Lent is the desert season – and that doesn’t mean that it’s time for us to pack up and go to Arizona, much as we might welcome the warmth and the dryness. Instead, it is the time in the Church year when we are called to step aside, to take a time out from all the business-as-usual of our lives, and examine our attitudes, our actions, our behavior, and especially our motivations – to see how well we are walking the walk of being Christians.
It is a desert time because the desert is a place where the landscape is clear, where there is not an abundance of lush vegetation to distract the eye, a place where one has to consider carefully the way to use such important resources as water, food, rest and shade. And during the forty days of Lent we attend in a particular way to our spiritual resources of prayer, fasting or abstinence, and alms-giving/charitable giving. During Lent we also pare back and restrain the sense of celebration in our worship – focusing on themes of sin and forgiveness, sacrifice, Jesus’ work on the Cross, and the quality of God’s mercy.
Throughout the Bible the desert stands as a metaphor for coming face to face with oneself, for stripping our psyches down to the point where our souls are bared; it is a place of struggle; it is also the place to meet God. Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden into the wilderness, Abraham and the generations of his family in their journeys, Moses meeting God in the burning bush, the Israelites escaping from Egypt and moving toward the Promised Land, John the Baptist preaching repentance for the coming of the God’s Kingdom, and now Jesus fasting and praying following his baptism: all of these took place in the desert, away from the centers of worldly power and control, away from the daily expectations of life.
Jesus’ time in the desert was an opportunity to meditate and pray and get clear about what he had heard at his baptism: the voice of God saying, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” It was a time of letting his identity sink in, become clear and real, so that he could then go out and begin his public ministry.
But after forty days of prayer and fasting, the devil came to Jesus to tempt him, to try his soul, to attempt to throw gravel in the gears of God’s plan. The devil tried twice to appeal to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One: “If you really are the Son of God, then it will be so easy for you to turn these stones into bread, and you’ll be able to feed hundreds and thousands of hungry people, just like everyone has expected the Messiah to do” AND “If you are really the Son of God, prove it by throwing yourself off this skyscraper, because God’s not going to let anything happen to you! Let’s see what all this Son of God stuff is all about. What’s the matter – don’t you trust him?” When raising teasing questions about Jesus’ identity didn’t work, the devil tried to appeal to vanity and a naked desire for power: “Look Jesus, we can make a deal here, you can have all the power and glory and adulation you want – I’ll give you all of it. And all I want in return is one little thing, for you to worship me. That’s simple, that’s fair; is it a deal?”
In each instance Jesus responded by quoting the Hebrew Scriptures; he didn’t depend on his own resources, he didn’t try to tough it out all on his own. Those words from the Old Testament stand as sentinels in Jesus’ struggles with the tempter, they ground and connect Jesus’ spiritual wrestling with the long, long history of God’s relationship with his people. Jesus was reliving some of that history in his desert experience; he was connecting what had happened in the past and all the ways that God had been faithful to his people with own struggle over temptation.
But Jesus’ struggle wasn’t merely about whether or not to magically have something to eat at the end of his fast, or to make a dramatic and very public entrance on to the scene of first-century Jerusalem by throwing himself off of the pinnacle of the Temple in the sight of a capacity crowd. His temptation (as he was about to begin his public ministry and mission) was to go it alone, to fall back completely on his own resources, to be self-sufficient instead of God-sufficient – in short, to cut himself off from the true source of his power.
And we are in that same place – all the time, if we are really honest about it. We are always vulnerable to believing that we know better than God does, that we need only a little bit of help from God, that are sins and our shortcomings are something we can deal with on our own, that our lives only need tweaking, and not salvation.
We are always in danger of trying to be self-sufficient instead of God-sufficient.n And yet being in the desert of Lent forces us back onto our most basic and fundamental resources: God’s gift of life and God’s will for that life we have been given – neither of which we did anything to bring about so we can’t claim them as accomplishments.
And so in this season of Lent we are asked to embrace the desert, to face into what really is between God and us, to ask how it really is with our souls. Because the bottom line of Lent is about being dependent upon God – not merely about being good or moral or holy. To depend upon God means that we acknowledge that we are limited, fallible humans beings; that we have inherited some of Adam and Eve’s attitudes and behaviors; that sin and crossing the boundaries and missing the mark are not just things that happened in the past, but are with us all the time – part of what it means to be human.
To depend upon God means that we realize that God has been sustaining and directing the world for millions of centuries – and has done so quite nicely without our help before we ever appeared upon the scene; the world does not revolve around us and our wants and needs and desires.
Being dependent on God also means that we can’t assume that we are so sinful that God washes his hands of us, doesn’t want to have anything to do with us; we are not beyond God’s reach nor beyond redemption. God made us for a purpose – to be in relationship with him and to take our place in creation; for us to say that we are better than that, or lesser than that, is to question God and God’s purposes and judgment and will.
And so we struggle and we are tempted, just as Jesus was tempted, to close ourselves off from God, to act and live as though God didn’t exist. So in this Lenten time we are asked to withdraw into the desert, to meet ourselves face-to-face, to wrestle with the things that distract us, seduce us, take our attention from God. But we do so knowing that not only are we walking in Jesus’ footprints on that dry and scrubby desert ground, but that Jesus is here with us, hearing the words of our particular temptations, reaching out a hand to embrace and steady us, giving us the strength and the stamina to face what we need to face and do what we need to do, and the grace to know that there is redemption up ahead, and food for the journey at hand.
Let us pray.
Holy God, you are as close to us as our breath, yet we remove our eyes from your face and think that you have abandoned us. Help us in this Lenten journey to know that “the eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature” (Psalm 145). Walk with us, Jesus; be our bread, be our salvation, be our life. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
First Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2011