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For listener supported My Spiritual Advisor, this is Fr. Mark Kurowski with a reflection for Sunday, 3/1/2020 The 1st Sunday of Lent.
Please pause this audio and read Matthew 4:1-11.
This week, as I was studying for this homily, I could not shake out of my head the very first verse of this passage from today’s Gospel lesson:
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” For our grammar freaks amongst us, this is the passive voice. This was something done to Jesus. He was taken into the desert by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of being tempted. For those of us who know that he is God from God, true God from true God, this is something. It means this is a confrontation that is on purpose.
Our Lord is going for forty days and forty nights into the desert to battle the devil; on purpose. He is going to open himself up to the temptations of the devil on purpose. This is where I go to the scary movie scene where the person who agrees to sleep overnight in the creepy house hears a sound and willingly gets up to open that door. I want to yell, “NO! STOP! DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR!”
That is basically what Peter is saying when he rebukes Jesus in Matthew 16:23. Jesus presents what is not a presaging of events as much as it is a battle plan: He is going to suffer, die, and rise again. Peter, like me watching the scary movie, says, “God forbid.” To that, Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus has heard that voice before. This time, the voice is coming out of Peter’s mouth, but he has heard that voice before. He heard it in the desert.
If you think about what is being said in the desert for forty days and nights to Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God; it is ridiculous. In interpreting this passage, it has always been helpful to me to know that the same word in Greek which means “if” also means “since”. When we read this passage there are three temptations that are highlighted. If we replace the usual translations of “if” with “since”, this all makes more sense.
The devil says, “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread,” to a hungry God-man. In other words, “this should be easy for you,” and “why are you suffering unnecessarily?” How many times have temptations presented themselves to us in this form? Look, it is just a little white lie and you are so talented no one will even know you lied. That is the temptation.
To this, Jesus responds with something important. He says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” In other words, “My purpose is God’s purpose. My life is not to be lived just for my own comfort, but for God’s purpose.” That means that even though Jesus is hungry, how he gets his bread is just as important as getting bread. How we live our life is just as important as living life. Our Lord, although famished from forty days of fasting, could zap himself up some bread, that is not the purpose of his power. His power is to live every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Then the devil comes at Jesus again to use his power for his own purposes. This time, the devil quotes the scriptures like Jesus used them against the devil. Even the enemy will use our own tools against us. Scripture does indeed say, “He will command his angels concerning you,” but not so that you can put the Lord our God to the test! The Lord will command his angels concerning us, when we find ourselves in trouble. This is a twisting to use Scripture to our own purposes. Again, trying to get Jesus to not fulfill the purpose of God.
This falls into the category of a meme my daughter found on social media and was eager to share with me. It said, “So, you say you are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ The devil is spiritual, too. Be more specific.” Is spirituality just for our own sense of well-being? Or, is spirituality to be lived in communion with God who will call us to serve humanity in ways we never dreamed?
Lastly, the devil tries to tempt Christ with the big lie that the devil has told from the beginning. The lie is that he is ‘like God.’ As if the devil could give to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world when he is the one through whom “All things came into being,…and without him not one thing came into being.” This is why the Archangel who will defeat the devil as the Book of Revelation tells us has the name, “Who is like God?” That is what the name “Michael” means. The devil says, “I am like God.” To which, the Archangel will simply say, (laughing) “Who is like God?” and the supposed emperor’s clothes will be exposed.
This is also the deception of the devil toward us. He will promise us get saved quick schemes. He will promise us that following the Lord is the quick way to get where we think we want to go, but then has really nothing to back up the promise. Then we have placed our very soul at the mercy of the one who wants to destroy it, all the while thinking we are getting what we want, what we think we deserve, what we think is the fame and fortune to which we aspire.
These three things are going to appear again later in Matthew, at the Cross. Beginning in Matthew 25:40 out of the mouth of those who walked by as he was hanging in trauma on the Cross and the leaders of the Temple and those crucified with him. Listen to them, “Since you are the Son of God, come down from the cross,” “He saved others,…let God deliver him now, since he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” These words said through others, even Peter, are the devil’s words. They are within us and we say them to each other. We all have, at one time or another, said, “Lord, if you are real save me.” What we are saying are the same things the devil says in the desert, Peter says in his rebuke, and other say as he dies of trauma on the Cross.
