So I’ve called our Lenten journey this year a Rocky Road. Hopefully two things instantly pop into your mind when you hear “rocky road.” One is the obvious – that we are following a path and from time to time there are bumps along it, places that are hard to walk on, where our footfalls are unsteady and we’re worried about losing our balance.
Or when the rocks on the road are big and jagged and we have to be careful figuring out how to move around and between them for fear of what they might do to us. We’d prefer a well worn path or a freshly paved highway to travel on, but that is not always available, or desirable. The narrow way is better, even though it’s sometimes rocky.
And the other rocky road I hope comes to mind is the ice cream flavour. A delicious, chocolaty treat with smooth bits and a bunch of chewy and bumpy bits that create some excitement and add joyfulness and surprise to our tastebuds. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see the rocks on our path like we see the “rocks” of rocky road ice cream – as delicious, surprising bits of wonder that bring something special to the experience?
Even in the midst of the challenging texts we’ll explore throughout Lent, I hope we can find joyful and surprising treats along the path. And so we begin with the challenging story of Jesus being tempted in the desert during his 40 day fast.
When I say ‘devil’ what do you see? Red skin, horns, a tail, and a pitchfork, right? That’s entirely because of Milton’s Paradise Lost. That is absolutely not the devil of the bible. In Hebrew the word is satan, and in Greek it’s diabolos – but those words actually mean ‘the accuser’ – ‘the prosecutor’ – as in an adversary who confronts you and tries to point out your shortcomings and punish you for them.
And when I say temptations what do you see? [video – My Girl]
What things tempt us these days? Food, big homes, vacations, the latest tech toys, lotteries, screen time, etc… Or is there something deeper?
I’m going to show you a wonderful video depicting Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation. Imagine yourself fasting and praying for 40 days. What would it be like?
Pay close attention to how the devil is portrayed…
[video – 40 days in the desert]
So, what does the devil look like? It looks exactly like a mirror image of Jesus. So when I say ‘devil’ and ask what you see I want you to imagine looking in a mirror. That’s biblical! The devil is not some outside creature looking to cause you grief. The devil isn’t an external force pushing you toward evil. The devil is your darker side – your selfish side, your nasty side, your shadow side.
So who’s really tempting you? Who’s causing you to stray away from the centre where God’s holy light is? You are. The tempter is you.
Ok, that’s the ‘who’; now let’s think about the ‘what’.
Look at what Jesus was tempted by. Here’s an interpretation of it: Turning stones to bread represents our selfishness; being offered the kingdoms of the world represents our lust for power; and calling on God to save us from our predicaments represents wanting to avoid the hard stuff. Those temptations didn’t come from outside somewhere; they came from inside him. They’re in all of us.
Is it really our temptation to want unhealthy foods, big homes, vacations, the latest tech toys, lotteries, and screen time that we’re getting at here? I know those things can be serious if our desire for them is way out of balance (even the healthiest and best things can be bad for us if taken to extreme) but I think we all know that we’re talking about something deeper here.
This is why giving up chocolate for Lent is never going to accomplish anything by itself. It may increase your general awareness of something that’s out of balance for you but it isn’t going to do much for your Spirit. To say you’re being like Jesus because you go without something that you’re probably overindulging in anyway isn’t much of a spiritual exercise.
Jesus wasn’t tempted in the desert by frivolous things. He didn’t fast for 40 days because he was eating too much ice cream, or because he’d heard it was a quick weight loss scheme. He was fasting for a purpose – a spiritual purpose.
I actually do encourage you to consider giving something up for Lent – but you have to know that the giving up part is only half the story. It’s useless by itself. Fasting from something is only effective if you use that freed up space to feast on God. Fasting and feasting – fast from in order to feast on.
Here’s an example. What if you gave up some screen time? Most of us spend way too much time in front of screens – computer screens, phone screens, tablet screens, television screens. So let’s say you choose to give up TV for Lent. That’s probably unrealistic – so let’s say you’re going to give up TV from 6-9 pm every night during Lent. That’s the fasting part.
Here’s the feasting part. What will you do in place of TV between 6 and 9 pm? If you sit there feeling miserable you’re not accomplishing anything. If you switch over to another mindless distraction you’re not accomplishing anything. The point is to use the time you’ve freed up to feast on God. So in those hours you pull out your bible and actually read it – or you put on some spiritual music and really listen to it – or you sit in a quiet room and light a candle and try to keep silence for a while focusing on sensing God’s presence.
When you feast on God you are focusing on the centre, the really real. So temptations are about what draws you away from your centre. What draws you away from walking the rocky road that Jesus calls us to? What draws you away from God?
Jesus faced the very things that draw us all away from God: self-centredness, the desire for power, and the desire to take the easy road. Try giving up those three things for Lent!
‘What draws you away from God?’ is the first question. And the second question is ‘What do you do to bring your focus back?’ How do you fight selfishness and the desire for power and taking the easy road? How do you stay faithful? How do you stay tuned-in to God?
How did Jesus stay true? What did he do to bring his focus back to God? How did he fight his shadow? He flung scripture at it. In other words, he dug deep into his heart and remembered the teachings of the Way of God that he knew by heart. He relied on his faith foundation to be stronger than his worldly inklings. And it worked brilliantly.
Here’s the catch. Your faith foundation has to be stronger than your worldly inklings. Your faith reservoir has to be filled with spiritual flow to draw on during the dry, parched time in the desert.
You are battling a formidable foe and you’re both potentially very powerful. Your foe doesn’t have red skin, horns, a tail, and a pitchfork. She looks remarkably like you. He fits perfectly into your clothes! So which one will be more powerful? There’s a beautiful aboriginal saying that goes: there are two dogs battling within me, one good and one bad, and the one who will win is the one I feed the most.
You have a choice.
So yes, please, by all means go ahead and give up something for Lent. Fast from something that is drawing you away from God, and take the time that you used to do that thing in and give it to God. Feed the good dog. You have a choice.
Building up a spiritual reservoir takes time. It takes focus. It takes intentionality. It doesn’t happen by accident. But it also doesn’t happen by effort. It’s another paradox of faith. You aren’t actually responsible for filling your own spiritual reservoir up. You don’t have the ability to accomplish that – only the Spirit does. But the Spirit can’t do its thing if you don’t show up.
It’s kind of like a sun tan (I’m not advocating this at all but it’s a great metaphor!). Wanting a tan is never going to accomplish anything. You actually have to take the time to risk stripping off your clothes and laying still for a while – in the light! And if you do too much at any one time it probably isn’t very healthy. But if you invest your time in it bit by bit you’ll be transformed.
The same goes for prayer. The clothes you’re stripping off are the barriers that you’ve put up that try to keep God at bay. You know what those things are – they’re different for every one of us. Whatever is keeping you from face-time with God needs to be stripped away (that’s the ‘giving it up for Lent’ part), and you need to stretch out your towel and lie down and let the light do its thing.
And little by little your reservoir will fill to overflowing, and you’ll find you’re a little less selfish, a little more humble, and a lot more willing to follow Jesus on that rocky road.