Ash Wednesday, March 6th
Every year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear the story of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness tempted by the devil. The forty days of Lent are modeled on those forty days, as well as, on the forty years that the Hebrew people spent wandering in the wilderness. The forty years prepared them for life in the Promised Land; the forty days of Lent prepares us for Easter and a fresh appreciation of the resurrection.
It is important to recall the context of our story. Right before going into the wilderness Jesus makes his first appearance as an adult when he submits to John’s baptism of repentance in the River Jordan. In Luke’s telling, it was shortly thereafter while Jesus was praying that he experienced the Holy Spirit descend upon him in bodily form as a dove, and heard the voice of God say, “You are my son in whom I delight.”
We will read the story over the course of four days.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.
It is an abrupt change, going from Jesus’ ecstatic experience of God’s loving presence and power at the River Jordan to the barrenness of the wilderness and the experience of extreme hunger.
Some kind of inner soul work is clearly required on Jesus’ part following the high he experienced at the riverside. The life of faith is sometimes blessed with “highs” but there are also times of barrenness and the experiences of such times offer us lessons if we are willing to receive them.
Regardless of how we understand the devil it is important to recognize that the temptations he offered corresponded to real desires Jesus had inside him. Otherwise they weren’t real temptations – the sort we struggle with by virtue of being a human being.
Jesus has to get clear regarding which desires will lead him and which desires he will say “no” to.
When Jesus went out into the wilderness with the intention of going without food he was engaging in a spiritual practice that dates back thousands of years and is found in a wide range of spiritual traditions. To our modern ears it can seem absurd. Why in the world would a person choose to fast – to go without food – a good and necessary thing? Why experience serious hunger pangs when you don’t have to?
There are a variety of reasons why people fast. Some aren’t very good.
You can fast to show off to others how devout you are. Jesus explicitly said don’t do that. You can fast in an attempt to earn brownie points with God, but God isn’t going to love us anymore because we succeed in carrying out a fast, or for that matter manage to put this season of Lent to good use.
One simple reason that people fast is that when they break the fast they appreciate food all the more. The taste of that first meal reminds the person what a profound gift of grace food is. It counteracts that tendency we have to take for granted the blessings we have been given.
Another reason to undergo the spiritual discipline of fasting – or simply to give up for a time something we enjoy — is to strengthen that part of ourselves that chooses. An animal experiences a desire and if in that moment it has the means to satisfy the desire it will do so. There is no choice – no freedom — there is only instinct.
Our lives involve a steady stream of desires and longings that often are in conflict with one another. One hope for Lent would be that we strengthen that part of ourselves that can choose to forgo the gratification of certain desires, so that we can leave room in our lives to satisfy a higher desire – to live in relationship to God and experience the joy of the God’s Kingdom. We say no to one thing in order to say yes to a higher purpose.
We are told specifically that Jesus was “famished.” This is significant. Our most common way of dealing with desires we can’t or don’t want to gratify is to distract our attention from feeling the desire, and on practical level this makes a great deal of sense. But in doing so the desire hasn’t left us, and it will likely return when our distraction goes away.
Jesus isn’t distracting himself from his hunger pangs. He is fully feeling the longings and yet choosing not to satisfy them. This is a choice made consciously – an act of true freedom.
Here is a quote I came across years ago and found helpful:
“What most people call freedom is just the ability to satisfy desire. Many say, `I want more freedom’, and what they mean is they want to be able to have more of what they want. But that is not freedom — that is a kind of bondage. Freedom is the ability to have or not have what you want without it closing your heart.” (Steven Levine)
What blessings do you take for granted because they have become so routine?
What do you need to say “no” to in order to make room for something more important?
This evening you are invited to gather in our sanctuary at 7 p.m. for our traditional Ash Wednesday Service.