(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
On Wednesday, the church entered a new season called Lent, the time of preparation for the great feast of Easter. At Easter, we will celebrate Jesus dying and rising to the full life of God that begins to spread to all people throughout all of creation. But before we celebrate, we prepare. There will be six purple Sundays of Lent to prepare for the feast.
Each year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we listen to what happens right after Jesus is baptized. He leaves all distractions behind him—he puts aside even his desire for food—and spends 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, alone with his thoughts, praying to God. This is a time of preparation for Jesus, before he begins his great work of preaching about the Kingdom of God, before he begins his journey towards the cross.
When the time of preparation is over, Jesus is extremely hungry. We can imagine that he is also weak and exhausted. It is at this time that the devil—the tempter—comes to him with three very attractive suggestions called temptations.
Let's look at the third temptation that St. Matthew records.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’
At first, this temptation may not seem much like a temptation at all. We can easily imagine Jesus wanting—needing—food and water. We can understand that he might have the desire to prove to the world that he is not crazy but is indeed the Son of God. But what is tempting about all the kingdoms of the world? We know that Jesus is not hungry for riches or power or glory, right? We do not hear of him having lots of possessions or trying to get more. He never fights; he never uses force to make people follow him. He lets himself be taken by the soldiers—be mocked, beaten, and put to death. No riches. No power. No glory. So how is this a temptation?
Actually, we do not know that Jesus at one time does not desire these things. As a young person, maybe wealth is appealing to him. He could use it, not just to dress finely, but to give to the poor. Same with power. He could use power to make people see that God's way is the right way. And glory? Have all the world see and know that he is good and kind and gentle and strong? Then he could hand that glory over to God. All good.
Except that none of it is part of the Plan of God. At least, not in that way.
In the desert, Jesus learns to put aside his own desires and let God's desires fill him.
What does God desire most?
That all people, all creation, be filled to overflowing with the life and love of God.
After 40 days and 40 nights of letting God's desires become his desires, Jesus is exhausted, weak, and hungry. But he does not only need rest, and strength, and food. What he needs, wants, desires most of all is for God's will to be done.
When Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world, it must seem like a quick way to do what God desires. To bring the whole world to God. It would all be his to offer to God.
We can imagine that in his weakened state, Jesus could get confused and be led to think that this is a good plan. But his time of preparation in the desert has taught him God's way.
God's way is the way of the mustard seed—that extremely tiny, ridiculously small seed that does not seem to have any chance to grow, but somehow, impossibly, over a great period of time, becomes a tree.
The Plan of God does not have a quick and easy solution.
It certainly will not involve the devil.
Jesus may not know how God's plan can be completed, but he knows that this is not the way.
And so, Jesus responds,
‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’
Jesus knows he just has to begin. He needs to walk out of the desert and begin the mission that God has given him. It is a mustard seed mission. It will lead to the cross and to death—(how can anything grow from death?)—but also to the seeming impossibility of the Resurrection.
Life that begins to spread to all.
The Kingdom of God is not yet complete. God's desire is fulfilled in Jesus, but not yet in all people, in all of creation. But the dream of God is still alive.
It is alive in us.
Lent is a time of preparation for us, that God, in God's great goodness, gives us each year. Each year, like Jesus, we put aside distractions and focus on the will of God. And each year we begin again, each one of us in our own particular way, with the mustard seed mission we have been given.
And, slowly, slowly, the mustard seed will grow into a tree, so that one day,
the birds of the air will make their nests in its branches.