The Christian journey through Lent is something of a journey through the desert. It is characterised by fasting, penitence and charity as these are the ways in which we can prepare our souls and bodies to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We are sorry for our sins, but also joyful in knowing that Christ has overcome sin and death. There is a joyful character to what we do and who we are because of what Christ has taught us and done for us. It’s a hopeful, and a healing time. It’s a chance to give ourselves a bit of encouragement in our spiritual lives, and to get ready. 

Our first reading this morning from Deuteronomy is an account of the festival of first fruits, a Jewish Harvest Festival. The prayer is an account of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land. It is a prayer of gratitude, ‘And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you’ (Deut 26:10-11 ESV) which also forms part of the Jewish Passover ritual. As Christians, Christ takes us from the wilderness of sin to the promised land of reunion with God the Father and each other. This greater passover sees humanity freed from sin and death through the love of God. This is what we are preparing to celebrate with joyful expectation. 

Likewise, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans begins by quoting from Deuteronomy, (30:14) just before Moses offers Israel the choice between life and death, good and evil. But for Paul ‘if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’ (Rom 10:9 ESV) This is the heart of our faith as Christians: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, or any power of this world. He saves us, by His Death and Resurrection. We believe this and bear witness to our belief. 

Our Gospel this morning takes right back to the beginning. Just after His Baptism, as He begins His public ministry, Jesus goes out into the desert to be alone, to be quiet, to fast and to pray, to be close to God the Father. While He is in the desert Jesus is tempted by the devil. The devil begins by saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ It is a temptation to be relevant, Jesus is hungry. The devil is saying, ‘If you’re the Son of God then do this’, something which the crowd will say to Jesus as He goes to be crucified. They both demand that God prove Himself, rather than accepting the presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God the Father, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Lk 3:22 ESV) Jesus is pleasing to God because He is obedient, whereas Satan is all about disobedience, not listening to God, not obeying Him. Jesus has been led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and whereas the first Adam causes sin to enter into the world by eating forbidden fruit, Christ, who is the second Adam, conquers by not eating. ‘The desert, the opposite of a garden becomes the place of reconciliation and healing.’ [1] Jesus who is the Living Bread come down from Heaven, conquers Satan with the Word of God, Himself the Word made flesh who will feed us with Himself, to give us life in Him. The Church exists to feed Christ’s sheep with Word and Sacrament, and to proclaim that He is the Son of god and Saviour.

Jesus’ second temptation is to have power. The devil says to Him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (Lk 4:6-7 ESV) Jesus prefers heavenly glory and the salvation of humanity to worldly power. The devil can only offer a false god and fleeting power, whereas Christ stands for what is true and eternal. The temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil, leads to the misuse of power. It’s a very human failing. The church stands condemned for the mistakes of the past and the present, but in recognising this there is the possibility of a more humble church in the future: reliant upon God and not on the exercise of power. At its heart, the Good News of the Kingdom is about repentance: turning away from the our sins, turning back to our loving Father and asking for His forgiveness. 

The third temptation, the temptation to put God to the test, is to be spectacular and self-seeking. Whenever we say, ‘look at me’ we’re not saying, ‘look at God’. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’. God does not need to prove anything. He loves us, and sent His Son for us. Jesus’ throwing himself from the Temple would be a spectacle, but it wouldn’t achieve anything. The high place Jesus will go up to is the Cross on Calvary, where He will suffer and die to save humanity. This is what God wants, to show His love for the world, not just a stunt. 

The devil departs, Jesus’ faith is stronger than temptation. The temptations are real, and Jesus shows US that we can resist them. It isn’t easy, quite the opposite, but it is POSSIBLE. This should encourage us as we try to follow Jesus’ example, and grow in holiness this Lent. God does not as the impossible of us, just that we try, and repent when we fail. We grow in holiness in Lent through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Prayer offers us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. It’s more about quality than quantity: true repentance, for what we’ve done and failed to do, and a resolve not to do so in the future are what are needed. Almsgiving helps us to be charitable and generous, to care for those in need, just as God is generous towards us.

Fasting is key, because it helps us subjugate our appetite. It isn’t a holy diet, but rather an exercise of the will and a mastery of the flesh: we control what we eat and do, rather than being controlled by our appetites. Just as prayer is not about getting God’s attention or changing His mind, but rather changing who and what we are, making us more loving, humble and dependant on God, so fasting stops us being slaves to our desires. It sets us free, and helps us to listen to God, and draw closer to Him. It helps us enter into Christ’s suffering, so we can follow the way of the Cross. We do this joyfully, because we are following Christ, learning to resist temptation, aided by prayer and a generous heart. Christians are made as well as born, and this Lenten season helps us to grow in faith, hope, and love, so that we may celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection with greater joy. 

[1] Ratzinger, J. (2007) Jesus of Nazareth, London: Bloomsbury, 27.

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