Today is the first Sunday in Lent and we’ve just entered the wilderness with Jesus. Now some of you might be sitting there saying to yourselves that you feel like you’ve been in the wilderness all year—Lent or no Lent. Maybe you have been caring for an elderly parent, maybe you have been struggling to find some purpose in your life, or maybe you look through your TV window each night and see a world torn by division, suffering, arrogant selfishness, terrorism, and greed. Maybe you’ve been dealing with creditors or the health care system or a cranky boss. Maybe someone you love is in a really tough situation and you haven’t a clue as to how you can help. Maybe the wilderness is inside of you—a place that seems to have no familiar landmarks. The wilderness can be chaotic—to be sure–but the message for us today is that angels walk among the wild beasts and the barren land, and live among whatever is tempting you to be other than beloved Sons and Daughters of the Holy One.
The season of Lent recognizes a spiritual wilderness. It is traditionally a time of fasting, repentance, and intentional learning and self-examination—a purposeful journey into the wild. Lent is also a time of preparation. The New Testament has echoes of the Old Testament. Just as Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years while preparing to enter the Promised Land, Jesus will spend 40 days in the desert being tested as he chooses just what kind of Messiah, what kind of healing Spirit he will be.
Lent for early Christians was a time when catechumens (or beginners in the faith) prepared for their baptism and entrance into the church, which traditionally happened on Easter. For many of us, it is a time to understand anew those significant choices that Jesus made to help further God’s kingdom in the world…and the kind of dismal choices that people make which lead to God hanging on a cross.
Incidentally, if you count up the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, you will discover that there are more than forty days. The Sundays in Lent are not counted because each Sunday is a kind of mini-Easter, the recognition that Jesus is resurrected, even in the Lenten season.
Now I suppose this could be confusing. We are meant to journey with Jesus to the cross in Lent. At the same time, we try not to forget that Jesus conquered death by rising from the cross. It’s like keeping Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter– the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus– in our hearts and minds all at the same time. It reminds us of the paradoxes that we carry not just during this season, but in all seasons.
Are you carrying any paradoxes in your life? In paradox, things that appear to contradict each other are held together in tension. Many times we are uncomfortable with paradox; we’d rather things be either black or white, either/or. And when an issue contains a whole lot of gray, we are sometimes tempted to make the issue either one way, or another, refusing to live in the tension. We put situations, people, and things in boxes so that we can have control and so that the tension, the spiritual discomfort, will be quickly resolved for us. Or we opt out…and never enter the wilderness to begin with or refuse to closely examine the paradox firsthand.
And yet, we live and breathe in paradoxes. When we look at our parents we see both the youthful person who carried and nurtured us, and the now aging person who needs our help to dress. We defend fiercely the spouse whom our friend criticizes in the morning, even though we, ourselves, fought fiercely with our loved one on the evening before. We reach out to comfort the grown child who has rejected our advice for the umpteenth time, the one who didn’t want our help yesterday, but who needs our shoulder on which to cry today. The cross is a paradox of death and life.
Jesus has just come dripping wet from his baptism when he is thrust out in the wilderness among the beasts and angels. Just who are the beasts and angels? We are not told. Are they not a kind of paradox in and of themselves? Sometimes angels can be real beasts to know and sometimes the wildness that we encounter is actually quite holy. Jesus spends 40 days out there in the desert, being tempted and tested. It’s a paradox to understand why God’s Son must be tested; it’s a challenge to understand why God’s people face difficulties and obstacles along the road the Promised Land.
Jesus wasn’t out there in the wilderness on retreat at a spa resort, or taking selfies for the folks back home. He was most definitely not trying to prove that he was the best Messiah ever. It wasn’t as if he was on some reality or Survivor show, the sole premise of which is to be the last one standing, or to “vote off” your opponents. He is among the beasts and angels for forty days, before his public ministry, long enough to figure out how to depend on God alone, how to trust in God alone, just like his ancestors, the Israelites, had learned on their 40 year wilderness sojourn. He was out there long enough to commit himself fully to the life purpose that he did not choose, but that had chosen him. He was out there to discover what being a beloved child of God actually means and how to embody such a thing.
