Today Christians throughout the world observe the First Sunday of Lent. In the liturgy, the temptations of the Lord Jesus in the desert are recalled by believers. Such a solemn recollection should cause an evaluation within the heart of every Christian disciple: Where have dark thoughts blurred or compromised my religious convictions?
Admittedly, the examination of our consciences is an uncomfortable but necessary process for healthy and holy living. In assessing our lives and the sentiments of our hearts, we should not be surprised to find fallen dispositions and desires.
Lent provides us with a privileged forum for this evaluation.
The First Sunday gives us images of the desert, the fasting Jesus, and the pride of the Evil One trying to lead the Lord into quitting his saving mission. These images lead us to those three early temptations: turning stone to bread, jumping from the Temple, and serving evil for temporal gain.
As we see the Lord fight these evil inclinations in his own human heart, we are also challenged in how we see the Lord and what we expect and want from him. Do we merely want a baker, an entertainer, or a despot?
Throughout his three years of public ministry, crowds swarmed to him and sought things from him. But when his ministry concluded, less than a hundred people followed him. Very few from the crowd wanted him to be Lord and Savior.
Many in the crowd wanted Jesus to fill their stomachs. They wanted food and the basics of life. Of those who were fed with material food, only a few sought the food of eternal life. Many throughout history have sought to strip Jesus of his divinity and make him just a philanthropist or source for social reform.
Some want a false Jesus who affirms every pleasure or satisfaction. Philosophies have taken the figure of Jesus Christ and redefined him, making him a stranger to the historical Jesus and his teachings, and have desired to receive only bread from stone rather than a savior from a carpenter.
Throughout history, the crowd also contains those who want to be entertained by signs and miracles. Such people want the miracles without faith and the signs without the responsibilities of discipleship. The Lord’s temptation to jump from the Temple is a reflection of this fallen wish of so many: Jesus, give us a good time. Make things easy and enjoyable. Make us laugh. Entertain us.
Demanding signs without discipleship removes the spiritual promises of Jesus and diminishes him to a practical circus clown.
Lastly, the crowd throughout the ages has included people who wish to serve evil in order to gain power. In the desert, Jesus expels the Evil One after such a temptation. He calls on the power of the Sacred Scriptures to reprove such a wayward invitation, and teaches that God alone should be worshiped and he alone should be served.
History has pointed to ideologies and movements that have twisted Jesus into a violent revolutionary, a hellfire extremist, or a theocratic despot. Several in human history have indulged in a re-creation of Jesus of Nazareth in order to support raw power, bigotry, intolerance, and intimidation. Such false prophets want a rationalization of evil rather than a justification from darkness. They want power and privilege rather than salvation and the Christian life of service.
In these three primordial temptations and their historical variations, we see three pressing spirits within every human heart. In moments of fatigue or frustration, the heart may wish one thing or another: Jesus, just pay my bills. Give me financial comfort. Lord, make things easy. Jesus, I know this is wrong but I need this greater good. And various other similar petitions.
And while some of these are not evil in themselves, when they become the totality of who Jesus is to us or what we want from God, then our intention is questionable and a time for renewal is in order.
This need for renewal is a clue to us that we don’t need sand to have a desert, and being in the desert of Lent calls us to a sincerity of faith and an assessment of who God is to us. If God has become only a personification of hedonism, egotism, and a lust for power then we have lost the living God and slipped into a shallow idolatry.
Lent is a time to dig out idolatry from our hearts, reform our relationship with him, mature our desires, and seek the face of the God who loves us, gives us what is good, and leads us along the path of love and salvation.