We’re only four days into Lent and how many of us are already craving the things we gave up?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
March 1, 2020—Lent I
Part 1 of the series: “A Journey Through the Wilderness
Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7; Matthew 4:1–11

That’s the challenge of Lent, of course.  The deprivation, the self-denial.  Giving up something for Lent that you don’t actually like or desire is not really getting the point of the whole exercise.  Every year, someone will invariably make a joke about giving up something that is easy or that is not otherwise desirable.  A former pastor of mine used to joke that he’d given up okra for Lent, not having found that particular vegetable appealing in the first place.

But the discipline of abstaining and fasting are meant to remind us of our deprivation.  They are meant to remind us that we lack something.  All of Lent is meant to refocus and re-center us. Abstaining from certain foods or fasting is meant to remind us of those who lack even the basic necessities and further to remind us of our dependence on God for what we have.  At the heart of our Lenten disciplines is a deprivation designed to remind us of a deeper spiritual truth about ourselves.  To that end, fasting and self-denial have been central parts of spirituality for a long time.


A. Temptation in the Garden

We see that in the scripture lessons for today.  In the passage from Genesis is a familiar tale: the temptation in the Garden.

The story tells us that the crafty serpent confronts the Woman and asks her about the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The snake is clearly setting the woman up. He knows that we are often tempted more by the things we cannot have. His questions is designed to highlight the forbidden nature of the fruit of the Tree.

Image courtesy Wordle

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” Now, commentators have long wondered why the woman adds a prohibition that God never said: “nor shall you touch it.” But perhaps in her mind, the tree is just that much more forbidden.

In any event, the snake continues by saying that she won’t die if she eats it, she’ll just be like God, “knowing good and evil.” And then the pivotal moment:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…

Now, I do want to note one thing before continuing. This story is always presented as one in which the woman is seduced by the snake into wrongdoing and then she tempts her hapless husband into committing the same sin. Except that the text says, “she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her.” Nice job, Adam. Way to speak up. Hard to blame the woman for being a conniving temptress when you’re right there.

In any event, we learn something really important from this verse. The tree was “good for food,” “a delight to the eyes,” and “was to be desired to make one wise.” It’s desirable for the body, the senses, and the mind. This verse is saying that the fruit of the Tree was really desirable. She really wanted it.

It’s hard to be tempted by something you don’t actually want.

B. Temptation in the Wilderness

In the New Testament passage, we encounter the story of Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness.  His own forty-day period of fasting and preparation for the difficult ministry that lies ahead.  In this famous scene, the details of which are found only in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus is tempted three times by Satan.

Near the Monastery of the Temptation, traditional site of Jesus’ temptation, Jericho, Palestine.

He is first tempted by food; an obvious physical lack that anyone who had been fasting would certainly appreciate.  I’ve been to the caves in Jericho, in the West Bank where Jesus is supposed to have been tempted. I note with amusement that there is a restaurant on that site now. A good one.

He is next tempted to get God to demonstrate power and protection over Jesus. For this temptation, Satan actually uses a verse from Scripture to justify his offer. See, Jesus, you want this and there’s nothing wrong with it.

And finally, he is tempted by power and dominion, shown all the kingdoms of the world that could lie under his control. The only catch: he has to worship Satan.  In each case, Jesus is able to resist temptation, and do so with a particularly apt Biblical quotation as well.

But let’s be clear about something: this is not an empty exercise.  It is not a dramatization.  Jesus must want these things in order for the temptation to be real.  He must have perceived some lack in order for the offer to have even merited consideration.  He has to muster scripture to argue against these temptations. Had they been something he didn’t want on any level—like, say, okra—he would have just said, “No, thanks.”

Jesus must have experienced want.  The want of food, the desire to see God to show up and act decisively, the desire to change the world.  All of these things are completely normal and to be expected.


In fact, perhaps one of the reasons our spiritual disciplines require fasting and abstinence is not because we’re so fat and happy that it would be good for us to know what it looks like to actually want something (though that is often the case), but because we are often in a state of want and should be spiritually prepared to deal with that.

That is, we are frequently finding ourselves wanting.  There are things we desire and cannot or do not have.  There are things we wish were in our lives that we lack.  And we perceive the lack keenly. And we perceive the lack both in terms of things we need and things we want. For we are all in need of certain things in life: food, shelter, love.  Jesus himself is tempted with both things he needs (food) and things he desires (power, God’s presence). And whenever we experience a lack in any of those, we can feel that God has failed to provide for us the things we need or the things we want.  And we find ourselves in a wilderness experience.  Both in times of need and times of desire.

A. Need

The problem is that want can create something of a spiritual crisis. When we feel that we lack the basic things we need, we can wonder at God’s providence.  Did not God promise to provide us with everything we need if we remain faithful? Aren’t there passages throughout the scriptures that say as much?  Then when we’re in times where we feel we lack the essentials of life: food, money, shelter, love—we can feel that we must be far from God’s grace, else why would we not have the things we need.

B. Want

We can even find ourselves in a wilderness because of something we desire. Something we long for, beyond simple need. And this too can create a spiritual crisis. Because not only do we lack something we want, but deep down, we fear that even were we to have the very thing we lack, we would not be made more whole.  That even the thing we desire most of all will not bring us happiness.  And we’re stuck.

This realization can itself lead to a wilderness experience.  A greater anxiety even than the original lack itself.  And so, people will often respond in a couple of different ways. [1]

Some decide simply to renounce their pursuit of the desire.  They determine that that which they seek can never be obtained.  Rather than run the risk of disappointment after obtaining the object of desire, they simply declare the quest to be futile.  But the problem is, most people don’t really believe their own pronouncements this way.  They yearn for the object of their desire, even if they never pursue it, and no other goal subsequently adopted will ever satisfy in the same way.

