In our readings this morning, we follow Jesus and the Israelites into part of their journeys through the wilderness. Almost all of our readings today have to do with these themes of wilderness and desert and wandering.
In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites as they are finally coming to the end of 40 long years of wandering in the desert. At long last, they are about to enter into the promised land of Canaan – and Moses is making sure that when they do, they give thanks properly for the wondrous things that God has done for them. He gives them instructions for what they are to do: they are first to tell the story of who they are and of who God has been for them, saying: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” and so on. In modern language, this story might sound more like this: “A transient nobody was my ancestor. He lived as an immigrant in Egypt and his descendents were successful for a while before being enslaved and imprisoned. We cried out to God – and God heard us. God set us free, and even promised us a new homeland, not because we were anything special, but because that’s who God is.” And along with telling this story, Moses gives the Israelites instructions to make an offering of some of the first fruits of what they had received.
And then, in our gospel reading, we meet Jesus just coming up from his baptism in the Jordan river. The Spirit leads him out to the desert, where he fasts for 40 days. And during this time, he is continually taunted by temptation – the temptation to feed his starving body, the temptation to use his divine power and to make God save him. But Jesus resists temptation through his faith in God and through obedience to God’s word – and he actually does this through quoting passages from Deuteronomy!
Jesus’ references to Deuteronomy are part of a larger connection that is being made between these two stories. Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the wilderness is deliberately meant to hearken back to the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. The wilderness in these stories is a place of struggle; it’s a place of scarcity, and even danger. And, perhaps because of this, the wilderness is also a place where encounters with God happen. In the wilderness, we are drawn out of the familiar – out of our comfort zones – and into the unknown. And that forces us to trust God in a new way. When we are lost and unsure of the path ahead, we have to put all the more faith in God to guide us. And that is why it’s no accident that the Israelites’ 40 year journey and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert are both echoed in the 40 days of Lent!
Each year we set apart this 40 day period (plus Sundays) for our own journey through the wilderness. But even though we talk every year about “starting” our journey on the evening of Ash Wednesday, the truth is that Lent is a time for us to acknowledge that we are already wandering in the wilderness. We are already in the desert, facing hunger and temptation.
The season of Lent is an invitation to take an honest look at where we are, to admit that we struggle with temptation and emptiness and fear. And when we talk about temptation, it’s something that goes much deeper than, say, the temptation to eat that second piece of chocolate. Rather, it’s temptations that seek to set ourselves – or another person or thing – in a place above God in our lives. It’s the temptation to fill the God-shaped hole in our souls with something else, something that will never fully satisfy us. What does that hunger feel like for you? How are you experiencing wilderness in your life right now?
In the wilderness of Lent, we come to terms with our fears and our failings. But, like Jesus and the Israelites, we also come to encounter God in new ways. Lent invites us not only to acknowledge our own brokenness, but it teaches us to look with hope for God to be with us in the midst of our brokenness and our struggles. It teaches us to have faith that the Spirit is strengthening us and showing us the way, even when it’s hard to see it. How have you experienced God showing up in the midst of your struggles and brokenness? Where do you hope to encounter God in this wilderness now?
All of our readings for today offer us wisdom for the journey. Jesus and the Israelites – along with Paul and the author of Psalm 91 – give us models for how to live faithfully in the wilderness. They show us how to grow more fully into our relationship with God, and how to see God at work.
When the Israelites finally come into the land that has been promised to them, they give thanks to God by offering up the first fruits of all that they had received. They recognized that absolutely everything they had was purely a gift from God. Especially as outcasts and wanderers and slaves, they knew that they had not earned the bounty that was theirs – it had all been generously given to them out of God’s abundance. And for this reason, they were specifically commanded to share what they had with the “alien and the Levite” among them – that is, with the immigrants and strangers among them and with those who had no land or wealth of their own.
Jesus fasts in the wilderness for 40 days and Luke tells us he was hungry. Easy to imagine. But Jesus refuses to be tempted into breaking his fast, even when the devil points out that he could pretty easily just turn a couple of rocks into bread. But, by fasting for a period, Jesus is laying aside our usual human worries about material needs like food and shelter and clothing. He responds to temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy 8 that one does not live by bread alone; we must be fed by the word of God – the word that, as Paul writes, is on our lips and in our hearts.
And both Paul and the writer of Psalm 91 stress the importance of crying out to God in prayer. Paul urges the Corinthians to call on the name of the one with the power to save – Jesus Christ. And the psalmist extols God as one who responds lovingly to all who call for help. Whatever struggles or sinfulness or temptation we may be dealing with, both writers encourage us to keep close to God through prayer.
Together, these models are the three great practices of Lent: alms-giving, fasting, and prayer. These are the practices that we as Christians are encouraged to adopt during our Lenten journey. Like the Israelites were called to do and like Jesus later embodied, we are called to practice obedience to God in taking up these disciplines. But prayer, fasting, and giving are ultimately not for God’s sake, but for ours. Through these practices, we learn to feel a greater sense of gratitude and joy for all that we have been given, we are fed by something much more satisfying than bread – or even, yes, than chocolate – and we are reoriented to God’s loving, gracious presence in the world and in our lives.
These practices help us draw closer to God in the midst of our own wandering and hunger and temptation. And they help us to remember that, just as God was with our ancestors in the wilderness, God is with us now, no matter where we wander.