Lent / Ash Wednesday (Matthew 4:1-11)

temptation_jesus22Hungry and tired, Jesus walks through the wilderness, a nomad for the forty days and forty nights before he begins his mission in earnest. It’s a time of temptation, of preparation, of spiritual conflict. It’s this that we commemorate when we eat our pancakes and consider what we’re going to give up for Lent.

I never know what to do with Lent. I’m lazy and undisciplined and normally end up forgetting what I’ve given up. There are times it feels like the Christian equivalent of New Year resolutions, a noble cause for a couple of weeks that collapses into insignificance the moment it gets too hard.

There’s also a nagging feeling that giving something up seems a little… perfunctory? There’s nothing wrong with quitting smoking or chocolate or Facebook – heck, it might even save your life – but quitting something leaves a void, and sometimes the forgotten part of Lent is what you fill that gap with.

See, there are things I do need to quit – a lack of sleep, a lack of self-discipline, a lack of de-stressing. Those are the things that hit me hardest, that, if I’m being honest, drive me away from God. In the midst of them I can get self-pitying – why doesn’t God help me? – but the fact is I’m not really reaching out for him.Giving up chocolate for a month-and-a-half might help my waistline, but Lent is ultimately a spiritual discipline – that needs to be the focus.

Maybe it’s instructive that Lent starts with Ash Wednesday. It’s a low time; the palm branches that commemorate Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem are burned, reminding us of how transient that moment was – only a few days later, the crowds were gone and Jesus was being crucified alone. It starts a period of fasting and repentance that not only remembers Jesus in the wilderness, but Moses fasting before God following the incident with the Golden Calf. It’s a time of honesty – here’s what’s gone wrong, how do we put it right again?

That’s the question, isn’t it? During his time in the wilderness, during his time of temptation, Jesus was presented with three very enticing answers to that question – security, power, fame. If only I knew where the next meal was coming from from, if only they all knew how good I am, if only people would listen to me… Life would be so much better.

And yet Jesus rejects all of those, choosing again and again the more difficult path, choosing God over all the easy answers. Because Lent’s a journey that leads to a very specific destination – to the Resurrection, the place where the journey both starts and ends, not in mourning but in forgiveness and rebirth  It’s a journey that requires us to let go of our baggage in the pursuit of God, clinging on to the belief, even with our fingertips, that our stumbling through the wilderness will eventually find us in a garden. And that journey starts here.

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