The first Sunday in Lent deals with the temptation the Jesus faced after his time in the wilderness. The Devil places three temptations before Jesus. In each instances we see Jesus refuting the Devil through good understanding of scripture. Today we face our own temptations. As we begin the journey towards Jerusalem we are asked to reken with the temptations we face and what it means to ‘give up’ during the Lenten Season.

Giving Up

Text: Matthew 4: 1-11

Welcome to Lent. The season which prepares us for Easter. Lent lasts for forty days and for many of us it sneaks up. We eat pancakes on a Tuesday and wonder if that means anything? Most Christians are very good about Christmas and Easter. These are our holidays, or our high holy days. However, the seasons which are found before and after these times are just as important. Often they get lost in the busyness of life.

Lent is important. It a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry.

Throughout scripture, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For most of us the wilderness is a very foreign concept. Yes, we live in a rural area, with lots of beautiful countryside to enjoy. We would qualify the Northumberland Hills as wilderness. It fits the modern definition.

However, the biblical definition of wilderness is not always so appealing. In scripture, we find that the wilderness is a place which needs to be endured. It is a grueling place which many do not go to willingly. We go to the wilderness all the time. We go camping, hiking, skiing and for a variety of other reasons. In the holy land the wilderness is not associated with abundance, it is more commonly associated with death as it is harsh and barren.

Yet, for forty days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next. Jesus prepares himself for the trials which he knows are before him. We should note that the time Jesus spent in preparation is significant. Forty days and nights was not a time frame which was selected randomly.

  • Forty: the days and nights that Noah and his family endured the deluge on board the ark, after which God made a covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood
  • Forty: the days and nights Moses fasted on Mount Sinai as he inscribed the words of God’s covenant for the Israelites
  • Forty: the days and nights Elijah fasted in the desert before receiving a new commission from God
  • Forty: the years the Israelites wandered the wilderness in preparation for their arrival in the Promised Land 
  • Forty: the days of the season of Lent as Christians participate in Jesus’ ministry and follow his way toward the cross. How might we make ourselves ready for the way of the Lord in the places we are called to be? To what mission is God calling the church? What is needed for our congregation to be prepared?

The time of Lent, which began this past Wednesday, is important. These Forty days mean something or they should mean something. As followers of Christ it is important for us to think through what Jesus was doing and why he was doing it. We need to consider that we are reading this passage from Matthew’s gospel today on the first Sunday in Lent. We read it and acknowledge that Jesus prepared himself for the trials to come. We too prepare ourselves for Easter.

But this is where the similarities end. You see, we are reading this at Lent, at the door of Easter. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness before he began his ministry. This passage is at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, not the end. That alone should give us something to think about as we consider our lives in light of being a disciple of Jesus.

How have I prepared myself for Easter?

How have I prepared myself to follow Jesus?

The temptation we have is to make Lent about something which it is not. To make the temptation of Jesus be about something which it is not. The reality is that Lent is full of temptations, just like any other time in our life. The truth is Jesus was probably tempted many times in his life, not just these three specific temptations we see here today.

We all face temptation and for many of us it has been our ruin.

The temptation to be better.

The temptation to always put ourselves first.

The temptation to believe that who we are, what we are doing and what we are going through is more important than what others are going through.

The temptation to say or to believe that a lack of self-sacrifice or the ability to give something up for Lent will jeopardize our salvation.

We are all tempted, all the time, by a great many things. The message here is not to resist temptation, but to take a close examination of it. To think about it and then figure out what are the things which lead us astray.

A temptation I face week in and week out is to ensure that this time, this specific time of the week is not about something that I want to say. Rather, it is to ensure that this time is spent sharing what God needs us to hear. Because this time is not about me… And now you see what I’ve done.

Temptation, it’s always there, it’s always around us. The enemy is clever, the enemy is patient.

The temptation I believe that many of us have at Lent is to give something up. We are tempted to do that, and the forces of this temptation come from pressures all around us. We don’t want to be viewed as bad Christians so we give something up, as if this will demonstrate something about ourselves to God. So we give up chocolate or alcohol or something else, something usually trivial in the grand scheme of things.

We give something up for Lent because we are led to believe that doing so is expected. We do so because we don’t want to be left out. When we give up something for Lent in such a manner we are giving into temptation. Now we think we are alright, except we’ve given things up for the wrong reason. We’ve given things up because doing so has caused us to feel good or made us look good. However, it has done nothing about our relationship with our creator. Our desire to give something up is self-motivated, instead of being driven by a desire to deepen our walk with God.

I think this idea or attitude of giving things up is problematic. I believe it offers nothing of real substantive value. Why give up chocolate or alcohol for Lent, when sixty days ago you made a New Year’s resolution to live a healthier life.

In our current time, with a political climate which holds a great deal of uncertainty for many, perhaps the question is not what are you giving up, but what are you living for? Pastor and theologian Marvin McMickle in his book Where Have All the Prophets Gone? takes pastors to task, claiming that we have sold out the God of biblical justice for a lessor god and in doing so have blunted the voice of the pulpit. McMickle wrote those words eleven years ago. Me as a preacher and your as followers of Jesus Christ, we can’t suddenly be prophetic, we can’t suddenly challenge the things which are happening around us if we haven’t always and already been doing so.

It’s not enough to just give something up and think that we’ve done enough. To believe that our actions in giving something up will make a shred of difference in the world. Jesus fasted, yes to be tested, but also to be prepared as he entered the mission field where he would teach and heal God’s people.

Is Lent about giving something up to demonstrate to God that you are worthy. Is Lent about giving something up to show that you love God and are worthy of God’s love? Or this Lent will we face the historic temptations that are before us and will we give effective witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this time and in this place. Do we have the courage to name the racism, intolerance, hatred and disparity that we see before us? This Lent, let’s stop giving up and instead let’s start living for and giving for God. Amen.