First Sunday of Lent - "These Forty Days"

Today is the first Sunday of the Season of Lent. 

Lent is a word that originates in the Latin word for 40. It is connected to a significant "Forty" in the Scriptures, namely, the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after he was baptized and before he began his ministry. 

Throughout the Scriptures, "forty" is a number that signifies preparation, testing, working through challenges, and being made ready. 

In the Genesis account of the Great Flood, it rains forty days and forty nights.  The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  Psalm 40 is a psalm that speaks to relying on God when we are going through times of challenge... the list goes on. 

During this season of Lent, we will be focusing on what it means to be prepared to follow Jesus wherever Jesus leads.  And to be prepared to follow Jesus, we need to learn to Live Differently, which is the title of our Lenten sermon series. 

And during this series, we will focus on The Counter-Cultural Calling of Christ—What keeps us from becoming fully alive? What is the actual cost of discipleship in our current culture?  How do we live differently so that others might be drawn to Jesus? 

Today we will explore the foundational text for Lent: The story of Jesus being led into the wilderness and tested… 

When you’re in the wilderness, you learn to live differently. You learn that if you give in to the moment, it could be deadly.   And when you find yourself in the wilderness, you learn who you really are. 

Aron Ralston - 172 Hours 

As much as we might romanticize the wilderness, there is another side to it, as we know. And we all get that wilderness can quickly become a metaphor for moments in our lives when we find ourselves adrift, uncharted, lost, alone, and afraid. 

None of us relish spending time in the wilderness.  

But sometimes, the wilderness is what we need to become the people we are meant to be and to fully follow Jesus to get where we need to go. 


Let's take a look at Matthew 4:1-11: 

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 

What do you make of the fact that Jesus was "led" into the wilderness by the Spirit of God---to be tempted by the devil?  

Is it odd?  It would be easier for me to accept this line if it read, "Jesus was driven by the Spirit..."  The way it's written, it conveys the idea that Jesus believed it was God's will for him to go into the wilderness to be "tempted."  

Does God set us up for these kinds of things?  Well, it depends on how you translated the word "tempted."  A better translation would actually be "tested."  

There is a big difference between the idea of being tested as opposed to being tempted.  Sometimes one can lead to the other, to be fair.  But what this shows us is very profound.  If God is calling you to do something for him--you can expect to be tested.  

And the word "devil" is essential, too.  It is rooted in the Greek words dia and bello and when these two words are combined, they form a word that essentially means "one who attacks, misleads, diverts or slanders."  This is why this same person is often called "Satan" throughout Scripture--"satan" being another word for "accuser."  

3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The first temptation hits Jesus right where he lives and breathes in his frail, human form:  his physical need.  He's been fasting for forty days and nights, and the Devil makes a simple suggestion--turn the stones all around you into bread.  

Jesus is tempted with the immediacy of Physical Satisfaction.  "Feed your need!" the Devil tells him.  "You don't have to suffer like these people--you are better than that... IF you are the Son of God, after all."

But Jesus doesn't give in to the temptation of now even though it means he might suffer in the present.  This is huge because we learn about Jesus now that he indeed identifies with us in our frailty.  And further, he doesn't avoid suffering for our sake because he knows there's more at stake than the moment.  

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,

    and they will lift you up in their hands,

    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The second temptation is spectacle and the revelation of Jesus' true power.  Jesus is being tempted here with Immediate Gratification.  The Devil suggests that Jesus could end all speculation about himself by simply revealing who he really is. 

"God will take care of you!" The Devil offers to Jesus. "You don't need to worry about the repercussions; just jump!  It'll be awesome!"  

But Jesus doesn't give in to this temptation either because he knows that despite how great it would feel to demonstrate his power and the provision and protection of God over his life, it would not accomplish the ultimate redemption of Creation.  Again, he knows there's more at stake than the moment.  

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

The third temptation is a direct offer of power in exchange for Jesus' recognizing the absolute dominion that the Devil has over the world.  This is a temptation of Power and Domination.  The Devil suggests that Jesus could have the world, establish his kingdom, and make everything right---but in exchange, he would be admitting that it's power, not love, that makes the world go around.  

Jesus doesn't give in to this temptation either.  He knows that power is not an end in itself and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Although it would be easier to win people over by a show of power, Jesus knows that the only sure way to bring the kingdom of God to bear on earth was through sacrificial love.  By now, you know what I am going to say.  He knows there's more at stake than the moment. 

When you pull back from this story a bit, you see that none of the things that the Devil tempted Jesus with were evil in and of themselves.  In fact, each could be considered a gift of God in the right circumstances.  But you also see when you pull back from this story that the temptation Jesus was being offered was to love the gifts of God and not the Giver--something he absolutely refused to do.  There is no surer path to self-destruction than when we make idols out of the good things God has given us.  

There's something else at work here that's very important to note.  When Israel spent forty years in the desert wandering due to their disobedience, they had moments when they were tested with all three of these temptations and failed.  Jesus, on the other hand, passed them.  

This is important for all of us.  We need to see Jesus overcome these temptations.  We need to know that he was, as the author of Hebrews notes, "tested in every way that we are, but did not sin."  

Even though he was in the wilderness, Jesus didn't exchange what felt best for what was best.  He didn't give in to the temptation of now--because he knew there was more at stake than the moment.  

Sometimes it takes the wilderness to teach us what's really at stake. 

The Marshmallow Test - not exactly a wilderness moment, and yet. 

The Accuser always has a way of showing up in those moments. 

But it's in the wilderness that we find ourselves on the path of following Jesus. 

Don't avoid it.  Lean into it.  And remember who you are.  



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