, he realized that he was completely dependent upon God the Father for his very life. Nothing that Satan could promise him would make his time in the desert better; only his Father could do that. As he kept the Father at the center of his life and worship, what he needed in order to resist the temptations was given to him. Those idols in our life cannot fill the place of God in our lives; ultimately if we let those temptations rule us for too long we begin to see, if we are lucky, that they are a completely inadequate and often dangerous replacement for God. Idols that can turn us into people we don’t even recognize who live for the empire rather than the kingdom. And they are temptations because they are so easy to put in God’s place; things that can bring shallow comfort and joy, rather than the eternal peace that is gotten by being a disciple.
Whatever our Lenten disciplines are, whether we are giving something up or taking something on, that sacrifice should be something that causes us to pause, to think and to pray; it should be something that connects us to Jesus’ time in the desert and brings us closer to him. It ought to be something that isn’t particularly easy, because then it isn’t really a sacrifice. The point is not denial for the sake of denial, but rather the practice of getting out of God’s way to allow God to work with and through us… to allow the barriers and idols in our life to be destroyed so that we might be closer to God and to God’s people. It’s also a time to perhaps take the time to reflect on what the idols are in our lives that need to be gotten rid of not just for 40 days but for ever. I invite us to listen to God in these weeks ahead, and to see what might be standing in the way of a loving relationship with God and with our neighbors. I know that nothing we can try to replace God with is ever as wonderful as God. May we travel this 40 days together realizing we are totally dependent upon God for our very being. And may we also realize what a gift and blessing that truly is.