Now, we could talk about the temptations that Jesus faced. In fact, if you wanted to know what the gospel writers Matthew and Luke had to say about this, you could turn to their version of the story. (They list three temptations in particular: easy solutions, power and adoration, and a kind of spiritual suicide) However, Mark doesn’t say a whole lot about what trials Jesus endured, and his account is both the earliest and shortest. Some people believe that Jesus wasn’t really tempted; (how can the Divine be tempted?) and that this was a kind of mirage. But such a belief denies Jesus’ humanity.
If you’ve been hanging out in the wilderness lately, then you know that the temptations and trials are real. If you’re a parent, you may have been tempted to take the path of least resistance with your kids, which can lead to even bigger problems down the road. No matter our age, we are often tempted to use our power for selfish gain. We are tempted to take more than we need. We are tempted to take what isn’t ours. We can be tempted to despair or become cynical. We can be tempted to ignore God’s call. We can be tempted to resist learning anything new or different from what we are accustomed.
One of the temptations that the Israelites faced when they were out there wandering in the desert was to return back to their oppressors, to trade their vision of the Promised Land for the slavery that they had just left. The Israelites are tempted to turn around because it was just plain hard living in the desert! Some of the folks were grumbling and there was different food than what they were accustomed to. They cry out, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4-6) They bemoan their misfortune, their lack of free and abundant food, and Moses’ leadership. They even criticize the very food God himself does provide for their trip. Out there in the desert, because it is hard, because it is time-consuming, and because their diet tastes vastly different, the Israelites are tempted to return to the life that they left—as slaves.
When we leave a job, we can be so happy to be freed of the responsibilities and frustrations of our former job. But sometimes, in the in-between time of learning our new occupation, we find ourselves wondering what we got ourselves into. Dreams take time to live into. The Promised Land does not magically appear out of nowhere. We can be tempted to leave behind our vision because it has gotten difficult, or because we don’t recognize the territory anymore. At those times, we are in the wilderness.
Jesus, while tempted in the desert, does not turn back. He recognizes the temptations for what they are and continues to move forward with his ministry despite the challenges to it: whether coming from wild beasts, Satan, or even his own misgivings. He moves forward step by step with the ministry to which he had been called…and the devil chooses to leave him until a more opportune time.
Mark doesn’t describe the specific temptations for Jesus—or for us. However, Mark does say that while Jesus was out there in the wilderness being tempted and challenged by the Adversary, angels waited upon him. The good news is that no matter how fierce the temptation, how desolate the wilderness, how difficult the trial we face, there will be angels in the wilderness. Chances are, they won’t look like angels—they won’t be lounging around on clouds, strumming harps, or adjusting their halos. Chances are they will look and act like us in our very best moments. And chances are, they will have faced a few wild beasts of their own—and lived to tell the story. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Inner Voice of Love, writes:
“You have to dare to stand erect in your struggles. The temptation is to complain, to beg, to be overwhelmed and find your satisfaction in the pity you evoke. But you know already that this is not gaining for you what your heart most desires. As long as you remain standing, you can speak freely to others, reach out to them and receive from them. Thus you speak and act from your center and invite others to speak and act from theirs. In this way, real friendships are possible and real community can be formed. God gives you the strength to stand in your struggles and to respond to them standing.” (stress added)
Jesus’ experience in the wilderness gave him purpose and empowered him for the future. At the end of those forty days, he had a mission and a ministry to heal and not to harm. And it gave him the ability to remain strong and stand, even while dying on the cross.
Friends, this Lent, let us pray to have the courage to face the wilderness and the beasts that cry out in our souls. May the Holy Spirit help us to live in the tension of paradoxes that confront us daily in this world. And may we remember that angels are with us– waiting on us, waiting in us, and waiting among us to help in the struggle. Amen.