a Homily for Lent 1A
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Getting our bearings
The gospel we call Matthew has a birth story, a flight into Egypt and all that. Then John the Baptizer prepares the way for Jesus, who comes to him to be baptized, and then is immediately compelled by the Spirit to go out into the wilderness. What a contrast to go from the waters of the Jordan to the sands of the desert.
After this story, Jesus will go back to the water. He’ll find Simon Peter and Andrew fishing. Then He’ll call James and John to follow, too. Then many more, as he teaches and heals the people in Galilee and throughout Syria. That’s just in chapter 4. Then He will climb the side of a mountain with His followers and preach the Sermon on the Mount.
Our story is there: after the Baptism and before the Ministry. The time when Jesus is invited to confront Himself and who He is.
It was common for people to go into the wilderness for a period of time for quarantine. We go up north or to the beach for that. We get away. If we can. We take ourselves out of this space so that we can reconnect or get healthy.
A real quarantine is actually Sabbath. It is about not doing normal work, but doing some connecting work with GOD. So Jesus, after baptism, is getting connected and finding out who He is.
The 40 Days
A common motif in Scripture involves 40 days and 40 nights. The first one we come to is probably the most familiar: The Flood or Deluge. What happens in this story? It rains for days, flooding the earth and killing every creature that isn’t on the ark. Then, after those 40 days, the sun comes out, the water dries, and a rainbow appears in the sky as a covenant between GOD and humanity: a promise of never destroying the world again.
Another 40 days and nights story is the one in which Moses goes up a mountain to commune with GOD.
In both of these stories, the trial isn’t found in the 40 days, in the exploration time. It is in what happens after.
- For Noah, we’ll skip over the part where he gets drunk enough to pass out and then curses his own son for covering his naked body and go straight to what happens next in the story. They repopulate the planet and produce the Tower of Babel. One chapter later.
- Moses discovers the people were impatient, formed an idol in the golden calf, and were worshiping it. So GOD punishes them, all of them, including Moses by forcing them to remain in the wilderness for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the promised land was right around the corner. They’ll never know. It is now promised land for their kids, not for them.
Jesus’s 40 days are a test of self, communion, identity. It is the ultimate Lenten discipline. The real test isn’t the quarantine itself, the fast, but the break-fast. The sunrise at the end. Does He really know who He is? Is he ready to face the new day?
The author called him the Tempter, invited by GOD to tempt Jesus. Not an easy thought. But tempt he does. With food, safety, and power. He evokes for Jesus the tests of the past—those times in which people have wanted something from GOD. Like the moments after their greatest test: the Exodus from Egypt.
In the wilderness, promised health and safety; promised a land for themselves, the people get impatient and ask GOD, like some divine butler, to feed them. To meet their needs. To get GOD to prove to them that GOD really loves them.
Every parent knows this feeling. That our children expect us to prove our love to them by giving them what they ask for. That love is, apparently, eliminating their hunger in the form of candy and fruit snacks, not the sweet kisses and hugs we give them. That love is catching them when they jump off the bed before they can hurt themselves, rather than holding them while they cry. That love is making them more powerful—in our schools, that means making them somehow more attractive, buying more expensive clothes, and enrolling them in the best academies. That raising them to be healthy, well-adjusted, and compassionate people demonstrates our weakness.
Jesus doesn’t fall for it; not like we do. All the time. Tempted, seduced by the promise that GOD is different than GOD is. That GOD’s love is dependent on what GOD provides—just like our love for one another is dependent on what the other provides us. Were you there when I wanted you? Did you give me what I wanted? Like a child who declares “I don’t love you anymore!” A love withheld / a love dependent.
Our Lent / Our Quarantine
Jesus isn’t buying it, of course. Which is why what happens next matters so much. He goes back to the water to find some students. Not to get away from the desert. There is no ministry in the desert. Like the mountain and the open sea, it is the isolated place of personal searching, but not the place in which we live and do the next stage in GOD’s work. That only happens with other people. Jesus heads out to find His students and get started.
Our Lent. Our Quarantine. It is our time in the desert to find ourselves. It is the time in which we do our work of self-discovery so that we can be prepared for what comes after our 40 days. For Lent is not the real test; that is what comes after. When we go through the re-membering of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension and are called to carry on our Kingdom work of reconciliation. When we are called to proclaim a risen Christ to the world. When we are called to do this. All and each of us.
This is the time when we prepare. When we, like Jesus, learn what we are called to do today after we were called to be GOD’s in baptism. And for many of us, after a whole life of serving GOD. An annual time of reviewing and renewing our service to the Kingdom that we are never too old, or too young, to do.
Despite the snow on the ground, may we feel the desert heat on our skin, the sand between our toes, and the love of GOD in our hunger, insecurity, and most powerless moments. For it is in these moments that we may best know the love of GOD.