The forty days of Lent are based on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Often when we think of those forty days (described, for example, in Matthew 4), we think of the fasting and the temptations. Christians have emphasized fasting during Lent as long as they have been celebrating (if you can call a season characterized as fasting as a celebration) Lent. You’ve probably heard about people giving things up for Lent: sweets, soda, fried foods, television, etc. Practicing self-denial can help us focus on God (and help us become less dependent on things that aren’t always good for us), and so is a helpful part of the Christian life.
The forty days were also a time of temptation for Jesus. While we might think forty days and nights of not eating would make a person weak, it helped Jesus be strong enough to overcome the temptations. While some will say that he was able to overcome the temptations simply because he was the Son of God, I think the stories we see in Matthew, Mark and Luke (John doesn’t tell the temptation story) shows Jesus using resources that are available to us ordinary folks. Fasting brought him clarity That was the first major resource. The second major resource was his knowledge of the Word. Gained by a lifetime of study – not, I think, from having it encoded at birth – Jesus is a model for us. Memorizing scripture, making it a part of our thoughts, desires and attitudes – part of our very being – is possible for all of us. We can’t do it overnight – or in forty days – however. It takes time. Jesus had prepared for the temptation. Are we similarly prepared?
Jesus had a third resource – again one available to all who follow him: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was not only with him through his forty days of fasting and temptation, but was the very one who had led him into the wilderness. It’d be nice if we never had to face temptation, if all our inclinations from within and all our suggestions from without were only to the good. But they’re not. And God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is with us to encourage us and strengthen us throughout.
Do you notice when Jesus’ time of testing came? It was immediately (a good Marcan word) after his baptism, the time when he formally and publicly took up his mission. Some of you have heard God calling you. Perhaps you’re near the point of giving in, thinking something like, “After I give in things will surely go smoothly.” That’s not how it went with Jesus. I doubt that’s how it goes with us (considering my own experience). First, when we take up the mission (whether large or small) to which God has called us, we will encounter opposition. Someone won’t approve. Second, we will find that living the call requires faith – active ongoing trust in God. We won’t have sufficient resources on our own. We’ll need God.