So, again, what is the purpose of Jesus being led into the desert on purpose by the Spirit for forty days and nights at the beginning of his ministry? Simply put: Know thy enemy. As you can see from the references from Matthew 4, Matthew 16, and Matthew 27, the battle with the devil is real, it is persistent, and it can be convincing. It is indeed a battle.
Like the forty days and nights Jesus spent with the devil to know the enemy, we are given the season of Lent to know the enemy in the context of opening our eyes so that we will depend upon our Lord. We are given forty days and nights to focus on fasting, which will really expose the ways in which the devil tempts us.
Alcoholics anonymous tells us that we ought not make big life altering decisions when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Well, just learn how to fast for a day. You will experience all of these things. You will get into your head thinking about food, conniving about food, telling yourself that you can just have a little and no one will be any the wiser, or that you deserve to be cranky because you are hungry. Being hungry will make you tired. When you are tired, you will become lonely. When you are tired and lonely you will become angry, probably at something stupid. That is when we must say, “Lord, save me!”
What is better to enter a battle with no training or continual training? Lent is boot camp for Christians. We are to test our faith so that when the real battles come we have our training to fall back on. We should be fasting to build endurance. We should read Scripture to have the armor of Salvation lined out in Ephesians 6. We should go through our home and give away everything we don’t really need anymore. Generosity can become a lost habit. We should pray, pray, and pray some more. We should attend Mass every Sunday and receive Holy Communion every Sunday. Here is a dangerous thought: we should try Confession.
Brothers and sisters, we are at war with those who would lead us and others astray. The devil will whisper sweet self-serving thoughts to us and others. We must be on our guard not to be sucked into the lies. We are not alone in this journey. There were others who went before us to teach us.
There were others who were surrounded by the material wealth of their day who encountered some of the same temptations we do. When the systematic persecution of Christians was ended and Christianity was starting to become the acceptable religion of the Roman Empire, many Christians were scandalized by the wealth and opulence coming into the Church. They were worried that Christianity would be domesticated to the point it was just too easy and too comfortable. That Christianity would become a custom and not real.
Their answer was to literally run into a desert. Saint Anthony was a wealthy man who was going to live his life off of his parent’s money from an inheritance. He heard the Gospel says, “Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor.” So, he did. Then he moved to the desert to be in solitude and prayer. He lived in a hut, an abandoned tomb, and a building abandoned by counterfieters. He was a radical Christian.
St. Anthony was what we call an “anchorite” a term from Greek which means ‘withdrawn’ as in ‘withdrawn from the world’. He spent his time in the desert combating the devil to serve Christ, like Christ. St. Anthony is credited with being the first monk.
St. Pachomius, who lived in the 200s. was just like him. He was the son of pagans who was forced into the military. He was ministered to by some Christians and it moved him to become a Christian. He, too, went into the desert to become an “anchorite” during the acceptance and what some thought was the corruption of our faith by Rome. After years of solitude and fighting the devil, Pachomius had a vision to live in community with others doing the same. He founded what we know to be the first monastery. That is a place that is “separate from the world.”
Eventually, people began to recognize these people, who separated themselves from the world to battle the devil, as spiritual directors. They were sought out. People would go to them in the desert to seek the council of the ones who battled the devil in the desert like our Lord did. Then, later on, in Ireland, people began to come to these priestly monks to confess their sins, receive advice on how to stay away from sin, and be forgiven of their sins. This is what we know as Confession.
My point is that this kind of spirituality, Lenten spirituality where we separate from the world, battle the devil, cling to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and Confession, goes back to the late 200s and 300s. There are many who have taken the journey to the 40 days to purify themselves by facing up to the temptations which are particular to each of us. So, what is your plan? What have you decided that you need to do this Lent? Do you know how to fast? Do you have a plan for prayer? Do you have a plan for scripture reading? Are you willing to face your sins? Are you willing to confess them? Are you willing to turn and be saved?
Now is the acceptable time to make your plan if you haven’t already. Now, is your day of salvation. Jesus will walk with you. He has been there before; and since he is the Son of God, who delivered us from sin, who did not waver from God’s purpose for his life to save our lives, he knows the way. He will help us make that life a reality by practicing a good and healthy Lent. I invite you to take a moment and invite him into your heart again to lead through the desert of these 40 days. Amen.
This audio is under the copyright of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated and may not be used, reduplicated, or distributed for commercial use without the express written consent of My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated. My Spiritual Advisor, Incorporated, 2020.
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Mark Kurowski, M.Div.
Spiritual Director, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Theologian