In the Wilderness: 40 Days to Change the World

Today we begin the observance of the second of our two church seasons: Lent.

How did our observance of this time develop? Well, Lenten observation grew from an Egyptian tradition of fasting for forty-days after the Feast of Theophany (what we call the Epiphany). So, originally this season – in the Egyptian Christian church – was placed earlier in the year. After honoring Jesus’ baptism on January 6, this community imitated his forty-day fast in the wilderness.

“After the Council of Nicea (in 325 AD), the theory speculates, this fast would have been moved from its original position after Theophany and joined to Easter creating the Lent we know and with it bringing Egypt’s baptismal practice in line with the rest of the Church.” (1)

Currently, Christian churches observe this season as a time of reflection, personal transformation and growing in relationship with God. But one of the ancient explanations of our Lenten season made me pause. In the ancient Egyptian Church, this forty-day fast was used to restore “lapsed Christians, prepare (those) who had certain “impure occupations,” and serve as penance for certain sins.” (2)

Lapsed Christians….. isn’t that what we all are? People who WANT to be better, people who’ve made mistakes and fallen short of who we want to be, people created to do great things and have not lived up to our potential. There is no shame is being a lapsed Christian – it is an admission that we are not perfect. That (as John Wesley describes) we are moving on to perfection.

Lent is a time to do something that can help us to be the people we were created to be; a time to do something different: to adopt a new habit, to give up something harmful, to tryout a spiritual discipline for a fixed period of time.

In the current incarnation of the season in the protestant church, it is an opportunity to adopt a spiritual practice: activities in which we can participate in order to deepen our relationship with God. So what are the traditional Spiritual Practices? What do people “normally” do for Lent?

Traditional practices include: Prayer, Fasting, Study, Meditation, Confession, Worship, Solitude and Celebration – these actions may help us in our relationship with God, if practiced with such intent and with honest commitment. In our scripture – this epic battle between good represented by Jesus and  evil represented by the devil – we see Jesus adopting several spiritual practices to defend himself, to help himself be the person he was created to be, to improve his own relationship with God.

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

First we meet Jesus in the spiritual practice of SOLITUDE: pulling himself away from the crowd, from his disciples, from his work for a time to be alone. He draws himself away to spend some time in the wilderness. Why the Wilderness? Well, This was not uncommon for leaders to make their way to the wilderness.

As author William Loader notes, the “wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. It also connected then, as it does now, to very basic spirituality: a place to grapple with God, a place to learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, of wild beasts and desert.” (3) Often when we spend time in nature – whether in the desert or by the crashing waves of the sea, or up on a tall snowy mountain… We find God. Or more accurately, we can hear God’s words more clearly, smell the beauty of God’s work, listen to the symphony of God’s creatures and feel His presence.

So Jesus goes to the wilderness to be alone with God, and Luke tells us:

He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Here we have Jesus extricating himself from the community for 40 days –  and once alone he adopted two additional spiritual practices: PRAYER AND FASTING. The solitude was setting, but the busyness of everyday activities – his teaching and preaching, his helping ministries and healing ministries – and he substituted that activity with the prayer and fasting; this was a special time to be alone with God, depending solely on God’s presence.

And when he had completed 40 days of fasting, Luke says “he was famished.”

How many of you are practicing fasting for this Lent? Fasting does not have to be giving up food … that is traditional way to look at it, and some people still do this. But not all of us are made for such a spiritual discipline. Fasting can be seen as the giving up of something in order to draw closer to God.

This Lent you could fast from TV, eating out at restaurants, or specific types of food – chocolate, sweets, junk food, meat. But the crucial part is not what you give up, but what you put in its place. What do you focus on, once that thing is gone? If you fast from Facebook for example, but take up Twitter instead… does that activity point you more toward God?

What happens after Jesus’ fast: The devil offers him bread. (verse 3) Temptation will come. It is JUST what Jesus wants and needs….What does Jesus say?

“One does not live by bread alone.”  This is a quote from Deuteronomy 8, verse 3. (Jesus trusts in God, and does not succumb to the temptation of immediate gratification. Bread will come, but all in due time.)

5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Here we see Jesus in the spiritual practice of WORSHIP. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Do we worship other Gods? What other gods do we serve? Do we worship the god of money? Of vanity? Of status? Of fame?

Here we are also introduced to the spiritual practice of GIVING. Giving, not only in a monetary way – but giving of our time, our energy, our service. To whom or what do we pledge our allegiance? Do we serve only God, or do we have split allegiances? How can we focus on serving God and giving our time, energy, loyalty and service to God?

Continuing …

9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Here we see Jesus using the spiritual practices of STUDY and PRAYER.

Here we see the Devil recognizing Jesus’ spiritual defense: he is using scripture like a sword. The Devil attacks and Jesus repels him with scripture so the devil adopts his rhetorical method: “Okay,” he says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” These are two quotations from Psalm 91: 11-12.

But, of course it doesn’t work, as Jesus counters with Deuteronomy 6:16: “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

This is an interesting proposition, I think. The devil asks Jesus to use prayer to demand action from God. If you’re sure God will save you, why don’t you throw yourself in harm’s way, throw yourself from this cliff, step in front of a bus.

If we put ourselves in harm’s way, just to prove a point, just to show others that God is great … that would be tempting to God. If we understand God to be merciful, then of course, God would want to help us, but then God would be participating in this ruse, this dishonest show … Jesus tells us, through the words of Deuteronomy that we should tempt God that way. AND we shouldn’t use prayer as a way to put demands on God – to use prayer as an emergency 911 system.

How can we improve our prayer life this Lent: Bible study, devote a certain time of the day to prayer, spend time writing in a journal, say grace at one meal during the day. Our relationships depend our ability to communicate with the other. Thus, our relationship with God depends on an open flow of communication through prayer, meditation, solitude, bible study. How can we improve that communication with the God whom we serve?

Lent is a time to do something different – for 40 days – with the intent that the NEW THING may become part of our lives. It is a way to “try-on” spiritual practices, to test them out to see which one feels right and encourages us to deepen our relationships with God and God’s people.

Now is the time to be the person God created you to be.

The person you WANT to be.

To be closer to God, closer to others and closer to yourself.

May it be so this Lent and always. Amen.

1. Robert B. Kruschwitz,

2. Ibid.

3. William Loader