For example, someone might crave a relationship but for fear that actually getting one won’t make them happy, they decide that they can never get one and stop pursuing one.  But all the while, that original desire, the satisfaction of that want, is all they really crave. Recognizing this, some embark on another course of action.

Contemporary theologian Peter Rollins considers this phenomenon in light of the example of Wile E. Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons.  Wile E. Coyote spends all his time in pursuit of the Roadrunner and never even comes close to catching him.  He spends a fair amount of money on this endeavor, too.  He purchases all kinds of equipment from the Acme company, including rockets, catapults, and all manner of contraptions that must be fairly expensive but are only exceeded in their costliness by their ineffectiveness.  Not a single one of these contraptions works and every single one fails in a catastrophic and tragic way foiling Wile E. Coyote every time.

Rollins asks how it is that Acme Products can possibly stay in business.  Given their spectacular record of failure and faulty products, how on earth is Acme still up and running after all these years and why is Wile E. Coyote still purchasing products from them?  Rollins theorizes that the Acme products are just fine.  He believes that Wile E. Coyote is simply getting up in the middle of the night, probably unaware that he’s even doing this, and sabotaging his Acme products.  In this way, he keeps the object of his desire—capturing the Roadrunner—while ensuring that he will never attain it, and therefore will never face the reality that capturing the roadrunner will never bring him true happiness.

Rollins maintains that this self-sabotage is frequently encountered in the church.  There are things we want but we act in such a way as to ensure that we will never succeed in attaining them.  In this way, we ensure that we remain busy and focused on the thing we want, but never have to face the reality of what it would be like to attain it. We do this with mission.  We do this with our own spiritual life.  We do this with seeking after God.  And we find ourselves confronted with three equally unappealing options, in Rollins’ words:

“…experiencing God and finding out that life really isn’t that different in the aftermath, not getting God and feeling empty, [or] constantly chasing God and never finding rest.” [2]

And what this means is that we find ourselves in the wilderness of want, but act in such a way as to ensure that we will remain there.


But it is in the wilderness that we can encounter God most profoundly.  The Israelites were liberated from bondage in Egypt by God but encountered God most fully on their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness of Sinai.  And so it is that we can encounter God even in a wilderness of want. Both for things we need and things we desire.

A. Needing

We encounter God in the realization that we lack.  For we understand that Jesus, too, knew what that deprivation was like.  Jesus, too, knew want of the basic necessities of life.  He knew the temptation of desire.  He longed to see his wishes made manifest.  Even in our deepest need, our deepest longing, we are not alienated from God, but encounter a God who knows our longings and understands our needs and desires.

The longing, then, is not the absence of God, it is a God-moment in and of itself.  When we recognize that the things we seek cannot make us whole, we recognize the lack within us.  We recognize the empty space we have.  And in that recognition, we encounter the emptiness of God.

This sounds like a radical idea, but it is at the core of our proclamation: a God who empties God’s own self to take on our flesh, to live our lives, to suffer our death, and be raised to our resurrection.

The awesome power of the incarnation of the Word of God in the flesh, the powerful experience of the suffering of the Son of God on the cross, all are made possible by God’s self-pouring out, self-limitation, self-emptying.

In the emptying of self and the recognition that there is lack, we find ourselves open to new ways of experiencing God.

B. Desiring

But even more so, when we recognize that we need not be locked into three options of pursuit and disappointment, abandoning our quest, or self-sabotage.  That there is a more powerful experience that awaits us.  For we realize that it is in the seeking, it is in the loving, that we encounter God.

When we let go of the idea that the things we desire are meant to satisfy us, we encounter those things in a new and profound way.  If we seek the love of another, it is not in obtaining the person that we are satisfied, it is in the loving of that person.  A love that lets go. A love that seeks freedom.  In doing so we discover that we gain the thing we seek without being subsumed by it.  The same goes for God: in the act of loving God we encounter God through the very act of loving itself.

For in the letting go, we are free to love without expectation. We are free to love without seeking to possess.  We are free to love without seeking to be made whole through the acquisition of things.  We find ourselves made whole through the very act of letting go and loving.  Through the very act of loving someone or something, we seek its welfare, not our own.  We find ourselves connected to the thing we desire, but we maintain a distance between our selves and the things we seek.  In so doing, we come to love more fully and encounter God more truly.


We often find ourselves in the wilderness of want.  But as with the biblical wilderness, such wildernesses are not places where we are removed from God, but where we can encounter God most fully.

We might be in this wilderness because we lack something we need.  But in that lack we know that we are not alone; the Christ who lacked for daily bread, the Christ who emptied himself for our sake, the Christ who gave up so much, is with us still.  Far from being removed from God we find ourselves in a God-moment.

We might be in this wilderness because we lack something we desire.  But even here, God can be found.  For it is in the letting go, the realization that we cannot be made whole by attaining things or people or even God, that we find ourselves experiencing a love more powerful than we could have otherwise imagined.  And in that love, we encounter God most fully.

The wildernesses of our lives are not easy places.  They are places of trial and of challenge.  But in them lie the foundations of a faith that is powerful and an encounter with a God who will lead us on to the Promised Land.


Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7 • The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Matthew 4:1–11 • Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”


[1] Much of the following is borrowed (or stolen) from Peter Rollins, Insurrection, and from a lecture given on July 21, 2011 at the UMCMA Conference in Greensboro, NC.

[2] Ibid.

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