“The Landscape of Lent” Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11
If you’ve ever been to the Holy Land, you know that wilderness areas there are wide open spaces. I’m sure that’s true of many other Middle Eastern places as well. There are no cacti or outcroppings under which to seek shelter. Unless you’re near the edge of a cliff, there is no shade. There is nowhere to hide. Everything is out in the open. THAT is the landscape of Lent. Though we might be tempted to use Lent as an excuse to give up swearing or to recommit to daily devotions or worthy quests, our actions aren’t the purpose of this liturgical season. The purpose of this season is to enter a clear, open space for concentrating on who Jesus is and what Jesus does.
Following Jesus, we enter this wilderness time, according to Matthew’s description, led by the Spirit, and we conclude it with being tended to by angels. Such a holy company in which to reflect and learn! Sometimes it is a good thing that there is nowhere to hide. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.
But that doesn’t mean that some days won’t be challenging. The temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness weren’t whether or not he was going to lose 20 lbs. or spend less time on Facebook. The temptations Jesus endured—much like the ones Adam and Eve struggled against in our first reading from Genesis—had everything to do with challenges to his true identity.
It’s not an accident that the story of Jesus in the wilderness immediately follows one of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus and all those around him had just heard God announce, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well-pleased.” Now that he has been publicly acknowledged as the Messiah, Jesus needs a little time to discern what that means as he embraces that role and prepares for his public ministry to begin. It’s no wonder that the devil’s target was undermining Jesus’ security in his identity. Each of the temptations begins with “IF you are the Son of God…” The Tempter wants Jesus to feel tenuous in his relationship with God, to doubt God’s claim that he is indeed God’s beloved. The Accuser asks Jesus to test God’s commitment to him by throwing himself off a mountain. Or to doubt God’s steadfastness by creating food for himself because God could not be trusted to provide for him. Or agreeing to accept the patronage and protection of Evil instead of trusting in God’s guidance.
At each point of his struggle, Jesus is able to resist by restating who God is, what God has promised, and why that strengthens him. Jesus does not simply quote random passages of Scripture; Jesus quotes Scripture that reminds him of God’s faithfulness, trustworthiness and constant care for him and the world God made. When the going gets tough, Jesus calls on the blessed assurance of God’s promises to nurture him. He sees clearly what his choices are, and he reclaims his identity as God’s beloved child. It is what keeps him rooted and grounded in this time of personal turmoil.
And it is precisely what Adam and Eve were unable to do in today’s reading from Genesis. When faced with temptation, they could not hang onto their identity as God’s beloved children. They did not respond to the Tempter with reminders that they were made in the image and likeness of God, and so did not need to prove anything. Instead, like most of us when faced with a threat, they turned their attention inward instead of outward. They forgot WHOSE they were and so lost WHO they were when the time of testing came. They gave in to mistrusting God and each other, hurling accusations at one another, condemning one another as the reason that their relationships with God and each other were in trouble. And then, of course, they tried to hide.
Jesus was able to rest in his relationship with God, reminding himself WHOSE he was and so remembering WHO he was. But he was JESUS, and we are mortal, like Adam and Eve; how we be expected to withstand our own times of trial? Like Adam and Eve, every day we face temptations to give up on God and God’s promises.
There is a story that Martin Luther, when tempted to sink into despair at his own sinfulness, would shout at the Devil, “I am baptized!” In the most recent movie version of Luther’s life, the filmmakers opted to turn this phrase into the more accessible line, “I am yours! Save me!” Either one works, actually. When we are besieged by headlines that suggest that there is not enough to go around (whether it’s health, love, money, importance, hope, opportunities or whatever) so we should grab what we can, we can shout back at the Tempter, “I am God’s beloved! I am baptized! You have no power over me!” Or, “Oh God, I am yours! Save me!”
When politicians and newscasters of all stripes want us to believe that we have a great deal to fear, and that the only way to be safe is to get rid of or trample on those who differ from us; when we are tempted to give in to our own whims while ignoring the vital needs of others; the Holy Spirit leads us into wide open spaces so we can catch our breath. It’s time to remember whose we are, in whose image and likeness we are made. We can turn again to Jesus, who withstood all the lies the Great Deceiver had to offer, and who holds us tenderly always.
When we are tempted to believe that everything depends on us and our choices and actions—while simultaneously resisting being held accountable for our behavior—when we try to live as if we were immortal instead of acknowledging that this is God’s world and we are stewards of it—let’s walk into the wilderness again. God is sending angels to minister to us, to direct our confidence to God once more, instead of buying into what we imagine power to be. When we find ourselves wanting to take the easy way instead of the right way, let’s whisper, “O God, I am yours, save me. I am baptized. That is the truth of who I am.”
Lent is not about passing the little tests we set for ourselves. It’s not about what we give up or add on. It’s about Jesus, who alone was able to withstand all that tempted him to abandon intimacy with God, God’s world, and God’s people. It’s about Jesus standing in an open space, seeing with unclouded vision exactly WHO we are, and pouring out upon us the grace of WHOSE we are. Lent is an invitation to return to our home in God’s heart.
So here we are in the wilderness together. There is nothing to obscure the view. While we are unable to live entirely faithfully as Jesus did, there is nothing around to muffle God voice calling out to us, “You are my beloved.” That’s both a free gift and a promise. Our identity doesn’t come from being thin enough or strong enough or smart enough or kind enough. We do not become God’s beloved children because we can go 40 days without alcohol or chocolate. We are not God’s beloved because we can resist temptation through our own pious efforts. We are God’s beloved because God is steadfast and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Thanks be to God!
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