OMG! 40 Days alone???

Scott L. Barton
March 9, 2014
Matthew 4:1-11

“Don’t bother looking up Lent in your Bible dictionary,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, “because there was no such thing back then.  There’s some evidence that the early Christians fasted forty hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending forty days in prayer and self-denial didn’t arise until much later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten sort of ho-hum about their faith.  When the world didn’t end as Jesus himself seems to have implied it would, his followers stopped expecting so much from God or from themselves.  They hung a wooden cross on the wall and settled back into their more or less comfortable routines, remembering their once passionate devotion to God the way they remembered the other enthusiasms of their youth.  Oh, to be young again, and believe that everything is possible!  Little by little, Christians became devoted to their comforts instead: the soft couch, the flannel sheets, the S.U.V.s and [flat screen TVs].  These things made them feel safe and cared for – if not by God, then by themselves.  They decided that there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and before long it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large.  They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another.  They didn’t get arrested for championing the poor.  They blended in.  They avoided extremes.  They decided to be nice instead of holy, and God moaned out loud.

"Hearing that moan, somebody suggested that it was time to call Christians back to their senses, and the Bible offered some clues about how to do that.  [For example, people and animals isolated on the ark listened to it rain for forty days and nights, maybe remembering with each patter against the windowpanes that it was God’s broken heart that was saving them from destruction.]   Israel spent forty years in the wilderness learning to trust the Lord.  Elijah spent forty days there before hearing the still, small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent forty days listening to God give the law.   Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, too, following his baptism, and just before his ministry began, all alone, during which he was tested by the devil.”  The term “forty” seems to have communicated something hard that happened to believers over a fairly long period of time.

"So the church announced a season of Lent, from the old English word, lenten, [meaning, “lengthen,” which of course is what the days in the Northern Hemisphere were doing]; but it was also meant to be a springtime season for the soul.  Forty days to open the eyes to what remains when the usual sources of comfort are gone.  Forty days to remember what it’s like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.”  

Forty days is about a tenth of the year, and since one of the traditions of our faith is giving a tenth of what we have for God, Lent was a time to give about a tenth of our days.  Of course, what happened then is what usually happens whenever we institutionalize something in the church, and that is, the thing we’ve started becomes an end in itself rather than a way of seeing something greater.  It becomes something seriously to observe for its own sake and promoted at all costs rather than an occasion for the joy of knowing God.  It becomes something we’re proud that we’ve done, rather than something that increases our gratitude for what God has done.  It becomes a sort of indulgence in reverse, calling attention to ourselves.  And so our Protestant forebears gave it up, for the most part.  Instead of giving up chocolate or sex or meat or something else that was pleasurable, they gave up Lent itself.  Or at least that’s how it seems to me.  I’ve never had much of a handle on Lent, and I think it may be because my church growing up never did, not that I remember, anyway.  And yet, while I suspect most Hadley folk have given up the idea of “giving up” something, it would be a cop-out to give up the text for the day, which dares us to think about what those forty days might have meant for Jesus.  And so I have a few things for us to think about.

First, it was the Spirit which drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Like Israel before him after the exodus from Egypt, Jesus was in the wilderness because God wanted him to be.  I don’t know about you, but this seems odd to me.  Why would the God who loves Jesus, who has just announced at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” do such a thing?  The text doesn’t explain; and I don’t think we should try to, either, because I don’t think any parent here would intentionally set up temptation for their child.  But try it this way.  The writers of the Bible saw these kinds of things as God’s doing because they saw the experience of God coming through experiences that were hard.  So Lent may be a time when we might allow that God could still drive us into the wilderness.  And for us, as it was for Jesus, I think it might have something to do with being alone.  

The wilderness where Jesus was, was a lonely place. Maybe he had to be forced there because he was an extrovert!  I don’t think it was easy for him to go there.  I hear [from Richard L. Manzelmann, in a sermon long ago at New Hartford (N.Y.) Presbyterian Church] that the area of the Judean wilderness  is dry, and barren and rocky and chalky white and yellow and hot.  The air doesn’t move.  But most of all, it’s lonely.  Jesus in the wilderness meant that he was alone, really alone, with his thoughts and confusions, his desires, hopes and fears, with his strengths and his vulnerabilities.  

