If you’ve ever sought to be led by the Spirit, today’s gospel passage might give you second thoughts. We’re used to the idea of seeking the Spirit’s leading for decisions about our life path, for how to relate to our neighbors, for gaining a sense of inner peace. But the Spirit isn’t always as tame or predictable as we would like it to be. In the opening lines of the fourth chapter of Luke: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan river (where he was baptized) and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil (and) he ate nothing at all during those days.” When I seek the Spirit’s leading I usually don’t have in mind hanging out in the desert for several weeks without any food having an extended conversation with the devil. But on this first Sunday of Lent, this is exactly the scenario where we find Jesus, thanks to the leading of the Spirit.
On Thursday of this week I was up near Lima meeting with some other pastors of the Central District Conference. Over the course of conversation we talked some about this being the beginning of Lent and one pastor commented that he really didn’t like Lent because it was such a downer, with all this focus on fasting, confession, repentance, thinking about Jesus’ death. There are enough discouraging things going on in the world. Why do we have to set aside a period of time to emphasize our own brokenness?
I shared some in this past Musing about when Lent took on a heightened meaning for me personally. Several years ago was the first time I had participated in an Ash Wednesday service and it was a bit of a wake up call. When someone looks you in the eyes, puts ashes on your forehead, calls you by name, and says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” it has a way of messing with your normal every day outlook, and reminding you of your own mortality.
There’s something enriching about recognizing that life is fragile. There’s something freeing about meditating on the idea that however important our lives may feel, it is true that we are made from the very same stuff as the rest of the earth, and eventually our bodies will be returning to the earth. The writer of Ecclesiastes famously notes that there is a time and a season for all things. Much of life is a time for feasting, but Lent traditionally has been a time for fasting, a time for listening, a time for coming to terms with our own limitations and honoring a God who delivers us in our weakness. In short, a time for being led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And it is at this place of weakness and vulnerability where we meet Jesus in the gospel text — 40 days without food, extremely physically weakened, facing down the darkest voices seeking to guide his life.
In our Scriptures the number 40 is an archetype for a period of time spent searching, wondering, listening, receiving new revelations. The Israelites wondered in the wilderness 40 years after being freed from slavery in Egypt and before entering the land promised to their ancestors. Moses spent 40 days on top of Mt. Sinai, speaking with God in the midst of the thunder and the fire, receiving the Torah, the divine teachings for the people to follow. Generations later, Elijah underwent a period of 40 days where he ended up on the same mountain, this time discovering that God is not necessarily present in the thunder and the fire, but speaks in a barely audible still small voice. Within all these periods of 40, there is something new being formed. Perhaps it’s not too far of a stretch to say the experiences in all of these bear a resemblance to the 40 weeks of formation that all humans experienced in our mother’s wombs. To evoke the number 40 for this event in Jesus’ life, accompanied with the setting of the wilderness, already gives us a significant picture of what is happening here.
The idea of being in the wilderness by yourself for a number of days without any food might sound strange to us, but this is actually a common practice of several of the cultures native to America. The Lakota people call this the Vision Quest and consider it to be a standard rite of passage for young boys and girls. When a child reaches their early teens they spend several days alone in the wilderness, fasting, and listening for guidance from the Spirit. It is a time of beginning to gain a sense of personal identity, a time of separation for the purpose of listening. Who is the Spirit calling me to become? Who am I in relation to this people and this land? A time to be formed as the person faces down their own fears and limitations and allows the Spirit to carry them through to the other side.
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness is a type of Vision Quest and carries similar themes with other formative periods of time associated with the number 40 throughout Scripture. And the Spirit led him there. The same Spirit that had just filled Jesus in his baptism, led him into the wilderness.
