First Sunday of Lent: These Forty Days
As you are aware, Lent began last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. The Forty Days of Lent flow from Jesus fasting for 40 days and nights to do battle with the tempter, the devil. That is not the only time the number 40 appears in the Bible. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights while Noah and company were in the ark. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights with God on Mt Sinai when the Covenant of the Ten Commandments was established. When scouts were sent to survey the Promised Land, they stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights. They returned with wonderful stories about the wealth of the land, but also with frightful stories about its inhabitants. The people did not trust in God to protect them. They did not believe that He was giving them this land. They cried out, “We can’t go there.” For their lack of faith, they were punished by being forced to roam the desert--for 40 years. In the First Book of Kings, Elijah was pursued by the army of the wicked Queen Jezebel after he killed the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. He fell asleep in the desert but was woken twice by an angel who gave him food and water to drink. Strengthened by that drink he walked 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God, Horeb. There in a still small voice, God gave him the instruction for the re-establishment of the faith of Yahweh. In the New Testament, not only did Jesus fast for 40 days and nights, His Ascension into heaven occurred 40 days after the Resurrection.
Numbers in the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. They serve a symbolic function. In the Bible 40 represents a time of need, struggle and testing in preparation for a new relationship with God, be it after the flood with Noah, as the children of Israel with Moses, in the promised land with Joshua, with the belief in Yahweh restored with Elijah, with the New Kingdom of God to be preached by Jesus, and the with the Life of the Spirit given after Jesus’ Ascension.
The 40 days of Lent are a time of preparation for our role in the Kingdom. They lead to Easter, the celebration of the gift of Life Christ showered on us. During Lent we both prepare for Easter and prepare to devote ourselves to the work of the Kingdom for the remainder of our lives. Along with preparing for Easter we should consider life adjustments to do the work of the Kingdom. For example, a prayer time we establish during Lent or a practice we chose might become a permanent part of our lives.
Jesus’ preparation, His 40 day, culminated in the temptations of the devil. He was strong enough to withstand them. Our 40 days of Lent are given to us to strengthen us to continue the battle against the tempter. We are under siege from the forces of evil who would destroy God’s Presence in us and prevent us from bringing this Presence to others.
The three temptations the Lord withstood are really temptation that confront us all: the temptation to be self centered, the temptation to ignore God, and the temptation to sacrifice our Christianity to power and authority.
“Take these stones and turn them into bread,” is echoed by us when we make the goal of our lives keeping our stomachs full, or, basically, being selfish. “Man does not live on bread alone,” Jesus counters. Our lives are certainly empty when we are self centered. We need God. We need his Word to give us purpose. What will remain of us 500 years from now? Here on earth we will all be gone and probably forgotten. But there is part of us that can remain here on earth. There is part of us that will last. That part of us is the Presence of the Lord that you and I have strived to make real in the world. There is nothing self-centered in living for the Lord.
“Leap from the top of the Temple and force God to save you,” the devil tempts Jesus. It is the temptation that somehow we have a power over God, just as the devil tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God and become equal to Him. I don’t think any of us believes that we can be more powerful than God, or that we can force God into action on our behalf. But I do think that we are tempted to follow the relativism of the world and see ourselves as the center of the universe. When we say that our choices in life depend on our own desires, not on what is objectively right or wrong, or, more, when we say that we determine morality ourselves, we act as though we are little gods. Pope Benedict has written about the scourge of relativism, as modern man sacrifices principals to his own selfish desires. Who are we to tell God what is right and wrong? Who are we to tell God that He needs to accept our choices even if they are against objective morality? We do not have the right to tempt our God.
The final temptation brought before Jesus was the temptation to sacrifice our faith for the sake of power. This might not seem to apply to us, until we consider the question of the Lord to his disciples, “What profit is it for a man to gain the whole world but sacrifice his very self?” People in the business world are tempted to make compromises in their Christianity to advance their careers. Even in the homes, people will push Christian charity aside in order to assert their position in the marriage and family. I used to say the Pilgrims Prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner.” I have refined it into, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me an arrogant sinner.”
We spend the 40 days of Lent doing battle against these all the temptations we have to push God outside of our lives.
The weapons we use in our war for the Lord are the three main practices of Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We look for ways to strengthen our union with God, to pray more. Perhaps that means setting a new time aside every day for prayer. Families should certainly do this in the evening. We all need to make time to pray more. By fasting we don’t just mean giving something up, we mean getting a control over ourselves. That might demand that we avoid those people, places and activities that bring out the worst in us. By almsgiving, we mean charity to the poor in body mind and spirit. When we reach out to the Presence of the Lord in others, we reach away from our selfishness.
Jesus’ name means, “Our God Saves.” Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights to effect a change in the world. He did battle with the devil and the world to save us. We spend the 40 days of Lent to join Hin in saving others, for the One whose life dwells within each of us has intimately involved us in the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God.