It's the idea behind the spiritual, “Jesus walked this lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself.”  And the second verse says that it’s not only Jesus, but “We must walk this lonesome valley; we have to walk it by ourselves; oh, nobody else, can walk it for us; we have to walk it by ourselves.”  But we do most anything to avoid that, don’t we?  We cover it up with noise, with the radio or TV, or talking on our cell phone.  That last thing has become a big issue hasn’t it?  We all lament drivers using cell phones, but I’ll bet almost everyone here has done it at one time or another.  It’s the lure of instant and constant communication with our friends and family.  The lure.  The temptation.  We are always in touch, and maybe that’s because it’s not easy to be alone.  Or we’re afraid to be alone, or that our kids will be alone.  Our smart  phones are becoming our masters.  Remember Sarah’s sermon at the Parkers’ last summer, and her modern version of the bent over woman, texting on her cell phone?

It’s easy to lament this.  It’s easy to scold.  So don’t get me wrong.  I know that solitariness is very hard. I went off in my car the other day and suddenly realized, “Oh, I don’t have my phone!” I made it home okay!  Solitude is a dimension of faith that’s so important because it produces - nothing.  And that’s hard.  We’re not geared up for producing – nothing.  The philosopher and theologian Alfred North Whitehead once put it this way:  “Religion is what the individual does with his [or her] solitariness.  If you are never solitary you are never religious.”  Certainly I don’t think this is all there is.  A lot of people say they don’t need the church, because they can worship God by themselves off in the woods. Personally, I think they are missing something.  There’s a communal side of Christianity which is essential.  But they aren’t missing everything. Being alone can give you a confidence and depth you might not have otherwise.   And I suspect this is why God did the driving in the first place.  Driving Jesus into the wilderness!

And then Matthew pictures it this way:  The Spirit drove him there to be tempted by the devil.  The trouble with this part of the story, the devil, is that it puts a misleading Halloween picture in our minds, someone dressed in red, with horns on his head, and a tail.  I write a poem every week and post it on a blog site [] and send it out to a bunch of people, and in the one for this week I included a Rembrandt drawing portraying this text, complete with the devil.  And someone wrote back to say it reminded her of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, which have always scared her!  It’s a problem with most caricatures of the devil. They can trivialize the temptation enough that we can't relate to it, or so we’re scared about the wrong things.  So we miss a lot if in our literalism we think this text is all about believing or not believing in the devil. It’s about describing the powers over us.  And maybe we do need to be scared of those powers once a year! First, the power that claims that what really sustains us is what we can get our hands on.  It was the story of manna in the Hebrews’ wandering in the wilderness, manna which literally means, “What is it?”  And that’s why Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy the explanation for that manna: so Israel would know that we’re restored not by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of the Lord, that, je ne sais quoi, that something, that tells us we are worth far more than what we eat or consume or produce.  And the second temptation is that God is an insurance policy, when in fact, to test God for the future is to forget all the thanks we owe to God for the past.  And third, we really want it all, don’t we?  But the hard alternative is to serve the God who loves us all. 

Maybe, if you were to dare some aloneness this Lent, you might ask yourself the following questions that come from one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner.  I’ve added something after each one. And if you’re interested in pursuing this, I’ll have copies of this, the end of the sermon, on the back table as you go out. 

1.) “If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?” [We bet on all kinds of other things, don’t we?  Most of us bet on having an income next month so we can pay our credit card bills; we bet on having a tomorrow in order to say the things we never get around to saying today.  Would we be willing to bet everything on whether there’s a God who has a purpose for this world and our lives?]

2.) “When you look at you face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?”[Of course, on the surface of things, this is why the cosmetic companies make so much money.  But try going deeper over the next 40 days, and trusting God as you do.]


3.) “If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?”  [Or put it this way: How would you describe your life and what you hope it stands for?  What would you write as a description of your life on your tombstone?]

4.)  “Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?  And which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?” [Especially if you tend to dwell on one of those two, it may be time to spend some time thinking about the other.  And the reason is that God is always the God of new life.]

5.)  “Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?”[Most of us don’t get to the point of believing enough in something or someone for whom or for which we would put our lives on the line, although I suspect many of us might answer in terms of a family member.  But try broadening that.  I think of the people in Ukraine lately who seem to be willing to put their lives on the line for something they believe in.]

6.)  “If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it? [St. Francis of Assisi reportedly said that he would keep on hoeing his garden.  Which says something about his confidence in the work he was doing and what God wanted him to do!]


“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become.”

And so, over the next few weeks, dare to be to be fed, friends, by some quiet, alone time. Not just a walk in the woods, which isn’t a bad idea, either, if you’re able to do that, but more a sitting down, quiet, no other distractions kind of time.  

“I know, sometimes, it can be a pretty depressing business all in all, full of temptations.  But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”