Lent — Week 4

Monday, April 1

Read: Matthew 3:13-4:1

Consider: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert…” (4:1). As we walk this journey with Christ, there will be times—whether by way of unexpected circumstances or by the hand of God—when we are led into the desert.

The desert is a metaphor for the dry, barren seasons of our lives. As Christ-followers, we have times of spiritual abundance, when we seem to be overflowing with blessings, joy and peace. But we also experience times of great struggle. In these desert experiences, it is often difficult to see God or to sense his presence in our lives. Our prayers seem like mere words rather than connections with the Almighty. Our doubts creep in on us, making us wonder if our relationships with Christ are real. Even when we don’t doubt the reality of God, we’re tempted to doubt that we have a place in his plan. And that’s one of the realities of the desert—temptation. We experience something akin to what Jesus experienced when he “was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil,” and there “the tempter came to him” (4:1, 3).

What are your greatest temptations when you are in the desert? Some common ones are…

The temptation to look for the quick fix to a problem, rather than allowing God to do his work in you.

The temptation to doubt God’s care, his will for your life, his work in your life and your ability to hear his voice.

The temptation to run from the desert, rather than looking for God in the desert.

Matthew tells us that Jesus was in the desert for forty days. “Forty days” is a biblical figure of speech for what seems like a long, long period of time. Much like we colloquially use the word “million” (as in, “I’ve told you a million times”) to describe an exhaustive thing, so the “forty days” was an apt description of desert dwelling. When we’re in the desert, it seems like there is no end in sight.

But there is. The desert is not our permanent home and we are not left alone—no matter how it feels—when we wander through the arid landscape of doubt.

Pray: “Lord, when I cannot see your face or discern your ways, help me to trust your heart. While your presence eludes me on an emotional level, help my faith to sustain me in knowing that you are always with me.”

 

Tuesday, April 2

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-12

Consider: Elijah made a statement that makes us smile. We don’t smile because it’s funny. It’s not. It’s an expression of despair. We smile, knowingly, because we have all felt the way Elijah did when he said, “I have had enough, Lord” (19:4). And some among us have even known the depth of Elijah’s pain in that Judean desert—a pain so great that he “prayed that he might die” (19:4).

What is amazing about Elijah’s desert experience is that it came on the heels of his greatest victories. Read the eighteenth chapter of 1 Kings and there you will find a powerful man being used by God in the performance of two tremendous miracles. Elijah was literally on top of the mountain, seeing God’s work in a way that few people ever have or ever will.

But it doesn’t take long to go from the mountain to the desert. As we saw yesterday, Jesus’ baptism, accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the proclamation of his calling, was immediately followed by a desert experience and the temptations it brought.

Perhaps that is why the desert feels so barren. When we have experienced the joy and fullness of relationship with Jesus Christ, we can feel so empty when it seems to be gone. But that is the point. It feels barren. It feels empty. But the desert is a place where we cannot fully trust our emotions. We must rely on our faith in the one who said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Sometimes the desert teaches us—and even forces us—to listen for God in ways we never have before.

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Pray: Ask the Lord to help you to find him in the desert. That means offering him a humble, teachable spirit, along with the courage and patience to listen for the gentle whisper.

 

Wednesday, April 3

Read: Psalm 63:1-8

Consider: Psalm 63 is preceded by a note indicating that this is a psalm written by David when he was in the desert of Judah. This desert psalm, however, does not have the angst that we heard yesterday from Elijah when he was in the desert. In fact, it sounds like a song of praise.

“O God, you are my God…” (63:1)

“Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” (63:3-4)

“My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (63:5)

None of the “I have had enough, Lord” (1 Kings 19:4) that came from the lips of Elijah. What gives?

There are two different concepts of the desert that impact our Christian lives. We have spent a couple of days speaking about the barren, parched experience, when God feels far away, and we are struggling to survive the spiritual drought. But the desert is also seen as a place to escape to—a place we go, so that we can hear God’s voice. Christian history teaches us about the Desert Fathers and Mothers—contemplatives who intentionally spent a great amount of time in the desert, away from life’s distractions, to listen to God.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the desert, going through an arid place in our spiritual journey. Other times, we flee to the desert to be alone, focus our lives, and hear from God. And sometimes we experience both at the same time. We find ourselves in a barren place, but we embrace the experience by seeking and finding God in that place. Then, whether we speak in the present tense or we speak in hope of what is to come, we can say…

“My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (63:5)

And at this present moment, by faith, we can proclaim…

“Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live…” (63:3-4)

Pray: “Lord, even if I can’t praise you for the desert, I will praise you in the desert. Thank you that what feels like a barren wasteland is, in fact, holy ground, even though I may not be able to see that right now. Thank you for the hope that ‘My soul will be satisfied.’

