The season of Lent begins with the story of Jesus going out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. I always thought I knew what a wilderness was, but last fall, on a trip to the Holy Land, I and my fellow pilgrims experienced the real thing. The area is called Wadi Qelt, just south of Jericho near where the Jordan River flows into the Dead Sea. It’s a stretch of sand-colored hills glistening in the sun and stretching as far as the eye can see, dotted with boulders, brush, and a few scorpions. We were to pause there for only an hour or two, but by the end many of us didn’t want to leave.
We gazed across the gorge to the path that Jesus walked 2,000 years ago as he was making his way to Jerusalem. It was as quiet a place as we had ever experienced—because the sand absorbs sound but also because there weren’t many living things around. The only noise was the faintest rustling of a breeze. Sometimes there seemed to be a slight humming in your ears, and you became aware of the noise your breathing was making. Some said they could hear their hearts beat.
Jesus must have been thirty, about the age when people are asking questions about where their lives are going, maybe having second thoughts. We’re watching the beginning of his ministry as he makes his way to the Jordan River where John baptizes him, and he hears those strange words, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” But what did that mean? What was he to become? What would he try to accomplish?
Then the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days, where he is tempted by Satan. It’s important to notice that this wasn’t his idea. The Spirit pushes him to do it, it’s part of what God has in mind for him. For some reason he needs it.
Now all these years later the church invites us to see Lent as our own 40 days in the wilderness. The world ‘Lent’ comes from the old English word ‘Lenten,’ which means ‘spring’—not just the return of flowers and leaves, but the time of a springtime of the soul, of sprigs of green and shoots of new life emerging. The church knew itself well—how easily being a Christian becomes comfortable and complacent—a nice touch to add to our Sundays, a good thing for the kids, a place to turn to in the big moments. It knew Christians needed an annual season of refocusing, and so early on it claimed this season to return to its roots. The people of Israel had spent 40 years in the wilderness learning to trust God, Elijah spent 40 days there before hearing the still, small voice of God, Moses spent 40 days listening to God and receiving the Law. Hard, good things happened in the wilderness.
Forty days became the pattern, and it was meant as a gift, an opportunity to step out of the relentless demands of our days and actually create the space to listen and see what’s going on in our lives underneath the static and chatter. It was to be a time to remember what it is like to live by trusting in God alone and not in all our busy, productive schemes.
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls it an Outward Bound for the soul—one of those wilderness experiences people take that are meant to stretch and challenge them. No one makes you do this thing, but if you do you give up the notion that you’re in control for awhile. You place yourself in the hands of strangers who ask you to do foolhardy things, like walk backwards over a precipice with nothing but a rope around your waist or climb a sheer rock face with your fingers and toes. And, of course, in a true wilderness there aren’t any paths. There’s no clear way to go. You have to use compasses and maps and your best instincts to find your way.
And then comes the real test when you’re out alone for 24 hours. That is when you find out who you are, when you discover what you’re really afraid of and what you have always depended on to feel secure. As Barbara Taylor says, when people are out alone in the pitch black dark, with strange noises and the rustling of creatures, “everyone finds out what their pacifiers are—the habits, substances or surroundings they use to comfort themselves, to block out the pain and fear.” Without them, they are exposed.
Jesus experiences this isolation and uncertainty for forty days—living without the small comforts and petty addictions that keep us going—eating, physical comfort, the company of friends. And that’s when, Mark says, Satan tempted him.
Luke and Matthew’s gospels spell out the temptations, and they all have to do with impressing the crowds, holding onto material possessions, being able to control and impress. Satan doesn’t tempt Jesus to do obviously evil things—lie, cheat, or steal. Instead, Jesus is tempted to take charge of his life on his terms, to take a few shortcuts, to keep everyone impressed. Satan is after Jesus’ integrity. He wants Jesus to be less than God made him to be.
The season of Lent ought to take us to places where we are asking questions about who we are and how our lives are being subtly seduced. We are tempted to settle for smaller versions of our selves and our lives, to live only for an agenda that looks no further than our and our family’s happiness. We’re tempted to keep up appearances, to hold fast to safe patterns.
But Lent calls us to step deeply enough into the wilderness to see the wild beasts lurking in our spirits, to look at the fears we carry, to pay attention to the subtle temptation to disbelieve in who we are.
For most of us the wilderness isn’t a desert, or an Outward Bound adventure, it’s something much closer to home. It’s a place that finds us, a place where we’re not in control, where all the old tools of our smarts and savvy aren’t working. Sometimes old structures fall away. Relationships end, someone dies, you begin to find that the work you’re doing and the days you’re living seem increasingly empty. Wilderness.
If I had to give a name to what we are going through in our nation and world now with this economic crisis, I would call it a journey into the wilderness. Everything we thought was sure—banks, our life savings, a solid and even a prosperous economy, a market where we can find jobs—all that has disappeared. We read about new Ponzi schemes, the extravagant pay and vacations of AIG and Wall Street executives, the damage wreaked in our economy by decades of unconstrained spending and selfishness. No one knows where this is going. It can feel as if we’re out in the desert without knowing what we can count on. When we go to bed at night it’s as if we hear the sounds of the wild beasts stirring out there.
And, of course, there are plenty of temptations in this wilderness. We want to hurry to put everything back together. Just the right kind of tax cuts and bail outs and employment programs will fix this. We rightly want to fix a lot of the other things that are wrong–our deficit, our health care, the entitlement programs, energy policy, climate change. But then a host of interest groups are determined that nothing should change. The temptations to focus on self-interest alone are everywhere. It looks as if our address is going to be wilderness for awhile.
Maybe our greatest temptation in this time is to yield to despair. But here’s the ringer. All those times in the wilderness the people of God have been through, in fact, turned out to be their best times. Not the easiest, not the smoothest, but the times, they later realized, when they were most fully alive and closest to God. The wilderness taught them the very things that Jesus knew in facing Satan—that at the end of the day they didn’t really need all that much to get by. They could live more simply, with more time to pay attention to their days. They could cling to their Holy Book and learn what it means to trust every day to God, to seek God’s leading and strength and hope. They could learn to lean on each other as they made their way. And they could turn their attention to the weak and the left out—the ones that God kept pointing them toward.
Many of us are the children of parents who were shaped by the Great Depression. No generation is perfect, of course. But isn’t it true that there was a sense of gratitude, caution, and responsibility for others that grew out of the wilderness of the Great Depression? Could it be that this long Lent for our nation, in which so many will lose homes and jobs and life savings, could still have its own gifts to give? A wiser, more chastened, more interconnected and responsible nation, maybe?
This issue for us in this Lent is, Can we trust God in this wilderness? What steps do you need to take to become more free and alive, even in this time of immense uncertainty? Where are you feeling the pull of the tempter to close down, to withdraw, to turn in on yourself? Where are you being called to respond to the world of need around you? Where are you being called to strengthen your closeness with God—with daily times of silence and reading scripture, or using a journal to listen to your life?
If you have the courage to face this wilderness within and around you, you will encounter temptations, for sure. But you will also discover the strength of God.
Did you notice the last words about Jesus in the story? “He was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.” The whole point of wilderness is that, hard as it is to be in uncertain, uncharted territory, God is there. Be strong, face the inner deserts and monsters, resist the tempter, live with the uncertainty, trust God. And the healing of the angels will come.