Lent 1, C
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.”
So here’s my question. Why? Why was he led into the wilderness? Keep in mind, Jesus has just been baptized. He rises from the waters of the Jordan. The heavens are opened. The Spirit descends bodily in the form of a dove. A voice comes from the heavens proclaiming, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ For some reason, the Spirit seems to think that a fitting follow up to this dramatic, soul wrenching, goose bump inducing event would be for the Beloved to spend 40 days in harsh, wild territory without eating or drinking, tempted by the devil.
Three of the gospels tell us this story. Matthew and Luke give us the long version, same temptations , same scriptural answers, just in a different order. Mark spends a total of two sentences on the subject. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” None of the gospels tell us why He went-why the Spirit sent him.
He did not go to prove something to others. He didn’t bring human company. He did not go to earn his Father’s approval – God had bestowed his unconditional blessing already. We do not know why the spirit led Jesus into this wilderness, but I have to believe that he needed to explore his relationship with his Father; learn what it meant on a practical, gritty, day to day basis, to be the Beloved, the Son, the Word with a capital W. This is not a discovery that can be made basking in the glow of God’s approval, perhaps, but something which requires a time apart, a time in the stark, harsh, unforgiving wilderness.
For the most part, we don’t head voluntarily into our wildernesses.
Yet, as poet Ruth Burgess wrote,
The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who follow the Spirit’s leading
or are driven,
because they will not come any other way. (Women Prayers)
If you have not already experienced your wilderness, if you are not now in your wilderness, that time will come. Your wilderness is unlikely to look like the desert around the Jordan. It may come in the form of lost independence, health issues, financial issues. It may look exactly the same as your world now, but suddenly bereft of something or someone that gave it meaning or color. You will know you are in your wilderness when the things that you depend on, the metaphorical food and water of your life is missing, and you feel utterly alone with only your temptations surrounding you. That will be the time to remember with Paul, “the Word (with a capital W) is near you, in your heart and in your lips.”
On Ash Wednesday, Lynn invited us, “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
Self-examination, repentance, fasting, self-denial. In a society marked by conspicuous consumption, where everything is super-sized, where bigger is better, where winning is everything, self-examination, repentance, fasting and self-denial sound like punishment. Indeed, we often treat Lent, with its emphasis on sin and penitence, as punishment. Self-imposed punishment for the simple crime of being human, being what God created us to be.
17th century philosopher Blais Pascal spoke of a God-shaped hole within each of us. A hole that could be filled by God and God alone. In order to fill that hole, we must stay in relationship with God. If we do not, we continually try to fill this infinite hole with the finites of this life: power, food, alcohol, money, relationships; even just the constant noise of cell phones and television and entire computer generated worlds. The disciplines of Lent invite us to decrease the distractions and face the fear of the hollowness within.
Lent is not a punishment for being human – God made us human and knew what He was getting into when He did it.
Lent is not New Year’s resolution Take 2 – getting slimmer, trimmer, healthier, richer, more loved, whatever is simply not the point. It’s not a bad thing, but it is not the point.
Lent is not a checklist – Let’s see, look over the day – probably shouldn’t have gotten cranky this morning. (Check off self examination.) Won’t do that tomorrow. (Check off repentance). Yeah, um, sorry for the crankiness, God. Thanks for not striking me down. (Check off prayer) Skip that second helping at dinner tonight. (Check off fasting)
Historically, Lent is a time of preparation for new converts before their baptism at Easter. 40 days of learning to live a life in faith. According to the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, “[The word] “Lent,”…[is] from an English word meaning “spring”–not just a reference to the crocuses pushing their ways out of the ground in the season before Easter, but also to the greening of the human soul–pruned with repentance, fertilized with fasting, spritzed with self-appraisal, mulched with prayer.” It is a time to cultivate our relationship with God, to fill the spiritual emptiness that is the wilderness within us.
Teresa of Avila penned these words in response to words she heard in prayer:
Soul, you must seek yourself in Me
And in yourself seek Me.
With such skill, soul
Love could portray you in Me.
That a painter well gifted
Could never show
So finely that image.
For love you were fashioned
Deep within me
Painted so beautiful, so fair;
If, my beloved, you are lost,
Soul seek yourself in Me.
When we go voluntarily into our own wilderness in the Lenten season, owning our faults, changing our ways, stifling the extraneous noise, slowly we begin to hear the small, still voice of God. Slowly we learn to know, deep within ourselves, that the Word is near us, on our lips and in our hearts.
The wilderness will come again. The devil merely waits “till a more opportune time”. But we can begin to trust that the spirit who leads us into the wilderness will lead us back out again. And as we live our Lenten journey, may we present the first fruits of our spiritual labours before the Lord our God and serve only Him for all of our days. Amen