A message for Lent
The Lenten season lasts forty days, beginning with Ash Wednesday. Forty is a number that is deeply rooted in the biblical tradition. For forty days and nights as the rains fell upon the earth, the future of humanity, and of all life on the earth, was protected within the confines of the ark of Noah. The inhabitants of the ark remained for forty more days as they waited for the flood waters to recede.
Moses spent forty years of his life as a shepherd in the wilderness, a fugitive, separated from all he knew as one who had been raised in the home of the Egyptian pharaoh. Later, he spent forty days on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God. The liberated Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, following the fiery cloud. Elijah spent forty days fasting on Mt. Horeb, a faithful prophet who was being persecuted by an evil king and queen. Both Moses and Elijah spent forty days on the mountain of God in prayer and fasting.
After being baptized by John, “…Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led about by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil…” (Luke 4:1-2). In the wilderness, Jesus prepared for His ministry. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared before his disciples for forty days, teaching them about the kingdom of God. The “forty days” signals a period of wandering and searching, a time of trouble, temptation, and finally trust.
This is a time of apparent abandonment. There is no one to give support and comfort. There are no voices of encouragement, no warm hands reaching out with assurance, no smiles that bring joy. There is great silence and that terrible feeling of loneliness, emptiness. But times of silence and loneliness are necessary for when our mind and heart is free from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we may hear the still voice of God which brings peace to our soul. This is the challenge of the modern world, to sanctify a quiet time to be alone with God, to separate ourselves from the clamoring voices of this world.
Jesus spent much time alone. He inaugurated his ministry by spending forty days alone in the desert. Before he chose the twelve he spent the entire night alone in the desert hills (Luke 6:12). When he received the news of John the Baptist’s death, he “withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart” (Matt. 14:13). After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand Jesus “went up into the hills by himself” (Matt. 14:23). Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16). As he prepared for his highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36ff). Jesus lived in the wilderness, alone with the Father.
We should remember the presence of the Holy Spirit. “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led about by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, we are dwelling in the presence of God. It is here, when we have nothing, that we place our complete faith and trust in God. It is here, when we are alone with God in the wilderness that we “draw near and listen” (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
This is a time of hunger. In the wilderness, Jesus “ate nothing during those days; and when they had ended, He became hungry” (Luke 4:2). When the Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years, they often found themselves without water, bread, or meat. They grumbled against the provision of God and betrayed there lack of trust in Him. This lack of faith meant they would eventually die in the wilderness! Later, just before the next generation was about to enter the promised land Moses said, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).
Jesus went into the wilderness and denied himself those things that are basic to a life of well being. Although he was hungry, he did not tempt God as the Israelites had done. Jesus knew the truth about life – “Man shall not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Later, Jesus told the multitude, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied… Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:21, 25).
Fasting is a time of self denial – denial of those things which are necessary for a life of well being. Fasting may include abstaining from food (Lu. 4:2); drink (Acts 9:9); sleep (Lu. 22:39ff); sex (1 Cor. 7:5); or entertainment (Dan. 6:18). In the Scripture, fasting was observed on occasions of calamities (2 Sam. 1:12), afflictions (Ps. 35:13), approaching danger (Est. 4:16), confession of sin (Ne. 9:1f) and spiritual warfare (Mark 9:29). Each suggest a time of crisis that reminds us of our weakness and need for the power of God. Fasting is a demonstration of our sincerity and earnestness in prayer. Fasting is best understood as a time in which the physical man abstains so that the spirit man within each of us may feast upon the holy things of God.
This is a time of intense spiritual warfare: “…for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:2). The wilderness was not only a time of communion with the Father, but he also had an unwelcome guest – the devil. For Jesus, this forty days with God in the wilderness became a time in which he wrestled “against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). This time of sanctification became a time of temptation. Paul encouraged Timothy, “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4). James declared, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:7-10)
It is here, that we experience the sustaining power of the Word of God. It is not a coincidence that Jesus responded to Satan’s attacks by speaking forth the Word of God. When speaking to his disciples about times of persecution Jesus said, “I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute” (Luke 21:15). Psalm 119 tells us that by the Word of God we: are made pure (9); are revived (25); are strengthened (28); receive the grace of God (58); are sustained (116); gain understanding (169); and are saved and delivered (41, 170).
Spiritual warfare never ceases. Luke tells us that “when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). We must always “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
This can be a time of great victory. “And when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him…” Satan is a formidable adversary, but he is not omnipotent. Jesus was in the wilderness, a barren place, but he was not alone. He was in the Spirit. He was hungry – seeking the will of the Father. He was tempted, but he prevailed because he resisted with the “sword of the Spirit.” After spending forty days with God Jesus “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit; and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district” (Luke 4:14). After spending forty days with God on Mt. Sinai, Moses descended the mountain with the glory of God’s presence on his face (Ex. 34:29). After spending forty days with the resurrected Lord, the disciples went to Jerusalem and were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the power of the Gospel to save, heal and deliver. As we sanctify our time in prayer, fasting and the study of the Word of God, we will draw near to God and God will draw near to us in power and glory!