Hungering for God (Lent Reflections)

Text: Luke 4:1-13

Lent is forty days of letting go of some of our normal habits in order to pursue God with a special focus. The pursuit of God during these forty days comes in various forms: repentance, meditation, Scripture reading, prayer, immersion in sacred music, communal worship, almsgiving, etc. Lent was originally named “Forty Days” (quadragesima) and only became known as “Lent” (meaning Spring) in later years.

Lent is a season where we, in some sense and to some degree, follow Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. We followed Jesus into the waters of baptism and so now, in the narrative of Luke, we follow Jesus into the wilderness. Before Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God (Exodus 32; Deuteronomy 9:9), Israel spent forty years in the wilderness where God probed and tested their hearts (Deuteronomy 8:1-5) and Elijah devoted forty days to God at Mt. Sinai (1 Kings 9:8).

It is not surprising, then, that the ancient church decided “forty” was a good number for a season of renewed dedication to God. The roots of this practice are baptismal, though there are also penitential backgrounds where those seeking reunion with the community fasted for a period of time. Those preparing for baptism would spend a specified time (usually three days or 40 hours) fasting. As Easter Eve became an annual baptism festival, the practice of “forty days” of preparation emerged. Eventually, the whole church was invited to fast for forty days before Easter (late fourth century). The form of this fasting varied and was not necessarily a total fast on every day of the forty. Indeed, the tradition arose that Sundays during Lent were “mini-Easters” which celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and thus were not fast days. Consequently, “Ash Wednesday” arose in the West (probably eighth century) as a way of adding days to compensate for the loss of fast days due to Sunda. This kept the number of fast days at forty. It is called “Ash” Wednesday because ashes are used as symbols of penitence and death as we humble ourselves in preparation for the Forty Days.

The Forty Days, most significantly, connects believers with the life of Jesus as they join Jesus in the wilderness in some small measure. Just as Jesus was led to fast for forty days, so believers seek to follow Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. It is a specified time dedicated to seeking God. It was valuable for Jesus, and many believers find it valuable for their own relationship with the Father.

Though Jesus had regular habits of spiritual discipline (e.g., being alone with God), it was nevertheless important for Jesus to experience these forty days as a way of probing his own heart, being tested by Satan, and hungering after God. We, too, need special moments, days or seasons to devote ourselves to probing, testing and hungering. Lent is a season which many believers choose to practice for this very purpose.

What did Jesus discover about himself in these days of probing, testing and hungering? He learned existentially what perhaps he only knew provisionally or intellectually previously. He learned to feed on the word of God rather than bread. He learned that devotion to God is more important than power among the nations. He learned trusting God rather than testing God is the way to peace and joy. He experienced the wilderness—he experienced his faith in action as he connected with the Father and his own soul.

He had other options. Satan provided opportunity and attempted persuasion. But Jesus chose God. He quoted Scripture, but the effect of quoting Scripture was not the cognitive information he articulated. Rather, Scripture pointed to God. Jesus hungered for God rather than food, power or fame.

Jesus chose the way of the cross rather than the spectacular, the power and the luxury. He owned his baptismal vocation when he rejected the Satanic offers and embraced his identity as Son of God.

Lent is an opportunity, not an obligation. No one is forced to practice the Forty Days. We are led into it for the sake of embracing our vocational identity as children of God. These are days when we seek and hunger after God; days when we spend time with Jesus in the wilderness; days when we, too, may discover again our own souls, own our baptism and encounter God anew.

  1. Read the text of Luke 4:1-13 slowly several times. What are the significant lines and repeated ideas in the text?
  2. How do you think Jesus experienced the different temptations or testings? What was the draw or allure of each?
  3. What do you think Jesus “learned” through this experience? Why was it important for the Spirit to lead Jesus into the wilderness? Why do we need wildernesses in our own faith journey?
  4. How does Lent pattern itself after Jesus’ own experience? How does this deepen the significance and importance of Lent for those who choose to practice it? How is Lent similar and dissimilar to the experience of Jesus?


12 Responses to “Hungering for God (Lent Reflections)”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    For me, I’m committing to develop better eating habits during the next 40 days. Not dieting, just better eating habits. This will not be easy because so many people want to have a cup of coffee or “do lunch” with me. Honestly, it scares me to think about how much I spend “doing lunch” with people. Here and now I choose to do far better.

    Thanks for sharing this material. Our church has practiced Lent the past 3 or 4 years and this year is going to be even richer.

  2.   Richard Corum Says:

    I am sorry in many ways that I was raised in such a non-liturigal church tradition. I have just begun to awaken to the potential for lent. I wonder if you would have any ideas how to gently introduce the idea to a church not familiar with lent?

    • Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      Non-liturgical is not all bad. :-) I value many of my non-clerical and congregational convictions, and I value the freedom of our assemblies rather than constrained by liturgy. However, there is value to practicing liturgics to some degree.

      Lent is one of those that has potential for renewal as we approach Easter. But I would not want it to appear constraing or required or the mark of a “better” Christian.