So what exactly did Jesus face when he was in the wilderness? We are told of three different temptations. In the first, the devil tries to lure him into making a stone become a loaf of bread. For a guy who hadn’t eaten for 40 days, this is a pretty believable temptation. But this extends well beyond Jesus’ personal fulfillment. At stake here is something much larger. All of these temptations are geared toward the nature of Jesus’ ministry, which he is about to begin. How will Jesus be an agent of God’s salvation? The stone into bread impulse would have Jesus be a bread-Messiah, offering the people all their physical needs, and winning over people’s hearts by filling their stomachs. Full stomachs are, of course, a good thing, and Jesus is quite generous with bread in his ministry, but he is not a bread-Messiah. He knows God’s work is much bigger than just the stomach. So he answers with the line from Scripture “One does not live by bread alone.”
For us, this relates to the ever present temptation of materialism. Our bread-Messiah has come in the form of the industrial and green revolutions that have essentially provided all of our physical needs. We rarely have to worry about having full stomachs. But it is quite clear that we remain hungry for another type of food. The temptation is to fill the voids in our life with stuff and things so readily available. But one does not live by stuff and things alone, but by healthy relationships, by generosity, and by spiritual connectedness to God.
Next Jesus is led up to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world. The temptation here is the grasping for power and glory. Will Jesus bow down to the means of domination and violence that have always been the guiding principle for the kingdoms of the world? If Jesus can be the most successful conquerer, the strongest strong man, all this could be his.
One of my favorite illustrations of this temptation is in the movie “Jesus of Montreal.” In this film, a well-known actor is hired by a large parish to help revive interest in the annual passion play which has been sparsely attended the last number of years. As this character begins writing the play adapted to a modern context and gathering actors around him to play the parts, the lives of these actors begin to mirror the story about Jesus and the disciples. This new passion play begins to attract large crowds of people. At one point the main character is approached by an agent who wants to get him under contract and begin marketing the play to a wide audience, charging higher admission, and promoting the actor for other high profile works. The catch is that the actor would have to give up much of his freedom to say the things he wants to say through his work. In one scene they are walking through the agent’s office in a high rise building downtown, with the agent sweet talking the actor to sign the contract. They stop next to a window overlooking the entire city, and the agent motions and says, “Don’t you understand, all this could be yours?”
Jesus refuses to give up his script of nonviolent forgiving love to adopt the violent, conquering script of the devil and his agents. He doesn’t idolize domination and he doesn’t worship power. He says, again from Scripture: “worship only God.”
On the final temptation the devil challenges Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple. This is a temptation that comes with an endorsement from Scripture, “God will protect you.” It is interesting that Scripture, read a certain way, can present itself as a temptation. No one is indestructible, or super-human, or exempt from tragedy. It’s simply not the way things are. This is what the Ash Wednesday phrase taken from Genesis 3:19 addresses: “Remember, O mortal, that you are from the dust, and to the dust you will return.” The temptation is to make God subservient to our demands – our demands for absolute security and protection from all harm. God cannot be so manipulated. Jesus has no desire to put God to a test. Jesus’ ministry goes the opposite direction, away from self-preservation. For him, trusting God did not mean believing God would keep you from all harm. Trusting God meant that when we are harmed, and when we face our mortality, God is present, bringing life from death.
Luke’s gospel reports that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Mark’s gospel uses even stronger language. Mark says that they Spirit “drove him out” into the wilderness, the same words used throughout the gospels for Jesus driving out evil spirits from people. And this gets us to the heart of the matter….The Spirit acts to drive us out of the dominant culture in order that the dominant culture can be driven out of us. It is a part of us. We live inside it, and it lives inside of us. Materialism and militarism and the quest for self-preservation at all costs are not only problems out there. They have made their home inside us, possessing us, tempting us to compromise our humanity.
During these 40 days of Lent, leading up to Easter, I suggest that the Spirit is leading us out into the wilderness. Not as any sort of punishment, but as an opportunity for blessing. An opportunity to listen to the voices that guide our lives. An opportunity to root ourselves deeper in the guidance of Scripture. An opportunity to gain a renewed sense of God’s saving action in our lives. Just as God delivered the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt, and brought them through 40 years in the wilderness, into a good land of abundance; God will deliver us from all evil and bring us through all of our temptations, and bring us into a place of abundant life. The surprise ending is that the work of the Spirit doesn’t end in death, but leads us into resurrection. And Jesus has prepared the way for our journey.