Encountering Jesus in the Desert
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Living in the Midwest, I appreciate how the Lenten season corresponds with the end of winter and the arrival of spring. As the ground thaws and new buds begin to emerge, it seems as though all of nature is gently reminding us of the hopeful process of moving through Lent and into Easter. Today we are at the beginning of this journey as we encounter Jesus’ forty days in the desert. The Gospel reading from Matthew states, “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.”
Hungry and tired at the end of his fasting, the devil’s temptations try to play into Jesus’ potential vulnerability. The devil offers immediate gratification with promises of food and power, but Jesus is not interested. Despite Jesus being physically and most likely emotionally and spiritually exhausted from his time in the desert, he still holds steadfast to his love and faith in God.
Perhaps the temptations offered Jesus are more about individual ego than anything else. The devil suggests that Jesus doesn’t need God or anyone for that matter. He has the power to change rocks to bread. He can hurl himself from the temple and remain unharmed. He can declare himself a mighty ruler and king and exercise power over others. But this is all the antithesis of who Jesus is as a person. He has come in solidarity with humanity. He has come to serve. He has come to live in relationship with others and with God.
I am drawn to the stark contrast of the vast emptiness and loneliness implied by a desert landscape against the fullness and vibrancy of God’s love that is displayed by Jesus. The devil’s temptations, while at first glance may seem like big offers, are nothing but empty promises and illusions of fulfillment. Jesus instead chooses union with God and once he banishes the devil after his third temptation, God sends angels to minister to Jesus. Jesus chooses relationship over individualism. He chooses love over power. He chooses support and companionship over isolation.
Sitting with this Gospel I was reminded of the South African concept of ubuntu. My favorite explanation of ubuntu is Desmond Tutu’s description in his book, No Future without Forgiveness. He writes that ubuntu “speaks of the very essence of being human…. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’” Without community, we can lose sense of our humanity. If we allow others to suffer, we too suffer. Until all people are treated with dignity, the dignity of all people is diminished. We are called to live out ubuntu in our daily lives, to recognize how much we all need each other. I think one of the greatest societal sins we have is our inability to care for one another and to remember that we are all connected. In the desert, Jesus was tempted to choose himself first. He chose God. Do we choose God when we find ourselves in difficult situations? What choices do we make that might put ourselves before our neighbors and God? How can we live so that we bring light and love to others?
We are a people born into interconnectedness; with others, with God, with Earth. This week we have just begun our Lenten journey. But when Easter arrives, the winter will have turned to spring. New life will have formed around us. And hopefully, having walked this journey through the desert with Jesus, new love will have planted seeds in our hearts, urging us forward in relationship and solidarity with one another.