ANNUAL LENTEN MEDITATION BY:
BONGINKOSI BUTHELEZI, TSSF: SOUTHERN AFRICA REGIONAL CHAPLAIN
LENT: 1C: 07 MARCH 2022
READING: LUKE 4:1-13
Last Wednesday we started the season of Lent, the 40-day liturgical season for us to explore and strengthen our faith and prepare to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we embark on our Lenten pilgrimage, the Gospel appointed in the Common Lectionary for the First Sunday of Lent this year calls our attention to challenges we may encounter along the way. Yes it is true that Lent begins in the wilderness which is not a terribly safe place to be all things being equal.
But biblically the desert or wilderness was always been a sign of grave spiritual danger, too. Before God imposed order on his creation, that is, before he made the universe all was chaos. It was, in the original Hebrew, tohu webohu, which means it was formless, shapeless, and dangerous. Life could not flourish unless God started separating things and carving out a life-nourishing niche for his creatures. But throughout the rest of Scripture, wilderness (the same tohu webohu of Genesis 1) became shorthand for the devil’s realm, for temptation, for threats to life, limb, and also to soul.
If we are going to follow Jesus to the cross in Lent, then we have to start where he started, and where John the Baptist started. We have to start in the wilderness. Jesus says not one single word in public, preaches not even two minutes’ worth of a sermon, before he is dropped down smack in the middle of a very bad place of chaos. It’s almost as though Jesus cannot credibly say or preach anything until this happens. Jesus has to enter the worst of evil on this planet before he can reliably declare that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Maybe that is because the kingdom of God cannot draw near until the kingdom of darkness which is epitomised by the deep desert of evil is engaged.
Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because then when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone could know that these were not the sunny predictions of some starry-eyed but finally unrealistic optimist. No, this was someone who had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and had even so emerged victorious. The features to this world that make us need the coming of God’s kingdom will not thwart the advent of that same kingdom. The post-wilderness Jesus was living proof. The Gospel of Mark (1:13) tells us that “he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
Lent begins in the wilderness, in the worst parts of life in a fallen, broken world that is filled with war as we are now on day 12 of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It begins there as a reminder that Jesus is transforming this world by his very presence as the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Lent begins in the wilderness so that by the time we see Jesus enter into nothing short of hell and death itself near the end of it all, we will have more than a firm sense that somehow, some way by grace and power we can scarcely imagine Jesus will leave even those places changed. Jesus will pass through the hell of death and somehow leave life in his wake.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit who leads him into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights. In the Bible, spending a set time in the wilderness can symbolise a period of challenges and growth, such as we see in the Israelites’ time in the wilderness after the Exodus. The 40-day timespan also has biblical significance, as two great prophets Moses and Elijah spent 40 days fasting on Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb respectively.
According to Luke, Jesus fasts which causes him to be physically weak, and his first temptation is to make bread for himself. This first temptation comes in a form that challenges the very identity of Jesus. “If you are a Son of God” is a phrase that questions the revelation that Jesus had just received at his Baptism, when the heavens opened and God said: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Yet it is not only a question about identity. Jesus has just fasted for 40 days, and is hungry, when the devil tells him to change the stones into bread. So in addition to this temptation challenging Jesus’ identity, it is also posed in such a way as to call into question the idea of God’s provision for him. Refusing to give in despite his hunger, Jesus quotes Scripture (Deuteronomy 8:3) to counteract and deflect his tempter.
The passage in Deuteronomy is relevant because it brings to mind a generation of Hebrews, who had just spent 40 years in the desert, into the Promised Land. During that time God fed them with manna so that they would know that their provision was secured by his covenant with them. In other words, it is far more important to live by a complete trust in God’s word, than it is to focus solely one’s your next meal. Do you remember the story of Esau who sold his birth-right for a measly lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34)? So in the first temptation Jesus is confirming the need to trust God and his covenant despite the pressures of life.
The second temptation in Luke tells us that Jesus was taken to the mountaintop, where again the devil challenged his identity as the Son of God by promising to give him power, glory and authority if he worships him. Jesus rebuffs this temptation, quoting Deuteronomy, “You shall worship the Lord, your God and him alone shall you serve” (Lk. 4:8; Dt. 6:13). Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:17, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God”. This verse is part of an admonishment not to behave as the Israelites did at Massah, an event that is recorded back in Exodus.
After the first week of miraculous manna, the Hebrews in the desert began to quarrel with Moses because they had no water to drink. They had only begun to receive the provision of the Lord, and had not yet fully perceived his commitment to him. By grumbling about their lack of water, instead of trusting that the Lord would provide, they were said to be testing the Lord. It was then that the Lord told Moses to strike the rock, so that water might flow out of it. However, the place that might have been named ‘provision’ as the Lord ultimately provided water for his children, was instead called Massah which in English means testing. So again, Jesus’ answer was based on a passage that reveals that human beings must trust God’s covenantal faithfulness.
The third temptation was framed as a test of God’s ability to save, as Jesus was taken to the very top of the Jerusalem temple and told to throw himself off the temple in order to be saved by angels. This temptation cuts to the very core of Jesus’ destiny. He was called to take back all authority that the devil had. He was called to be the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It was not only his mission, but it was also his identity. Yet, he was called to accomplish all of this within the will of his Father. Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’”. Jesus declares that it is not right to test God, in response to which the devil departs, as Jesus had finished his trials and resisted the temptations.
One can only speculate as to whether the offer from Satan was an honest one. Did he really possess those kingdoms, and would he have actually given them away as proposed, are questions better left to theologians to wrestle with. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Jesus’ answer showed that individual destiny is to be accomplished through one’s relationship with God, and not outside of it.
The question that begs to be answered is why today’s Gospel depicts Jesus being tempted? The answer is: Jesus’ humanity is in focus here, as he is confronted with challenges and aspirations that we human beings as mere mortals also experience, that is: physical hunger, quests for power and desires for protection (as these can be seen in people on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war). Each of the three first Gospels includes a tradition of Jesus being tempted before beginning his ministry, depicting Jesus confronting and overcoming challenges before calling followers and preaching the Gospel through words and actions.
Matthew’s account most closely resembles today’s Gospel from Luke, except that the temptations occur in a different order. Mark lacks details about the temptations, but he says that while in the wilderness, Jesus lived among wild animals and was waited on by angels (Mk. 1:13). Mark situates Jesus in relation to the animal and divine world in order to frame and highlight his human experience. Jesus’ responses offer a model for how to keep perspective and resist actions that are damaging, even if they are desirable in the moment during this Lent.
As we continue in our Lenten journey, St. Luke calls on us to reflect on challenges that we must face and overcome both as individuals and also as a religious order. Lent is often associated with prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the acts that were the focus for the Gospel on Ash Wednesday last week. We must recall that Jesus tells his disciples that it is important to perform these practices in private, so as not to draw the attention of others. The Psalmody that was appointed for the First Sunday of Lent was Psalm 91 as chanted in manuscript Bevento 34 (below) where we find the wings (scapulis), the feathers (pennis) and the shield (scuto). After each of these nouns the melody represents, musically, what the noun produces: giving shade (obumbradit), repose (sperabis), and enveloping protection (circumdabit). In this way the shelter under the protection of God, of the Almighty, of the Most High, is fully achieved. Amen.