In the early 90s, Corrie and I were living north of Boston. We were graduate students. I was finishing my dissertation, Corrie was working on hers. The academic job market was tight. In fact, the year I finished there was exactly one job opening in the History of Christianity nationwide. We decided to stay where we were, close to Harvard libraries, while Corrie finished. And I would look for work. Eventually I found it in the unlikeliest of places. After working as a temp in several companies, I landed a permanent job in a seafood-processing firm. We mostly sold shrimp, fish sticks and other frozen seafood items to school cafeterias, restaurants, and retail outlets.
I couldn’t have been working there more than a few weeks when I walked into one of the managers’ offices and saw on her wall, a framed poster. On it, in screaming black letters were the words “Get Ready for Lent!” It was October.
It took me a few minutes to figure it out. No, she wasn’t some super-pious Roman Catholic. It was a seafood processing company, remember. Obviously, the high season for seafood was going to be Lent. Even though the Roman Catholic church has long since loosened rules about eating fish on Fridays throughout the year, Fridays in Lent remain days of abstinence. The poster turned out to have been part of a marketing campaign aimed at getting their sales staff, and their customers, prepared for the increased sales of seafood during Lent.
Seafood processing companies may be the only institutions that look forward to Lent. It takes a curious sort of person who would look forward to the self-examination and self-discipline that the season of Lent encourages. Most of us want our religious lives to focus on celebration and joy, not the repentance, the gloom and doom, of Lent. Chanting the Great Litany only adds to the sense that we are in season without joy. But this week’s lessons turn us away from repentance toward other themes.
There are two images that dominate today’s lessons—water and the wilderness. We see the destructive power of water in the reading from Genesis. Today’s lesson comes from the end of the story of the flood. It is a familiar story to all of us, but it is rich in meaning in the book of Genesis. You will recall that the story begins with God regretting the act of creation, because of all of the sin that entered the world. God decided to destroy all of creation with the flood.
In fact, this is an undoing, a reversal of creation. Just as in Genesis 1:1 and 2, the author portrays the universe as a watery chaos that God brings into order and divides in the act of creation. In the flood God undoes creation, allowing water to return. But in the end, God repents, and saves Noah and his family and promises them, and all living things, that never again will such destruction take place. God seals the promise with a covenant and with the rainbow, its sign.
Water is destructive. Water is also salvific. In I Peter, the author draws on the story of the flood to make a point about baptism. The water of baptism signifies both death and resurrection. As Paul describes it in baptism, we die in Christ, so that we might live in Christ. Water signifies death, it also signifies rebirth. And for Peter, the ark with the little band of humans who survive the flood, represents the community of the faithful.
In today’s gospel, the image of water, baptism, is brought together with the other important theme in today’s reading, the temptation in the wilderness. We are back in the first chapter of Mark. Part of this reading we’ve heard before. On the first Sunday of Epiphany, also known as The Baptism of Our Lord, we heard the first few verses, Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism. Last week, we also heard resonances of this story, in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration. Today, we hear the continuation of the story—Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and the beginning of his public ministry.
Our focus today is not on Jesus’ baptism, but on what comes next. And that brings us to the second dominant image in today’s gospel—the wilderness. Like water, it is an image that is rich in meaning for the biblical tradition. One thinks immediately of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. But a more pertinent connection is with the prophet Elijah, who after his great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, was forced to flee into the wilderness where he stayed forty days, and was ministered to by angels. During his sojourn in the wilderness, Elijah had an encounter with God. Jesus, on the other hand is tempted by Satan.
Lent is a wilderness, but like the wilderness in the biblical tradition, it is a wilderness of opportunity. The opportunities Lent offers may not be particularly welcome. We may not really want to spend time in self-examination and reflection, but the purpose of Lent is to make us strip ourselves bare of all the little self-deceptions that keep us from deepening our relationship with God. We don’t know what happened to Jesus in the wilderness. Mark tells us only that Satan tempted him.
In Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation, there is no sense that Jesus is by himself, abandoned by God. It is not a time when Jesus is alone, wrestling with his demons, or wrestling with Satan. In fact, Mark suggests that he has been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, that his time in the wilderness is a time with God, as well as a confrontation with Satan.
For us, Lent is a time of reflection. It provides us the opportunity to take a good, hard look at ourselves and at our lives, to reflect on who we are and on who God calls us to be. The Great Litany, with its encyclopedic recital of all of our possible sins and shortcomings, can seem like something of a checklist. But it’s not meant to let us off the hook. Rather, it and all of our penitential language during Lent, encourages us to give ourselves a good hard look. It encourages us, for once, to be brutally honest with ourselves.
Such language and discipline may be uncomfortable for us. We don’t like it. We live in a culture in which to admit a sin is often nothing more than an opportunity for grandstanding and publicity. But Lent is not meant to be like that. The wilderness of Lent is an opportunity for us to struggle with ourselves, and with God, to know ourselves, and to learn to know God better.
There’s another way in which we experience the wilderness of Lent. There are times when for whatever reason, we find ourselves in a difficult place. Many of us find ourselves in such a place today. With a struggling economy, some of us have lost our jobs, many of us fear for the future. We are worried about what might come next. In times like these, it may seem natural to turn to God for comfort, but instead, we come to church and hear the ominous words of the Great Litany. We seek solace, but instead are urged to repent or take on some new spiritual discipline. Lent may seem like the last thing we need right now.
But even times like these can be spiritually meaningful. A difficult economy might be the perfect time to reflect on what’s really important, to ask ourselves whether the priorities and goals we have set for ourselves are really what matter most.
Those two years I worked for a seafood processing company were just such a time. I had already achieved some amazing things, not least was a doctorate from Harvard. I learned a great deal in those two years, above all that I didn’t want to spend my life working in corporate America. But it was a desert, because it seemed that all I had accomplished, everything I had worked for all of my life was worthless. Thankfully, my journey didn’t end in that office park in Danvers, MA, but there have been times over the years when things have seemed just as hopeless as they did then in 1992 or 1993.
Some of us live in such places for a short time, like me, for a couple of years. Some of you have lived in such places for a very long time—some of you are in a wilderness right now, and you have no idea, no hope even that one day you will leave that dry and barren land and re-emerge in a better place. For those of you in that kind of wilderness, I’m not going to offer you some sappy platitude about how things are going to get better.
Instead, I’m going to remind you of something else. God was with Jesus in that wilderness, the spirit of God had driven him there. And whatever the danger, physical or spiritual, that Jesus encountered, he faced it and lived through it and emerged ready to begin his public ministry. And while he was in the wilderness, angels ministered to him. May we find this wilderness of Lent, a time of renewal, rebirth, and spiritual awakening.