17 February 2013, Lent

I have recently discovered that acquiring a driving licence requires something of a metamorphosis! I now have a new identity – I’ve turned from a pedestrian into a driver. I no longer see myself as a pedestrian – even when I am a pedestrian! I no longer nip across roads in suicidal leaps through slow moving traffic, because I have a new perspective. Instead of seeing myself as outsmarting traffic, I see myself as a hazard to an approaching driver! I am no longer a passenger peering at cute dogs we pass – I now scour the road for hazards. I have a clear purpose in sight – getting my driving licence. I’ve even got to the point of being annoying. I watch Paul driving with a critical eye, and ask “is it ok to do that?”…to which he sometimes replies, “erm… not really”!

Lent is a season when our perspectives can be challenged and changed, a time when we encounter God, and like Jesus, think about who we are, and our purpose in the world. Lent is a chance for us to keep busyness and the noise of world at bay in order to meet with God, something that is harder than we might expect.

We have no extensive details about all that Jesus experienced in the wilderness. We are merely told that he fasted there for forty days, and was tempted. It is a startling story…to find the Son of God, the Messiah, in the wilderness for forty days. Fasting? Praying? Famished? And tempted by the Devil? Why?

We have to flesh out the bones of this story. Here is a young man of about 30 years. He is a carpenter who has lived in obscurity. He has, until this point, been known as the son of Joseph, the carpenter’s son. He will soon come to be known as Teacher and Rabbi, and then be called the Messiah, Lord and the Christ. He knows who He is, and what his calling is, but not many others do. He has now reached a turning point in His life. He has been publicly baptised by John the Baptist, and God has affirmed that Jesus is His Beloved Son. Now, before He begins a new phase of his life, His public ministry, Jesus is led into the wilderness.

The phrases “forty days” and “the wilderness” are what I call a signifier. You have to know what it really means and represents. Like, for instance, the word “troubles”. Once when filling out a form, when I was new to Belfast, I encountered the question “have you been affected by the troubles?” I thought to myself “What a daft question… who hasn’t been affected by troubles?” and ticked off a “yes”. I later discovered that “troubles” did not mean what I thought it meant!

Forty days or years, is a familiar Biblical motif that represents not just a period of time, but signifies a time and place where something happens: a testing of faith, a close encounter with God, or a new beginning. Forty days is associated with the story of Noah, the rains and new beginnings; with Moses’ encounter with God in the mountain and the giving of the Ten Commandments as a new foundation for living for Israelites. The people of Israel wandered for forty years in the desert wilderness before entering the Promised Land. Elijah encountered God during his forty days in the wilderness and John the Baptist took to the wilderness before his ministry. Jews, familiar with their history recognised these signifiers and understood what they meant.

So why did Jesus have a forty day wilderness experience? It was, as it has been for others who went before him, a time and space alone with God, His Father, a place of testing, and a new beginning.

We often assume that Jesus’ temptations are peculiar to him as the Son of God – but it is, in fact, quite the reverse. His faced the temptations primarily because he was human. Jesus was tempted precisely because he could have given in! There would be absolutely no sense in God being subjected to temptation. We also often underestimate Jesus’ vulnerability as a human being. He was at this point giving up a trade as a carpenter, leaving his home, and beginning the precarious existence of an itinerant preacher, dependent on God’s provision through the kindness and generosity of others; beginning a ministry that would lead ultimately to the cross. He was starting a life, where he would later say, “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”. He would be susceptible to the frailty of human life.

The forty days in the wilderness would have been physically gruelling for Jesus. This was not a retreat to a picturesque place that soothed the Spirit. It was a harsh and dangerous desert wilderness with wild animals roaming, not the gentle, benign wilderness of Cavehill or the Lagan valley. Though physically exhausted and famished, fasting and prayer would have strengthened Jesus spiritually to face the forty days of temptation.

The three temptations mentioned in the gospel reading provide a window into what Jesus’ might have been thinking about and praying about in the wilderness. The temptations touch the core of His identity, and challenge his vision of the Kingdom of God. Both Jesus’ divinity and his humanity are tested. “If you are the Son of God,” he is told, “turn the stones into bread”, “Leap off the cliff and let the angels save you”. “Are you sure you are not merely human?” “Take a short cut… Use your divine powers on yourself”, “Ignore your humanity”, “Ignore your divinity”.  But Jesus knew who He was, and knew He had been sent by the Father…

As St Paul tells us in Philippians, Jesus had emptied himself of power and taken the form of a servant. Now Jesus is tempted to be not the Servant King but a powerful earthly King, the kind of “messiah” the Jews wanted – someone who would deliver them from their earthly oppressors. Jesus was being offered a different path. He would not be the King who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey or the King who washed his disciples’ feet, or the King, crowned only with thorns, and dying naked on a cross, to overcome Death.

When Jesus prefixed his replies with “It is written” he was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy –a selection of scripture that every Jew knew from childhood. These passages affirm his dependence on God, his reliance on God’s ways and God’s supremacy in all things. Deuteronomy 26, the Old Testament passage which we have just read, reiterates God’s sovereignty, His provision and His power – precisely what Jesus was acknowledging when he responded to the temptations.

But what really has all this to do with us?

If Jesus, in His humanity, needed to take time apart, to focus on his heavenly Father, surely we need to do so as well. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that we would be taking time to fast and to pray. Like Jesus, we can focus on our relationship with God, understand who we are, discover our purposes in God’s Kingdom.

But our lives are often so crowded that we cannot hear God’s voice. We have no space to consider the things of God and His Kingdom, or the needs of our world. During Lent, we can attempt to change that. Often activity and noise are a refuge we choose to escape what we don’t want to confront. But we can try to seek another way. Instead of constant activity, we can choose a period of stillness; instead of endless noise and visual stimulation, we can seek a time of silence. Instead of incessant conversation, we can find solitude. Instead of overindulgence, we can try the discipline of fasting. Why? Because it gives us space and time to encounter God! The words of the beautiful hymn we sang this morning capture what we can experience: “Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease; Take from our souls the strain and stress, And let our ordered lives confess, The beauty of Thy peace”

During his time in the wilderness Jesus was tempted, as we no doubt will be. The first temptation might even be to give up before we start! It is not likely that we will be tempted to leap off cliffs or turn stones to bread. However, like Jesus, we will be enticed to neglect, ignore, or give up on our walk with God, and our purposes in His Kingdom.

If we are pedestrians, walking along the pavements of God’s Kingdom, perhaps we might be challenged to take a driving seat and discover a new perspective of His Kingdom and His glory. We might be surprised. We will find our true identity in Him. We will begin to discern the needs of our world and God’s purposes for our lives. We will find that pearl of great price, which Jesus talks of – the Kingdom of God.

May God give us the grace to rediscover who He is, and who we are, this Lenten Season.