Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him (Matthew 4:1-11).
Lent has begun.
We are several days into following Jesus into the wilderness, where we too will be tempted. But we follow one who has overcome the world.
I want to make clear I applaud most efforts at self actualization; But I am also reminded that Lent is really not about a time of self improvement. This is how we often approach Lent though. It becomes a second chance to live out those New Year’s resolutions that we have fallen off the wagon with.
But Lent is about following Jesus. The Epistle to church in Philippi provides this invitation to its readers:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).
In Christ, God the Son, the eternal Word is emptied out. The NIV says “he made himself nothing.” For centuries, at least for Trinitarian Christians, the Greek word κένωσις (kénōsis) has indicated that what we see in Jesus is not some cosmic Superman who has the power to overcome temptation because he is from another place. Rather, the Son of God set aside his divine prerogative to enter sympathetically into our plight and show us what life – human life – at its absolute best, led by God’s Spirit looks like. It is our sharing in that Spirit – God’s Spirit – that enables us to have consolation from love. It is our sharing in God’s Spirit that provides us with compassion and sympathy. It is our sharing in that Spirit that allows us to have the very mind and love of Christ. It our sharing in that Spirit that enable us to put aside our own selfish ambition or conceit and regard others higher than we do ourselves.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, it was this same Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism and then immediately after led him out into the wilderness where he stayed for forty days and was tempted. As we follow Jesus there during Lent, our journey is not about self improvement. Though it definitely has the power to transform us for the better. This journey – like the whole of the Christian life – is about becoming a better lover of God and neighbor by following Christ’s example.
Christ did not set aside sins or “bad habits.” Rather, in the incarnation he set aside divine privilege for the sake of others. And in the wilderness he did not give up indulging on too much bread. Rather, he continued to set aside power, prerogative and even forewent the basic gift and necessity of food.
This time of year it is common to hear a lot about giving up vices. But vices are not restricted to practices that have no intrinsic worth or value. Rather, more often than not, a vice is a misappropriation of something that is a gift from God: too much chocolate, too much beer or wine, too much bread
But the gift used appropriately, and with appreciation helps us form virtue.
This is why I urge people – when they ask – to give up things with more intrinsic value rather than the things with less for Lent. Do you want to have an all day cigarette smoking marathon on Easter? Probably not. By all means, quit at some point. But again, Let’s remember that Lent is about following Jesus on a journey. It is only about our “self improvement” insofar as we are allowing the Spirit to reshape us into Christ’s image and deepen our love for God and neighbor. I would consider setting aside something we really want, maybe even something we need, for a time, to pull it out again on Easter and enjoy it as we celebrate the risen Christ. The same Spirit that led Jesus to the wilderness will guide us in our Lenten wilderness.
Grace and Peace,