This week, the church entered the season of the year called Lent.
Lent lasts for 40 days and is intended to be a time of self-discipline and preparation for Easter. For this reason, many Christians “give up” something for Lent (meat, sweets, or anything that they may indulge in a little too much – one year I gave up TV). This tradition is based on a story in the Bible of Jesus going out into the wilderness and fasting for 40 days. At the end of this time, when he is extremely weak, Satan comes to test him.
We never really know if this is an outside, tangible entity who shows up to tempt Jesus, or whether it is a manifestation of his own inner turmoil. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. This devil basically tries to convince Jesus that this season of self-denial is a waste of time.
He tempts Jesus to turn some rocks into bread so he won’t be hungry anymore. He dares him to throw himself off the top of the temple to test whether God will care about him enough to rescue him. And he tries to recruit Jesus to the dark side, offering him power over the whole world.
In short, the devil offers Jesus three of the things we humans crave most: sustenance, affection, and control.
We know that the youth we care for have been in the wilderness, for much longer than 40 days. This story reminded me of many of the struggles we have heard in their stories. At our mentor gathering last month, we talked about how easy it is for all of use to confuse spiritual hunger with physical hunger, and to try to satisfy our souls with food, especially if we have experienced trauma. Many of our mentors have observed different ways your youth tests their affection for them, trying to see how much they really care and whether they will show up next week. And we know that these youth have had very little – if any – control over the circumstances of their lives.
Chris and I have heard countless stories of young people who have been in this wilderness. And we have unfortunately heard many stories of dark figures who know exactly where to find them and know just what to say to draw them in. They offer sustenance, affection, and control: this is the classic recruiting language of every pimp and every gang. These devils lurk outside juvenile hall and outside group homes waiting for youth who will be released with nowhere else to go.
But in the Bible story, Jesus denies all three offers, and an interesting thing happens when Jesus makes his third denial: “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:11)
In my reading of the story this week, I began to wonder if the angels had been there all along, but Jesus just hadn’t been able to see them.
I imagined Jesus focused on the intensity and immediacy of his hunger and his struggle, but all the while surrounded by a crowd of angels just waiting to support him and help return him to strength.
There will certainly still be times when our youth are struggling, against forces that are invisible to us. But they will also have teams of caring adults standing by, and as soon as they are able to find a moment to breathe and silence those voices of doubt and look around, our community will be there.
Thank you for being angels in waiting.