As we begin our journey through another season of Lent, the Liturgical Readings present us with themes that bring this into focus. On the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the desert. The Second Sunday speaks of the Transfiguration, The Third recalls the encounter with the woman at the well. The Fourth Sunday tells of the man born blind and the importance of the light of Christ in our lives. And finally, the story of Lazarus - the symbol of hope for all of us who come to new life in Christ.
The temptation story in Luke comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is set immediately after Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan, where a voice from heaven identifies him as "my beloved Son." Now he is addressed by a voice from the desert which challenges and tests this identity: "If you are the Son of God..." The response to this challenge will determine how real Jesus’ immersion among us will be. The temptation story is really about how Jesus sees himself and how he prepares himself, knowing full well what's ahead. It is about his conscious choice to keep to his mission.
He begins his ministry with little fanfare - alone with the Spirit, in the desert, in prayer. And when He emerges, He throws Himself totally into the humanity around Him. He chooses simple men and women to be His spokespersons - fishermen, a tax collector, sinners, prostitutes, a persecutor and a traitor. All of them are imperfectly frail in their humanness and weak in their commitment. He will remember the desert stones as He watches His disciples bicker and trip themselves up vying for "top honors" in the New Kingdom. He would see the broken promises of earthly kingdoms in the eyes and hearts of almost everyone around Him including the chosen disciple turned betrayer. And He would think of how easy it would be to throw Himself down and just give up when it seemed that no one understood what He was trying to say.
Yet he will watch them come together, grow together, laugh and cry with one another, argue and dissent with one another, and learn to love another. They become the nucleus of His ministry. And from their weaknesses and failures came strength, nourishment and victory.
Our temptations don’t seem as dramatic as the ones described in this gospel scene. Ours are quiet, ordinary and frequently happen a little at a time - each day, for a long time. Yet, they threaten to do to us what they would have done to Jesus — steer us off course. We go about our daily routines. We celebrate little victories. We grieve our losses or feel overwhelmed by greater powers around us. There are more subtle powers that tempt us to small compromises, little lies, short cuts, over indulgence and waste. These too have the cumulative effect of the desert voice that, little by little, would challenge our own identity as sons and daughters of God.
Cleverly and relentlessly, the spirit of evil plays the same fatal game with each one of us. He first reminds us that we are free, and then dangles before us his empty promises of satisfaction, pleasure, wealth, and power to win our allegiance. Day in and day out we face these choices. We are always being tempted to betray, to compromise, to prefer self to others, to prefer our desires over God's promise of Life in some form or other. And in so many ways people or circumstances around us constantly challenge us to show them our God.
We, too, are faced with a choice. The season of Lent reminds us of our own temptations. It reminds us of our weakness, and our sins, and our failures. It reminds of everything that tarnishes or warps Christ's image whether in the individual or in the community.
More importantly, however, it reminds us that God really doesn't care about these things. He only cares about us, and He loves us in spite of ourselves. Lent reminds us that our participation in the Paschal Mystery is not without suffering nor death, and that within our lived experiences there is a sacred Presence and Love which constantly sustains us.
Today's passage from Deuteronomy speaks of a God who sees our affliction and misplaced affections and comes to rescue us. We can reflect on who God has been for us and we can place all our hopes in God’s ongoing presence among us. We need to be reminded of this God, so that we can live each day with the right frame of mind and heart, not focused on our mistakes or failures, but on the mercy assured us by God. It is this God that we follow.
As we begin Lent we need to remember who we are and who God is for us. No one forces us into this Lent. We need to choose it for ourselves.