In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have entered the 40 day period of Lent. Lent, as you know, is a time of self-denial, a time for a more assiduous application of discipline to the practice of the faith. We should be fasting; we should be examining our consciences; we should be repenting of our sins; we should be giving ourselves to prayer with greater alacrity.
Today, by way of an introduction to Lent, the Church holds before us the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness. Lent, of course, is partly in imitation of these 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying. So what does it show us?
First notice that our Lord’s forty day retreat happens at the very beginning of his public ministry. It happens immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan river. Up until that time, Jesus’ life had been private; he had not gone around publically teaching and ministering and whatnot. And in fact we don’t know much about his life during that period. Its only when he is baptized – an event that we associate with the Epiphany – that he is revealed to the crowds to be God’s beloved Son. But before he takes any action, before he sets out on his mission, he goes into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and prayer.
There’s a lesson here. Namely that fasting and prayer is an important tool in the spiritual arsenal of Christians. When you are faced with a task, or a decision, or an event, or a dilemma, or some waypoint on life’s pathway, we ought to spend some quiet time alone, fasting and praying about it. And we ought to do so assiduously. That Christians should spend some time in quiet solitude, fasting and praying, especially before some important undertaking, seems almost trite, but its often neglected entirely or done only in a perfunctory way. In my experience, fasting in particular is very often neglected and seldom discussed by Christians nowadays. But it is regularly associated with prayer in the Bible, and we often see the great heroes of our faith, and the Lord himself, joining fasting to prayer.
Saint Paul set an example, in imitation of Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness before his public ministry. Immediately after Paul’s conversion, before he set out on the career for which he became famous, he says, “I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas…” (Galatians 1.16-18). What was in Arabia? The same thing that’s there now: the desert. Paul went away to confer with the Lord, in solitude and prayer.
Next notice the first verse of the Gospel reading: “Jesus was led up BY THE SPIRIT into the wilderness…” This period of solitude, self-denial, and prayer, is not something that Jesus just stumbles into. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. On reflection, this is maybe the most natural thing in the world – because Jesus is led at every moment of his existence by the Hoy Spirit, who is, I remind you, according to St. Augustine (De Trinitate) the love with which Father and the Son love one another. So animated is Jesus by the love of God, that it is the driving impulse for everything that he does, the most fundamental dynamism at work in his being. So the Spirit leads him into the wilderness, and he makes himself susceptive to the prompting of the Spirit.
And so it should be with us. Jesus gives us the same Spirit so that we too can be led in the same way. Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you… (John 16.13).
But there’s a potential difficulty here. Today’s Gospel says that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness TO BE TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL.” In the Our Father, we ask God to “lead us NOT into temptation…”? How is it, then, that we find the Spirit seemingly leading Jesus INTO temptation?
The resolution, I believe, is in the fact that the Holy Spirit simply leads us, full-stop. The power of divine love leads us toward heaven, but the only possible pathway to heaven lies through the world in which we live, and the world is fraught with temptation. The temptation of the devil is not something instigated by God, it is simply a fact of life in the world. There is no way around it, but there is a way THROUGH it. And going through it, the promise of Jesus is that the Holy Spirit will lead us. And if we are susceptive, as Jesus was, to the promptings of the Spirit, we can pass safely and securely through the midst of the temptations with which the world is rife.
And here we might notice something about the nature of the wilderness. One of the reasons that the temptation of Jesus occurs in the wilderness is because the wilderness is, by definition, apart from the busy-ness and distractions of ordinary life. There is no food in the wilderness, there is no business, there is no traffic, no noise, no company – in short, nothing to distract from the business of prayer and self-denial which should underpin our practice of the faith all the time. We all pray. We are all being tempted constantly. The Spirit of God is prompting us all of the time. God is speaking in our hearts all the time. But in the midst of the ordinary, every-day world, all of that takes place under the surface of what is loud and obvious and necessary – the distractions of simply living in the world. It is harder to notice a subtle temptation to pride, or unforgiveness, or avarice, or whatever, when your cell phone is constantly beeping, your bills need to be paid, the television or the radio is on, or you’re stuck in traffic. So the various dimensions of Lent – retirement, solitude, fasting, quiet, and so forth – are meant to create a kind of spiritual wilderness, where temptation cannot hide itself so readily in the background noise, and where the promptings of the Holy Spirit likewise stand out in sharper relief.
Isaac Williams, one of the fathers of the Oxford Movement, said that “Every temptation is to make ourselves independent of God.” This fact becomes more obvious when we strip our lives of their normal superfluities. How am I seeking fulfillment apart from God? How am I seeking pleasure apart from God? How am I seeking power apart from God? Williams pointed out that “God is the rest, the life, the happiness of the soul; whatever, therefore, the soul makes its rest and happiness, it makes its God, and worships.” We think of idolatry as the purview of tribesmen living in remote times and places. But it is in fact a grave danger for all of us.
When we have come with Jesus into a remote place where both the temptations with which we are beset, as well as the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit in our consciousness can be discerned with greater clarity, what is our response? That is to say: when you are tempted; what are you supposed to do about it? Notice what Jesus does: he keeps himself in the course of divine power. He does not even answer the tempter with his own words, but falls into the Word of God. In response to Satan, Jesus three times quotes God’s law, from the book of Deuteronomy: he tells Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” and “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” And in the power of his obedience to his Father – that is to say, in the power of Jesus’ exemplary HUMILITY – he banishes the devil: “Begone, Satan!”
Lastly, notice that Jesus does not even minister to his own needs. He is fasting. He is alone. He is at prayer. The prophet Isaiah had said, “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,” (Isaiah 40.31), and Jesus here waits for the Lord. He is a model of watchfulness and susceptivity. And the concluding verse demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his Son: “the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.”
May we imitate Jesus in his fasting and prayer this Lent. And may the Holy Spirit enable us to see the temptations with which we are beset, and empower us to overcome them through the grace of obedience, watchfulness, and prayer.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.