First Sunday of Lent — February 26, 2023

Can we find freedom this Lent?

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.

Year A
Matthew 4: 1-11

It’s not random that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after he’d fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. We are more vulnerable to inner conflict, more likely to see our own temptations revealed after fasting. The fast is a spiritual emptying — a revealing practice of what is holding us captive, what we turn to for sustenance and support that is not the “Bread of Life.” In her book Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, Marjorie Thompson writes, “In a more tangible, visceral way than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions that lie behind them. Food is necessary to life, but we have made it more necessary than God. How often have we neglected to remember God’s presence when we would never consider neglecting to eat! Fasting brings us face to face with how we put the material world ahead of its spiritual Source.”

Matthew’s passage, and this first Sunday of Lent, invites us into the wilderness with Jesus. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of struggle, a place where God’s people battle with temptations to neglect and abandon God. Our temptations aren’t always as obvious as an embodied evil telling us to throw ourselves off the temple’s pinnacle. But the struggle is real.

When we are inadvertently neglecting our relationship with God, we are more susceptible to easy answers and seek worldly ways to flee discomfort. Are we stressed out, afraid, lonely? Surely that bottle of wine, or that shopping spree, or that tub of ice cream in the freezer will solve all our problems. Are your relationships a mess? Is there unresolved conflict in your life? Have you lost your way with your spouse, your friend, your colleague at work? Maybe your righteous anger will help, or your haughty certainty that you are in the right (our ego always feasts on praise over honest self-assessment). Have you witnessed an injustice? Has racism or xenophobia or transphobia reared its ugly head in your presence? Well, it’s not your place to say something, it wouldn’t be polite, and surely someone else will address this injustice better than you.

In studying this passage, I noticed the ascending heights to which the tempter led Jesus. He started in the wilderness. Then he was led to the pinnacle of the Temple. Then he was led to “a very high mountain.” Each ascent offered more power, more prestige, more wealth and more distance from the grounding of his faith. Where are you on this journey with Jesus? To what extent are you entangled in temptation? Wealth and power segregate and separate us from the people and the societal problems Jesus actively sought. Our capitalistic, consumerist society leads us to the same heights, separating us from the poor and the oppressed, tempting us to greedily jump all in. But Jesus knew not to fall for the tempter’s ploys. Do we? Contemplating this question, or practicing a spiritual fast, will help us discern the grip these temptations have on us and our lives.

This Lent, we are invited into a journey that has the potential to set us free. In her Feasting on the Word commentary on Matthew 4:1-11, Maryetta Anschutz’s writes, “[Lenten penitence] is not about guilt. It is about freedom.” Lent is a season that begins with an honest examination of our spiritual lives leading us to confess what is keeping us from God and return us to our faith.

Do you feel free? Let us not deceive ourselves, but lean into the truth, confess our sins and our temptations, and return to God as our ultimate source of life.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images arise as you read this passage of Jesus in the wilderness?
  2. Have you ever practiced a spiritual fast where you abstain from a worldly comfort to help you focus on your faith in God? What did you learn from the experience? Or, what are your hesitations about trying this spiritual practice?
  3. What might you do this Lent to journey with Jesus? What practice can you take on that will lead you to faithfully contemplate your life with Christ?

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