The Wilderness of Lent

Mark 1:9-15

Today is the first Sunday of Lent – the annual period of reflection leading to the joy and celebration of Easter.

It is also the Sunday that we hear in the reading about of the baptism of Jesus and God’s affirmation that He is His well-beloved son. It surely helps to remind us of our own baptisms. Our baptism is the first sacrament that we share with Jesus. Just as it was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, so it is the beginning of our life in Christ and compels us to follow His teachings and to emulate His life.

Although most of us do not remember our baptism, we still are able to relive it each time we witness a baptism and we have the opportunity to begin anew our life in Christ through our baptismal vows. Indeed, together as a family of Christ’s followers, we commit ourselves to try to live the life that Jesus taught.

Pretty powerful stuff – or at least it can be. We are given to the opportunity to start again, to do better this time, to live up to the Christ’s teachings and values.

As the Scripture continues we are told that following His baptism, Jesus went into the desert for forty days. He did not chose to do this willingly, but was driven out into the desert by the Holy Spirit. He was cast into the wilderness in order to prepare for His great work for which He had come to earth. He didn’t go to a library, he didn’t go to a spa, he want alone into a wilderness with wild beasts, dust, sand, heat during the day, cold during the night, no food, no water for forty days of fasting and prayer. It was a rigorous time, it was a lonely time, it was a time in which most would have turned back, given up from fear or doubt or dread.

During these forty days and nights, we learn that Jesus was tempted by Satan three times:

    • When hungry He was challenged to turn stones into bread; Jesus replied that we cannot live by bread alone;

    • When in his solitude he felt powerless, He was taunted by Satan to have the angels catch Him as He threw himself from the pinnacle, Jesus reminded us that we should not tempt God;

    • When He was overcome by loneliness and helplessness, Satan offered the Jesus the kingdom of the world with all its power and riches; Jesus rebuked Satan, reminding us that we should worship only the Lord our God and nothing else.

In the desert Jesus sought the inner strength and calm and resolve to claim his identity as God’s child, and to let the rest of his life – his words, his relationships, and his love, even to dying a painful and unjust death on the cross, come from that identity as God’s beloved Son.

Jesus denied Satan’s three temptations and then told Him to go away! (do you remember the scripture: Get behind me Satan?) At that point he was ready. Jesus comes out of the wilderness proclaiming that the ultimate battle is won: the reign of God had begun.

Forty days and forty nights Jesus suffered and prayed in the desert. And this is why we have Lent.

Anyone see a pattern of His forty days in the desert and our forty days of Lent?

During those forty days, Jesus was without food and water, being tempted by Satan to prove he was the Son of God. It becomes clear that even though Jesus was baptized, He (and we) do not get a ‘get out of suffering’ card when we are baptized. We will still have conflict and suffering. Our baptism equips us both for the realities of the wilderness and the work of joyful proclamation at the resurrection. Through prayer and the grace of God we, too, will get through it.

We have now entered the desert of Lent on a spiritual quest of our own. Lent is not a domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; (giving up something that most people think is good to give up, at least for a time — chocolate, beer, swearing — drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as ‘good,’).

But if we want to experience our Lenten quest fully, we need to realize that the quest we’re on for these forty days is NOT tame NOR flippant. Jesus left his family and entered a desert with wild beasts, hunger, bodily discomfort and all the temptations of Hell. . . and angels (and I don’t know about you, but I suspect that the reason the first thing out of an angel’s mouth is “don’t be afraid!” is because angels are often as terrifying as wild beasts).

And if we are striving to follow Him, we should make our Lent a time of fasting, reflection, penitence, searching and prayer. During our forty days of Lent, we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the jubilation of the resurrection of Christ on Easter morning.

Jesus was alone, but we are not alone. We have each other, and we also have something else on our journey – the opportunity to encounter God as Jesus did, to wrap ourselves in God’s word to us that we are His beloved children, to claim that identity as Jesus did – the only identity that really matters – as a child of God.

And Lent is not only forty days of centering and reflection, it is preparation for truly participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is about dying to an old identity defined by our culture, our traditions, our habits and even our families, and being born into a new identity centered in the spirit of God. It means dying to an old way and being born into a new way of being. . . being centered in God.

It is about dying to our deadness, that daily routine of our lives that we trudge through, oblivious to the needs of other and the call of our Lord. It is a time of reminding ourselves of God’s love and God’s reality. It is a time to be lifted out of our confinement, removing those feelings of burden and mortality, of fear and doubt.

How shall we spend these forty days of Lent?

    • How about forty days where we truly open ourselves to God through prayer and meditation and inviting God to live through us as never before;

    • How about forty days where we examine ourselves, our shortcomings, our judgments, our arrogance and egos, where we face who we are and strive once again to be all that we can be confident in the love and acceptance of God;

    • How about forty days in which we remember we are dust and to dust our bodies will return, but with God’s grace our spirits will be transformed and we can live THIS life and THE LIFE TO COME more fully, embraced in God’s unending love to do His work through us.

So just as we came Wednesday to have ashes in the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads, may we open our hearts, admit our helplessness to save ourselves, and accept the grace and forgiveness that marks us as a child of God with new resolve to be His body on earth.

Let us pray:

O God, how you honor us by creating us in your image and giving us the gift of life. We want to live in a way that will honor you in everything we do. We want to be like Jesus. We want to see the reflection of Christ in the eyes of everyone. We want to be part of the gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit, that lives in each one of us and enables us to share – to share love, to share concern, to share service, to be disciples. Bless us on this day and every day with the opportunity to be like Jesus, to make a difference in the world that you have shared with us. And when we are in the wilderness, help us to experience your presence, help us to know that we too are attended by angels and that we can come out of the wilderness into the world and make a difference in your name.


Delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church On Capitol Square, 1 March 2009

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