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.
Luke 4:1-2 NRSVA
We often start Lent with a reading about Jesus' temptation in the desert. After all, Lent is also forty days, forty days of fasting, refraining, confronting bad habits or simply luxurious joys, and denying ourselves of them. Chocolate bars are resisted. Fast food is banned. It is a season of my most carnivorous friends suddenly turning to me for vegan recipes. Why, I even know of one university chaplain who replaced his office's candy bowl with apples and baby carrots one year. It feels like half of my Facebook friends disappear.
Our forms of modern asceticism can be, can feel, can look a bit silly. A few weeks without pizza is no monastic self-flagellation, but I have experienced and witnessed, in my life and others' lives, surprising spiritual strength emerge out of intentional exercises in Lenten self-control. There is something sacred and timeless in telling our own impulses, whether physical or consumerist or emotional, that no, they do not control us. They are resistible.
Taking Lent and journeying into the wilderness to its logical extreme, ancient ascetics, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, dwelled in the deserts, living in prayer and self-denial, as their Christian life. I remember as an undergraduate religion student, this appalled me. I was impassioned and believed in a social gospel, a community of faith, in confronting the evil in the world, finding our best selves together, and engaging in the world. Positivity and engagement! Not this depressing, cheap escapism. No, Jean-Daniel, you're missing the point, my Christian history professor, Kevin Madigan, told me. "They went to meet Jesus so they could face the real world. They were not escaping the world. They were confronting it."
This Lent, I have started wondering if Jesus in the desert is really the model we should emulate, though. Or rather, if the idea of Jesus confronting the devil is really the model. Jesus confronted the devil, but he also had to face someone far more powerful: himself.
The devil offered bread. There is nothing innately wrong with bread.
The devil offered power. There is nothing wrong with Jesus having power.
It was not that Jesus did not need bread. Or that he would not one day have dominion over all the earth. It was that he had to say no to the devil to experience that nourishment and empowerment that was within himself, that was from God.
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew 4:11 NRSVA
When Jesus resisted the devil, he met himself and angels came and waited on him.
It is the middle of Lent. Perhaps you have been confronting your temptations. That is a good and holy thing. But now I would invite you, with me, to consider adding something. Will we now let ourselves meet Jesus, let angels nourish and sustain us, and trust in God's power for the rest of our time in the desert?
As we read through the Gospels, we do not only see Jesus: the story of God acting in our world through Jesus is also about those who met him along the way.
Nathaniel, who dismisses Nazareth as a backwater and denies that anything, nevermind anyone, good could come from there, met Jesus and in one reassuring statement from the Lord, dropped everything and became a disciple (John 1). A woman caught in adultery (what about the man, always a worthwhile side question!) who only said, "No, Lord," to Jesus and yet found forgiveness and liberation where the world offering only condemnation (John 8). The Canaanite woman who refused to believe the Jewish messiah was not sent for her family, too (Matthew 15). The woman who believed if only she could touch Jesus' cloak, she would find healing (Luke 8). The despised little tax collector, risking scorn and climbing trees for a glimpse of the passing saviour, allowed not only to see but to dine with him (Luke 19). As prejudices, sins, shame, and embarrassment were abandoned, they found a teacher, a forgiver, a healer, a friend, the Saviour.
Breathe deeply. In Lent, we acknowledging our weaknesses and we exercise our strengths, but not in a spirit of hanging our heads in despair or shame, not in a spirit of trying to earn our way back, but to let ourselves meet Jesus and sustained by the angels.
There is no shame in our fatigue. Jesus offers our souls rest (Matthew 11:29-30).
There is no shame in our hunger. Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35).
There is no shame in our thirst. Jesus offers everlasting springs of water (John 4:14).
There is no shame in our powerlessness. Jesus came to be our true king (John 18:37).
Let go of shame. Let go guilt. Let go of hesitation. Let go of fear. Because God, known to us in Jesus, has so much to give in their place.
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
Isaiah 41:10 NRSVA