      One of the ways I think is helpful for a church–without talking about Lent per se–is move people to think about others rather than themselves at Easter. Instead of buying the new dress, make a charitable donation. Instead of going out to eat, share a meal with the poor (or give an equal donation to the meal purchased). In other words, encourage people to “let go” or “give up” for the sake of others rather than pursuing their own self-interests. Easter is celebration but it was preceeded by “Good Friday.” We sacrifice and let go for others in order to renew our devotion to God and celebrate its renewal at Easter.

  3.   eirenetheou Says:

    After Jesus is baptized in Luke, the Holy Spirit descends on him “in bodily form.” Then Jesus, “full of the Spirit,” returns from the Jordan and is “led by the Spirit in the desert.” If we think that we should replicate this journey — whether for forty days or forty years — then we should first recognize that it begins with and depends on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom 8:14). It is not in humankind to resist the Accuser, the Spirit of Evil in this world, by human power, no matter how strong and smart we are. It is the presence of the Spirit that distinguishes Jesus as Son of God and enables his triumph in the desert; what is true for him is also true for us.

    Whether we think of our replication of this journey as a liturgical exercise or a lifetime vocation, it will be useful to ponder the meaning of the various “temptations” presented to Jesus and the way that Jesus rejects them. These trials are also our trials; we never vanquish them entirely, for they appear, again and again, in new forms to ensnare and enmesh us in the ways of this world. They are never presented as harmful or threatening; they are offered to us as ways that we may help ourselves or do good. The devil in the desert, like the serpent in the garden, is “more subtle than all the beasts of the field,” and we overcome that subtlety not by human cunning but by the grace of God, manifest in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

  4.   John Says:

    Let us not become Catholics.

    I have wondered if the temptations of Jesus were more for our benefit than His. To what extent would Jesus (divine, omniscient) actually ‘learn’ anything? You said existentially, but that’s still learning. However, for us, we might wonder if God really understands our plight, unless we could read where He actually experienced it. Hebrews 4.14-16 seems to have us in mind. One encouragement to pray is the knowledge that Jesus has been where we are.

    I long for articles with serious depth by our brethren that help me draw closer to God, to, as it were, melt my life into the life of Jesus. I am thirsting for this. This article is helpful, though I am shy of ‘Lent.’

    Thanks…John

    • Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      I don’t think Jesus was omniscient in the flesh. He grew in wisdom, learned obedience, and became empathetic with our weaknesses.

      I would suggest the temptations were about Jesus–would he be the new Adam? But they are narrated for us–that we might follow Jesus.

      •   jason miner Says:

        I know this is an old post but this is a wonderful clarification on this thought. Thank you John, I truly appreciate this blog and the way the thoughts and conversations challenge me on it. I have appreciated your musings on the faith since I first heard you speak at the Stone Campbell Journal Conference two years ago. Thank you sir and God bless you in your life and the coming season of Lent.

  5.   eirenetheou Says:

    Although Jesus “was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered, and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:8-9). This is Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). Jesus is a “fully human” son of God who “learns obedience” as every human must learn it, and in learning he enables us to follow and learn what he learned.

    In the second century our brother Irenaeus wrote that “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, out of his boundless love, became what we are in order to make us what he is.” This is why the practice of “Lent” is not a season but a life.

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

    • Profile photo of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      If one means by “Lent” a devoted, vocational discipleship, then truly it is a life not a season.

      But if one means by “Lent” forty days of fasting and focused devotion for a specific purpose, then it is a season. Just as we may, for a season, read the whole Bible in a month or devote a larger number of hours to prayer than we usually do for a season.

      Such seasonal exercises are, of course, optional and people should be led more by the Spirit and the goal than by a liturgical calendar. But calendars do regulate lives and it is helpful, to my mind, to have a liturgical season to remind us.

      Blessings, my friend. John Mark

  6.   John Says:

    I had a lengthy discussion with an Orthodox Catholic a few months ago on his blog, his initial are SF, you may be familiar with him. That is a background to my sensitivity to ‘Lent’ per se.

    A commenter above has rightly pointed out Hebrews 5.8. Is ‘learned’ in the Greek used elsewhere in the NT to indicate normal human learning? This also brings the ‘emptied Himself’ passage in Philippians 2 into play. Of just what did Christ empty Himself? I don’t know. I doubt anyone does with any great specificity. I have wondered if Jesus, for instance, had to learn Torah like everyone else. But then there is John 8.28, Jesus was taught by the Father. That would seem to indicate that He did not have to learn the law, prophets, and psalms like everyone else.

    How did the incarnate Christ differ from the pre-incarnate Christ? When Yahweh manifested Himself in physical form in the OT, was that Jesus in a form of incarnation? I am a poor student of church history, but I think these questions may have been discussed for centuries.

    I appreciate the depth of thought you can provide, John Mark.

    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      Welcome to the mystery of God…that this man from Nazareth named Jesus was indeed a human being in every sense yet in every sense was God with us to redeem us…indeed God is worthy of our worship.

      Thanks for your honest questions…it reminds us of how great is our God.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

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