INTO THE DESERT – First Sunday in Lent, Year A

February 26, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11


Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13 17 (see 3a)
Romans 5:12 (13-16) 17-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Into the desert. The desert is a difficult, hostile place for humans. In the heat of the day, it can seem lifeless, empty, and desolate. After the sun has gone down and the chill sets in, the desert can be downright scary with animals coming out of hiding to forage for food – movement around us that we can hear but can’t see.

Into the desert, into that very difficult place, Jesus is led by the Spirit to face the tempter. He fasts from food and water for forty days and forty nights. The number forty, of course, evokes the memory of Moses, who had also fasted for forty days and forty nights before receiving the commandments from God. The Hebrew people wandered for forty years before they reached the Promised Land.

In the desert, before he takes up his ministry, Jesus comes face to face with the nature of his mission and the challenge of remaining faithful to his call. All three of the temptations that he confronts are at their root about power and control. Will he trust God to provide for his needs or will he exert power to make bread from stones? Will he embrace fully the vulnerability that is part of the human condition or will he call upon angels to rescue him when he is in danger? Will he be at one with the powerless of this world or will he seek political power and claim all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor?

These three temptations are not random proposals. They cut to the heart of who Jesus is and the destiny that awaits him. Throughout his ministry, he will identify with those who barely have enough to eat, let alone make bread from stones – the lowly who live on the edge of hunger and poverty. He will accept death in a brutal, humiliating, and painful execution without mustering the host of heaven to save him. He will preach and act in defiance of the occupying Roman power without claiming political power for himself.

As he is tested in the desert, Jesus looks to the word of God to articulate his responses. He quotes from the very Law that Moses received after his time of fasting:

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4; Dt 8:3)

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Mt 4:7; Dt 6:16)

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Mt 4:10; Dt 6:13)

Into the desert the Spirit leads us as we set out on these forty days of Lent. Christian churches began observing Lent as a time of intensive preparation for baptisms at Easter. Just as Jesus faced the tempter before embarking on his journey to death and resurrection, so candidates are invited to face their demons before they are plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus in the waters of baptism.

And now, today, in the blazing sunlight of the desert, God calls us to see ourselves as we really are – our strengths and our virtues, our flaws and our sins. Where are we tempted to deviate from our call to be disciples? As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable before God, we see ourselves in the clear light of the desert sun. And like Jesus, we look to the word of God for our nourishment on this journey – a word of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. No matter how deep our guilt or shame, God’s unconditional love is so much deeper.

In the desert, as we begin to see ourselves as we really are, as God sees us, we are invited to the practices of fasting, prayer, and works of charity. But we can’t merely fast from; we must fast for the good that God has called us to. In six weeks, as we remember our baptism on Easter Sunday, our own union with Christ in his dying and rising, may we also be richer in generosity, more intimate with God, and more open and trusting in the journey of life.

A Hymn for Today: “When We Are Tested”

This text by Ruth Duck, FHS, is based on the three temptations that Jesus faced in the desert as recounted in today’s Gospel account.

When we are tested and wrestle alone,
famished for bread when the world offers stone,
nourish us, God, by your word and your way,
food that sustains us by night and by day.

When in the desert we cry for relief,
pleading for paths marked by certain belief,
lift us to love you beyond sign and test,
trusting your presence, our only true rest.

When we are tempted to barter our souls,
trading the truth for the pow’r to control,
teach us to worship and praise only you,
seeking your will in the work that we do.

When we have struggled and searched through the night,
sorting and sifting the wrong from the right,
Savior, surround us with circles of care,
angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer.

Text: Ruth Duck, b. 1947. © 1996, Hope Publishing Company. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857

Image Credit: Desert Landscape, Arches National Park, Utah, Wikimedia Commons

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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