Lenten deserts


Today’s Gospel passage shows Jesus enduring temptation in the desert before his ministry begins. They remind us that Lent can be a kind of “desert” time for us, too, a season when we can look at not only the places in our lives where we experience temptations, but also those places that are, in fact, desert, where there is not life in the ways that we may have hoped that it would be.

Jesus is tempted to three kinds of temptations: to the security of material sustenance, like bread; to a temptation to honor; and a temptation to worldly power. Today, too, people might be commonly tempted to make their choices on the basis of these kinds of lesser goods: feeling secure materially might motivate us to pursue wealth over other kinds of goods, but wealth won’t feed us inside the deepest parts of our selves. We can also ask out of a desire for honor. There is an old cliché that men desire respect and women desire to be loved, and although there is some truth to it, both are part of human life. Yet the desires for feeling respected and loved are also limited; Jesus’ own mission is not limited by the ways that he is rejected and hurt and is deeper than the respect or love others give to him. A third temptation is power, which could mean political power but might also be construed more widely as a desire to be in control. Yet in reality, we are in not really in control of our lives, and we are surely not in control of when we will die, though we all will.

Confronting the desert is not only refusing these temptations to power/control, security, respect/ love, but it is also recognizing that these “goods” are themselves “deserts.” They are deserts because they will not really feed us where we are hungriest. Instead, Jesus points us back toward total and radical dependence on God.

There is water in the desert, it turns out: the water of prayer and of fasting. It reminds me of another time in the desert Biblically: when Moses and the Hebrew people wandered in the desert, they received enough manna every day to survive, but had to depend on God and not try to store it up for themselves. So, too, in the “desert” of Lent, we can depend on God giving us enough water to get through the desert. Prayer and fasting teach us to depend on God and not to depend on ourselves and our own power.

I can think of instances in the past where God acted where I could not, to resolve, heal or improve some situation, often in surprising ways. Perhaps you also can think of such situations. We all have “desert” places in our lives: for example, worries about ill family members or our own illness, grief over those who have died, grief over a broken relationship, relationships going through periods of aridity, or even dryness in prayer where God feels absent. We might chase after material security or respect or love or some mechanism of control in order to try to get the water we want, but instead Jesus counsels: depend on God alone. Jesus’ advice is: surrender, and depend on God. Meanwhile, we have the water of prayer to get us through.