Of all the things we do liturgically, I sometimes think that the Season of Lent presents us in the twenty-first century with the greatest distance from our contemporary world. Lent is a season of repentance and self-examination that flies in the face of our consumerist culture and values. Lent challenges us to focus, when what we want is distraction. Lent is somber when we want to be happy. Lent invites us to self-denial and fasting when we crave self-indulgence.
And think about it… What are our public rituals of confession and repentance? When have you ever, really, seen or heard a politician or another national figure, be it an athlete or a celebrity, openly and publicly admit their wrongdoing and ask our forgiveness? When do people admit publicly that they were wrong, or wronged someone? We hear people taking “full responsibility” but to admit one was wrong, to ask forgiveness, are signs of weakness, not strength.
And then there’s just the unfamiliarity of it all. Unless you grew up in a liturgical church—Catholic, Episcopal, perhaps Lutheran—Lent probably didn’t play any significant role in your spiritual lives. Perhaps if you’ve come from one of those traditions, or no tradition at all, you’re somewhat bewildered by all that’s going on here today.
And even those of you who are familiar with it all: What does Lent mean to you other than a period of demonstrative fasting, like giving up chocolate, or an excuse to have fish fry on Friday nights? Perhaps some of you are turned off by all of it, remembering practices that were familiar in the church of your childhood from which you still carry psychological and perhaps spiritual scars. How can we engage meaningfully with this season of the liturgical year?
Lent is a season of repentance and self-examination. It is an opportunity for us to take stock of ourselves, to explore and deepen our relationship with God, to be more intentional about our prayer life. We’ve provided a number of resources that might help you do some of those things, from our Lenten programming, to the suggestions that were distributed in This Week at Grace on Monday, or engage with the Haiti Project. I hope many of you will take advantage of these resources or pursue others.
Lent always begins the same way. At Grace, we use the Great Litany in both of our services on the First Sunday in Lent, and each year, our gospel is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Actually, that’s a little bit of a misleading title, at least for the verses we just heard from Mark. And actually, we have heard all of this gospel text, except for two verses already in this year. We heard the story of Jesus’ baptism on January 11, the baptism of our Lord, and two weeks later, we read the last two verses of today’s reading. So we see it all, the transition from baptism, to wilderness, to preaching the reign of God and we’re encouraged to see the connections between these three elements. But even as we do that, we’re probably inclined to overlook the brevity and simplicity of Mark’s version of Jesus in the wilderness, and what he might be trying to teach us.
Here’s Mark’s version:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now a couple of things right off the bat. First of all, if you remember what I said last week about some of Mark’s overarching themes, you’ll want to add something about his typical style. That word “immediately” appears more than forty times in the gospel. Its repetition stresses the urgency and speed of all that is taking place. The second important thing about this is the connection between the wilderness and baptism. Mark has just said that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus as he was baptized. Now, the very same spirit, the Holy Spirit, drives him into the wilderness.
What can Mark have meant by telling us that “immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness?” “drove” that’s powerful, almost violent language, and indeed it’s the very same word that Mark uses to describe Jesus’ actions and power when he drives unclean spirits out of possessed people. And we might go further and see a deeper connection—the Holy Spirit entered into Jesus at his baptism, possessed him, we might say.
There’s something else worth noting. Our translation says Satan “tempted” him, in fact, a better translation would be tested, not tempted. That is to say, rather than be enticed or lured away from his mission, Mark seems to be suggesting that he is being assessed, evaluated—will he be up to the task that is set before him?
All of this takes place in the wilderness, where Jesus was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him. That’s all Mark tells us; that’s all he thinks we need to know. We don’t know the content of the “testing” nor do we know Jesus’ mental or spiritual state as he was undergoing it. All we know is that when he returned from the wilderness and his testing, he began his public ministry, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God.
The wilderness is a rich image, one with a lengthy history in the biblical tradition, going back to the sojourn of the Hebrews in the wilderness. Whatever else the wilderness might have been, it was wild, as Mark’s mention of the “wild beasts” emphasizes. The wilderness is not civilized; it is not a safe place.
All of us have experienced such wild and dangerous places. All of us have sojourned in the wilderness, whether for forty days or forty years. Some of us may feel ourselves in such a place today. We may be struggling to experience God’s presence in our lives; we may sense that we are beset by wild beasts or other struggles. Our spiritual lives may seem as dry and barren as a desert. We may be lost and discern no way forward.
Whatever the case, whether we find ourselves in a wilderness today; whether we worry about the one in the past or the one just over the horizon, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness can offer us comfort and courage. While we don’t know the details of what happened there, we do know that God and the Holy Spirit were with him. We know that angels ministered to him. Most importantly, we know that he emerged from the wilderness empowered and equipped to begin his public ministry.
In spite of the danger and barrenness of the wilderness places in our own lives and journeys, in spite of the sense we might have that we have been abandoned by God, left alone to battle the demons, or to battle our demons, we can be sure that God is there with us. It may even be that such wilderness places are also places of growth and learning; that we emerge from them with deeper faith and a stronger sense of purpose.
There may even be a sense in which the season of Lent is a wilderness time in our religious lives. Stripped bare of decoration, crucifixes veiled, our joy and celebration muted by somber themes, Lent invites to explore the lows rather than the highs of our spiritual lives. Just as a trek in the wilderness challenges our physical strength and endurance, so too can Lent be a challenge, a testing of our spiritual strength. It invites us to deepen our prayer life, confront the realities of our humanity, and to be honest about our relationship with Jesus Christ. May our wilderness time of Lent be a time when we experience more deeply the presence of God in our lives. May it also be a time when in the midst of our testing, the angels minister to us.