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It is hard to believe that Ash Wednesday is upon us, with Lent coming in its wake. This season always stirs up some theological anxiety for me. I think it does for many of us. Each year, we hear the incredible story of Jesus heading into the desert. Here from the Gospel of Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

There is a widely preached theology which tells us that we can somehow identify with Jesus. This lens is all too often used to justify whatever behavior we are interested in spiritualizing. And so we get to be angry because Jesus turned over tables in the temple. We get to invoke righteous indignation at politicians or religious figures because Jesus yelled at the Pharisees and the hypocrites. At Lent, our WWJD theology is allowed to go into overdrive. We must “give up” something in order to identify ourselves with the suffering and self-denial of Jesus in the desert.

While all of this sounds earnest and well-intentioned, this theology misses the point–devastatingly so. Jesus wasn’t just hanging out in the desert, dancing to the beat of a one man drum circle. Jesus was going toe to toe with the Satan himself. And there’s nothing relatable about that for us.

jesus-turned-tables-in-the-templeThe unhappy truth is that if we had been in the desert with the devil, and he had offered us the world as our kingdom we would have said: SURE, I’D LOVE TO RUN CAMELOT! THANKS FOR ASKING! WHERE’S MY CROWN?” Jesus has to face the devil down and deny him any and all authority because we are incapable of such sinlessness. And so, Lent is the time when the veil falls between who we think we could be and who Jesus must be for us.

People often talk of Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage, a sort of celestial road trip. We come by this assessment honestly. There are 40 days of Lent because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. And so, the thinking goes, we must be on our own sort of ascetic journey, filled with self-denial and hard earned betterment. So we have Lenten lunches of soup and bread. We give up the modern trinity: chocolate, chardonnay, and Facebook. And then we blog about it.

Hear me clearly. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give up social media or vodka. I’m just suggesting you should go ahead and quit tomorrow in lieu of telling yourself that a Housewives of Atlanta moratorium is Lent-worthy. Because it is not. What Jesus did in the desert and what we attempt to do at Lent are almost wholly unrelated.

I would argue that Lent is not about us giving something up. In fact, it is not about our actions at all. Lent is a moment when we watch Jesus from afar. We are on the other side of the desert, watching him deny himself, bearing witness to his teachings and miracles, observing the disciples failing to stay awake, knowing that the agony of the cross is close at hand. Lent is not sad because we can’t eat carbs. Lent is sad because we are forced to watch the slow, deliberate movement of our Savior from his ministry to his cross. And it reminds us of our sin and our powerlessness over it.

We were not in the desert for 40 days fending off the devil and all manner of temptation. Jesus was. For us. Because we are sinners. And as such, we would have taken all the devil offered.

Cue my Lenten jam:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

-A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Martin Luther