Forty Days and Forty Nights… First Thoughts

Matthew 4:1-11

There is a great deal that can be said about our Gospel reading this First Sunday in Lent — about this so familiar story which ‘launches’ Lent for us every year in one version or another.

Indeed, in many seasons I have gone deep into one or another of the ways Jesus is taunted by the tempter. This year, however, I find myself standing still at the beginning. Indeed, I am caught up now by the power of 40 days and the gift that such ’40’ can be.

Although it may not seem to be ‘gift’ at first.

  • Forty days and forty nights Noah and his family and all the then known species of the world rode out the storm, the flood, to emerge into a new world, the old having been destroyed.
  • Forty years the people of Israel wandered in the dessert before entering the promised land, having been formed into a people in God’s Image.
  • Forty days and forty nights both Moses and Elijah spent fasting in the wilderness.
  • Forty days and forty nights Jesus also fasted in the wilderness.

Forty days and forty nights. Forty.

Some say that ‘forty’ in the context of days or years just signifies a very long time. And it was. And it is.

Some say that a period of ‘forty’ breaks up the story line, indicating that something old is over and something new is beginning. And this is also so.

And yes, forty is the number of days in which we pause at this time of year every year.

Only for many of us, the ‘pausing’ does not come easy.

Indeed, as I consider the fact that these forty days and nights came before Jesus began his formal ministry, I am convinced that is perhaps the only way it could have happened. Oh, later we hear about him carving out hours, perhaps even a day or two here or there for such ‘time apart,’ but forty days and forty nights would seem to have not been possible. Not once the teaching, the healing, the calling, the following, the feeding, the miracles started.

I felt the effects of this just last week. The need for such a ‘pause.’ Perhaps even a long one, which was simply not to be.

The week-end had rolled around and I knew it was time to sit down and write what would be sent out from this blog. Only over those last days, I had walked through two deaths with two precious families: people who have come to mean a great deal to me. I had neither the energy nor the perspective to take the story for the next Sunday and to draw meaning from it in any coherent way. And so, in the end it was a rare week when I simply posted something old, rather than offer something which I had not had the space to ponder.

So yes, I yearn for quiet some days, some weeks. I ache for the seeming luxury of the time Jesus spent ‘apart.’ And yet, when such time has been mine? I have found that I am not all that comfortable in it. At least not at first.

And oh, I expect many of you who read this will resonate with this, although I can only say how it was for me.

I went on sabbatical last summer. I had two whole months with which to do what I wanted and needed to do after more than thirty years of active ministry with no such break before. I made it a point to get on a plane to visit family far away the first day. I wanted to make the break quickly from my usual routine. When I returned though, and before my next travel venture began, I was edgy and anxious, unaccustomed as I was to not having every day planned out with a dozen obligations piling up on one another.

All of this is to say that though such time is important, many of us don’t take it and when offered, we do not know what to do with it.

And yet, without that time?

The Israelites in the wilderness…




None of these would have been prepared to face the challenges before them. None of these would have been so shaped for God’s call in what came next.

Indeed, without such time, perhaps even Jesus would not have been able to be so deeply faithful in his responses to Satan when those forty days came to a close.

So I don’t know what this Lent looks like for you.

I do know that carving out such important time ‘apart,’ in the model of so many who have gone before, does not look promising to me.

And yet? Some among those with whom I serve recognize the press of these next weeks for the work we share. And they have organized themselves to bring a meal a couple of times a week between now and Easter. Indeed, one of the daily challenges for me is to be sure there is food on the table for my mother and for me. Some days I am well prepared. I have something on a timer in the oven ready to be pulled out and served before heading back for an evening meeting. Other days? I’m hitting one drive through or another and we are making do.

And so I am thinking now that surely it takes me more than ‘forty’ minutes a day to plan and prep meals. And so I am wondering now if at least a couple of days a week I can stand still in those forty minutes which have been given back to me. Indeed, I am wondering if the gift of that time can be shaped in such a way that in some small way it might just do some of what that ‘time apart’ did for Jesus and his ministry also for me.

  • Might I also come closer to the point of realizing deeply that the gifts of God are so much greater than the bread I slice for breakfast?
  • Might I, too, learn to trust God even more surely?
  • Might I also be among those who recognize that there are no shortcuts to shaping the world in the manner God intends, that there is no good that comes from bowing to the powers of this world?

Might even 40 minutes a day a couple of days a week begin to shape me in new ways?

Along with Moses and Elijah, Noah and the Israelites and Jesus may there be such ‘time apart’ for each and all of you in the days and weeks to come.

And may you, too, be shaped for wherever God is calling you next.

  • What is your experience of ‘sabbatical’ — of time for rest and renewal? Is such time like or unlike what Jesus experienced? How was it for you?
  • What is the possibility of this year’s Lenten ‘forty days’ holding such time for rest and reflection and renewal?
  • If you are a leader in your congregation, how might you help equip those you lead to dig deep into this possibility? If this Lent is not a particularly busy time for you, how might you make it possible for others to claim such time? What might that look like in your setting?



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