First Sunday in Lent
The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered ... - Matthew 4:3-4 (NRSVue)
“Just ignore him!” Jeff’s mom shouted up the stairs. His little brother was being bothersome while we were trying to make our team’s plan for a big capture the flag game that was about to kick off in the nearby forest preserve.
Being a pest wasn’t out of the ordinary for the boy. Seven years Jeff’s junior, he frequently interrupted us while we were watching TV with inane, circular arguments. He was notorious for scooping up pieces from active board games. And, he often went so far as to fabricate stories about the terrible things we’d done to him in order to get Jeff sent to his room ... and all of us friends sent home.
Hoping to prevent this predictable pattern, Jeff would frequently appeal to have the youngling removed, but those appeals were typically rejected by mom. “You can handle this yourself,” she would say.
While Jesus is in the wilderness, making plans for what his ministry would be, he isn’t alone. He has his own, bothersome, tag-along ... a tempter who is pushing his every button. Curiously, Jesus seems quite patient with the things he’s asked to do. He answers rightly and succinctly, but those answers don’t seem to appease the tempter. Jesus is pestered more and more until, finally, he angrily tells the bother to be gone.
I do wonder sometimes if the whole thing could have been avoided if Jesus had ignored his pest. Yet, it doesn’t seem that Jesus really had that choice. Matthew’s gospel indicates that Christ’s time in the wilderness was designed for him to face temptation. It almost echoes the ancient drama captured in the Book of Job. The Creator doesn’t get involved in either story, essentially leaving both Jesus and Job to handle it themselves.
I can empathize with what it must have been like to be left hanging there. I can’t begin to count the number of times when I’ve been placed in a situation where the totality of it was beyond my control. You’ve probably been there too, slogging through unfortunate and inequitable situations from which you couldn’t simply walk away.
Clearly, we are in good company when we feel that way. Even Jesus didn’t have the power to keep temptation at bay. Yet, he did have the ability to respond in a faithful manner. He goes to scripture for support; he relies on sacred things he knew to buoy him through an arduous and important moment in his life.
It’s not unlike what other people of God did in their times of struggle and difficulty. When they were at their worst, they did their best to control what they could in a faithful manner. When they couldn’t control what offerings were put on the temple altar, they followed the scriptures and controlled what they put on their plates. When they couldn’t be present to hear the sacred words read, they consulted their memories and made their own sacred Psalms.
As each we step off on this 40-day journey of our own, we do so in the manner that Jesus does. As the folk hymn suggests, nobody else can walk this lonesome valley for us. Yet we don’t have to walk it - or any of the challenging moments we have outside of the liturgical year - without the resources of our faith. We can lean on the Word. We can rely on prayer. We can trust in the disciplines of faith that have always outlasted the struggles God’s people have faced again and again.