The other voice

Lent is an odd season. With its emphasis on repentance, fasting, and prayer, it goes very much against the grain of our culture. It’s meant to disrupt our routines; during Lent the church invites us to try on a different kind of life. American culture loves playing with Christmas, with Mardi Gras and Easter, with the presents, the parties and the lilies, but during the seven weeks of Lent, we’re on our own. The world of commerce and consumption, the world of work and entertainment doesn’t know what to make of this odd season.

Lent begins in the middle of the week with ashes smudged on our foreheads and somber words urging us, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember you are mortal, you are human. Remember and return are just two of the many words of this odd season that begin with the syllable “re.” Remember. Return. Repent.

The ashes are all that’s left of the palm branches we waived when Jesus came riding into town and we were so excited about God’s reign on earth. The branches went up in flames much like the exuberance of our joy and our commitment to living as God’s people. Ashes is all that’s left, and on Wednesday we used them to have the symbol of our hope traced on our foreheads – the cross of Christ, the triumph of God’s love over sin.

Lent gives us forty days to reflect on our priorities, reconsider our choices, remember our calling, renew our commitments, refocus our attention, resist lovelessness, reenter the place of truth, return to a baptized life, reclaim our identity as God’s own – in one word, repent. Forty days to let the Spirit lead us to a fuller understanding of what it means for us to be God’s Easter people in this peculiar and unsettling time.

The forty days are patterned on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. It was the Spirit who led him there, immediately after his baptism. By the river, the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” now there’s another voice. This voice says, “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The voice belongs to the devil. Nothing is said where he came from, nothing is said of his looks. What matters here – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil speaks.  And what he suggests is utterly reasonable: You’re hungry. You’re the Son of God. Go ahead, make yourself a little bread. This wilderness is not a place of quiet, undisturbed retreat, but rather a landscape where conflicting voices demand attention. The voice from heaven and the voice from who-knows-where-it-came-from.

Jesus responds by quoting Scripture, with a word from Israel’s wilderness tradition, from the teachings of Moses as written in the book of Deuteronomy,

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[1]

Bread is good. Bread is delicious, nutritious, and satisfying. Bread is essential, life-sustaining nourishment, but so is God’s word. Jesus won’t use his status and power as Son of God for a self-serving miracle, and he tells the devil that he is going to live by God’s word. But the devil isn’t done yet, and he is quick: Speaking of God’s word, he says, consider Psalm 91. Jesus finds himself on the top of the temple and the devil quotes Scripture, chapter and verse.

He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Go ahead, live by God’s word and jump. Consider the publicity you could get with a stunt like that. The whole world would know you. Show them who you are. Jump.

But Jesus doesn’t. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he says, again quoting from Deuteronomy.[2]

Now the devil puts all his cards on the table by reenacting an entire scene from Israel’s wilderness journey, with Jesus as Moses and himself as God. We read in Deuteronomy 34,

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo …, and the Lord showed him the whole land … [and] said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”[3]

The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain with a view not just of the land, but of all the kingdoms of the world. And crossing over there is but one small step, he says, less than a step. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” What’s at stake in round three of the wilderness exam is what kind of power would rule the world. Would it be the devil’s empire of one throne to rule them all, or would it be the kingdom of God? Jesus tells the devil to be gone and begins his ministry in Galilee, a servant of God’s reign.

The high-stakes debate with the devil wasn’t about knowing Scripture and how to apply it in the thick of things, although that was part of it. And it certainly wasn’t about ignoring the human need for bread, for in the course of his ministry Jesus did miraculously transform a boy’s lunch of bread and fish into a feast for thousands. And it wasn’t about refusing to depend on the power of God, for Jesus did use it to teach, to heal and forgive, and he entrusted himself completely into God’s hands. And it wasn’t about rejecting a global perspective for his mission, for gathered with his disciples on a mountain, the Risen Christ declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus’ response to every test was to refuse the tempter’s suggestion that he could be so much more than human. Jesus did not use the power of the Spirit to avoid suffering and pain. He walked his path in obedience to God and serving God’s kingdom. “He did not use God to claim something for himself,” wrote Fred Craddock. “And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead.”[4]

The temptations didn’t end in the wilderness. Like us, Jesus had wilderness moments throughout his life, when he was exhausted, hungry, frustrated, tired, and lonely, but he remained faithful in his relationship with God. “Avoid the cross,” said his close and well-meaning friend Simon, just moments after his bold affirmation, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And then, of course, there was Gethsemane, the long night after Jesus’ last meal with his friends. He didn’t jump. He didn’t walk away. He didn’t look for the shortcut. He entrusted himself completely into the arms of God whose kingdom he served. And he taught us to pray with the confidence of children,

Our Father in heaven, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.

Lent is meant to disrupt our routines of hurry and worry, of self-centeredness and amnesia, of distraction and despair. We begin by remembering that we are mortal, human, that we fall short of the glory of God for which we have been created—and in the company of Jesus, we journey to the day of resurrection. Lent is the journey of our life condensed into seven weeks. The church invites us to live these forty days with a little less of what we know we don’t need and a little more of what we know we do. A little less running around and a little more rooting ourselves in prayer. A little less screen time and a little more eating with neighbors. A little less spending and a little more giving. You get the idea. You try on a different kind of life, and you may discover that you develop new routines you want to keep.

An image to keep in mind is a stick and a flute. A flute is a stick that has been emptied of itself for the sake of music. A stick is still full of itself. We have a tendency to clutter our lives with junk, to let chatter and noise drown out the voice of God, and to block the flow of the Spirit with our oversized egos. We have a tendency to live like sticks when we’re meant to be flutes.

The disciplines of Lent which the church adopted and cultivated for generations, disciplines like fasting, silence, and giving, create openings for the composer of the symphony of life to tune us.

[1] Deuteronomy 8:2-3

[2] Deuteronomy 6:16

[3] Deuteronomy 34:1-4

[4] Fred B. Craddock, “Testing that never ceases.” The Christian Century 107, no. 7 (February 28, 1990), 211.

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