 

Thursday, April 4

Read: Leviticus 25:8-13

Consider: Jubilee means you get to go home.

“…each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan…in this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.” (25:10, 13)

So, what exactly is the Year of Jubilee? Well, when we see what God had in mind for the nation of Israel, it is almost too good to be true.

We know that, in the course of human affairs, tragic events can lead to generations of misery. People are plunged into poverty. They lose their land and their homes. In ancient times, people would often have to sell themselves as slaves or indentured servants just to feed their families. This meant that generation after generation would suffer because they were born into poverty or slavery and had no opportunity to escape their oppression. Of course, that was not God’s intention. He wanted his people to be free.

So, every fiftieth year was proclaimed the Year of Jubilee. All debts were cancelled. All slaves were set free. Everyone returned to their family home. It was a new beginning. Jubilee meant forgiveness and freedom.

When Jesus announced his mission on earth, he read from the prophet Isaiah…

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

What did Jesus mean by “the year of the Lord’s favor”? He was referring to the Year of Jubilee. But this new Jubilee is different. It isn’t something that only takes place twice in a century. No, the cancelling of debts, the liberation of the enslaved and the invitation to come home is now an ongoing reality because, Jesus said…

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

The year of the Lord’s favor has come because Jesus is our Jubilee.

Pray: “Lord, it is almost too good to be true. You forgive, liberate and grant us a new beginning. Today we celebrate this new life that we’ve been given. Thank you.”

 

Friday, April 5

Read: Luke 4:16-30

Consider: Jesus proclaimed that a new world had come with the Messiah. The Kingdom of Heaven is not a territory, like the kingdoms of this world. No, this new kingdom is the presence of the King. So “the year of the Lord’s favor”—the Year of Jubilee—had come. It was “fulfilled” before their very eyes (4:21).

It should have been a time for rejoicing. (See yesterday’s meditation on the meaning of Jubilee.) If those people in the Nazareth synagogue would have accepted their freedom, they would have entered a new reality—a new way of life.

But there was a problem. They wanted freedom for themselves, but not for their enemies. They wanted their debts to be cancelled, but they wanted their enemies to pay.

When Jesus first entered the synagogue, Luke noted that “everyone praised him.” And after he taught, all of them “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (4:15, 22). That is, until his words were gracious toward those that they did not feel were worthy of God’s grace. After Jesus talked about how God blessed foreigners and enemies (a widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian), they assaulted him with the intent to take his life.

They had forgotten the original promise that God gave to their father, Abraham. God had said that “all nations on earth will be blessed through him” (Genesis 18:18). All nations. All people.

Lent reminds us of grace. And the more we grasp the grace that is given to us, the more we are compelled in our spirits to be people of grace. If it’s not good news for all, it’s not good news at all.

Pray: “Lord, may your grace be evident in my life and through my life. I pray that people will experience your love through my words and actions this day. Make my arms like yours—open to everyone.”

 

Saturday, April 6

Read: Matthew 6:9-15

Consider: For most of us, The Lord’s Prayer has been committed to memory through repetition. We’ve heard it and prayed it repeatedly in church. I always smile on the inside when I’m in an ecumenical gathering and we pray that prayer. Everyone seems to do alright, until we get to the part about forgiveness. Then nobody in the room is quite sure whether to say, “Forgive us our trespasses” or “Forgive us our debts.”

When I lead it, I like to use the phrase from Luke’s rendering of the prayer — “Forgive us our sins…” (Luke 11:4). That is the forgiveness that Jesus was addressing, for even in Matthew’s account Jesus ends the prayer by talking about God’s forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others.

But there is a reason that in Matthew we read, “Forgive us our debts.” There Jesus was making a reference to the Year of Jubilee—that time when debts are cancelled.

As you’ll recall, the Year of Jubilee was a time when all debts were cancelled, all slaves were set free and everyone was allowed to return to their homes, no matter what circumstances had caused them to lose their homes.

As Jesus prayed, he referred to sin as a “debt” to remind us that just as we are recipients of Jubilee, we are also to be givers of Jubilee — “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We forgive as we have been forgiven. We set others free as we have been set free. We cancel wrongs committed against us as our debts have also been cancelled.

So, we see that when Jesus set forth his mission in that synagogue in Nazareth, he was also describing our mission. Read that statement again, replacing Jesus’ “me” with “us”…

“The Spirit of the Lord is on us, because he has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—to proclaim Jubilee! (Luke 4:18-19)

Pray: “Lord, I’m honored to be part of your body—the Body of Christ on earth. Help me to discover my gifts and my place in your body. I want to use my life and my resources to fulfill the high calling you have given to us. Thank you for including me!”