First Sunday of Lent
Reflection by Sarah Greene, Director of ACE Advocates
I find it amazing that Matthew begins his account of the temptation in the desert with this fact: Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, the same Spirit that descended on Jesus during his Baptism. Right after the clouds opened and God proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was guided to spend forty days and nights fasting in the desert. Jesus experiences such an arresting transition--- from the waters of the Jordan to the arid desert, from certainty about his call to doubt and temptation.
Why did the Spirit lead Jesus to the desert? What was necessary about this desert experience before he began his public ministry?
Matthew’s account focuses on three temptations. The devil tempts Jesus: to use his power to create bread; to fulfill Scripture by saving himself from harm; and to rule over the world by turning away from God. These temptations are incredibly specific! When I consider this Gospel, I’m reminded that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. After forty days and forty nights in the desert, this fully human Jesus must have been hungry. He must have wondered at least once if he really could follow his Father’s plan to redeem the world. And he must have questioned if God’s Kingdom could truly reign in the midst of the reality he was encountering.
These reflections help me to understand why the Spirit led Jesus to the desert. Temptation in the desert must have stirred up in Jesus an incredible compassion for humanity. For the devil’s temptations aimed right for the core of Jesus’ own doubts, just as the temptations I encounter often seem to target my own areas of doubt, insecurity, or uncertainty. In this account, we come to see why Jesus would respond with such love, mercy, and compassion to those he encountered who had succumbed to temptation: he lived the experience of temptation, too.
Indeed, what better preparation for public ministry could Jesus receive?
I know in my own relationship with God and my own ministry, my doubts and difficulties often strike at the heart of my insecurities. While teaching in ACE, as now, the greatest temptations I experienced were the ones which threatened my certainty that God loved me and was calling me to serve in a particular way. Sometimes I am tempted to view a failed lesson plan, a difficult meeting, an imperfect response, as a sign that I should give less than my best in my daily vocation.
So I find incredible strength in Jesus’s response to each of the devil’s temptations. And I take comfort our Incarnate God: Jesus does not merely observe the human experience -- he lives it with us, in all its challenge and complexity. Jesus is with us in all of the doubts and temptations we face. The Spirit of God that guided Jesus to the desert and to these moments of temptation also blesses him with the strength to respond with trust in God and firm fidelity to God’s loving plan.
And, of course, we are so blessed to know the next chapters in the story. How could we not be comforted by what follows in the Gospels? By following the will of his Father and trusting in the Spirit, Jesus turns five loaves and two fish into a banquet that feeds five thousand. Jesus fulfills Scripture as he saves himself and redeems the entire world. And, finally, Jesus reigns over the Kingdom of God for all eternity.
May this Lenten journey, or any time we find ourselves in the desert, render us open to the same Spirit which descended on Jesus in his Baptism and led him to moments of struggle and compassion in the desert. May the moments of challenge we face make us empathize with our students who struggle.
May our times of doubt make us willing to reach out to our community members in their uncertainty.
And may our belief in a God who enters right into our human strengths and frailties also help us to recognize the movement of the Spirit in what is to come.