Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lent is not known as a particularly humorous, liturgical season. Ever since Jesus spent his forty days and nights in the Judean Desert, churches have instead taught that Jesus’ followers should follow his example of self-denial and reflection. Though sometimes, it is difficult to know when the season of Lent actually begins. Two knowledgeable 4th graders were discussing Lent, when the one observed, “Lent seems really early this year.” The other nodded, “Yeah, it changes every year.” The first questioned, “Based on what?” The second replied, “The pastor’s mood I think.”
In some traditions, followers are challenged to abstain from certain foods and things they enjoy. Unfortunately, many fail before they even begin. A bartender noticed that every evening one of his patrons ordered three beers. After several weeks of noticing this pattern, the bartender asked the man why he always ordered three beers. The man said, “I have two brothers who have moved away to different countries. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond.” Several weeks later, the bartender noticed that the man only ordered two beers, so he said, “Please accept my condolences on the death of one of your brothers. You know, the two beers and all…” The man replied, “You’ll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well… It’s just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
On Ash Wednesday, I invited those gathered here to be a part of a pilgrimage. In less than two weeks I will be hosting a group of 34 people through the Holy Land, and as preparation, I am using my Lenten sermons as a way of reflecting on the sites we will visit. On Wednesday evening, I introduced the word pilgrimage as a journey by which one is drawn closer to God. Today, I would like to continue with the spiritual role of the wilderness in scripture and the Lenten focus of preparation for the resurrection.
The Judean Desert as a pilgrimage site is home to five well known archeological sites all built against the harsh, and eerie backdrop of the desert. There is the Herodian, the ancient fortification and palace of King Herod. There is Masada, the last stronghold of the Jewish resistance against the Roman Army, the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, the church on Mount of Temptation looking down on the salty waters of the Dead Sea where Jesus was tempted by Satan, and St. George’s Monastery where monks have meditated for centuries on the solitude of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert.
This forty days and nights, however, was not the first time Jesus encountered the Judean Desert. All Jewish men were required to journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. So every year, together with his family, Jesus would have travelled from Nazareth through the Judean Desert along the famous road referred to in the parable of the good Samaritan from Jericho to Jerusalem. The Judean Desert, with its layers of colored rock, is one of the world’s smallest, yet most unique desert regions in the world. It rises from the Dead Sea, the lowest place on the earth at 1200 feet below sea level to the heights of Jerusalem at 2400 feet above the sea- all in a distance of 15 miles. The road with its vistas of dried river beds and stony pinnacles is rich in history, geography and geology.
Jesus wasn’t the first spiritual leader to head into the wilderness either. John the Baptist had gone before him, and prepared himself there, as had the prophet Elijah, Moses, Jacob and Abraham. You see, it is characteristic of God in Holy Scripture to lead his messengers into the isolation and barrenness of the wilderness to meet them, to reveal himself to them, and ultimately to change them. Surprisingly, in the Old Testament, God never appears to his people in the city. It is always in the isolated places. It is why we read that at the time John was baptizing seekers in the River Jordan that all the people of Jerusalem and Judea went out into the Judean Desert. They knew that they had every right to expect that God would appear to them in the wilderness and they would be changed. Fasting was simply a part of their spiritual preparation.
So if this Lent, you have discovered yourself to be alone in wilderness, you are in good company. No doubt, we have already experienced desert places in our life and these were not pleasant experiences. Perhaps for you it was sending out 120 resumes and letters receiving no responses. It was the midnight hour when you begged for an answer from God for your son who is suffering from mental illness. Maybe for you it was the clinic after you heard the doctor’s less then optimistic diagnosis for your wife. Desert moments come in many shapes and sizes.
Needless to say, these wilderness moments are not the situations we seek. In fact, if you’re like me, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to stay out of the wilderness, and keeping your loved ones from being lured out into the wilderness as well. So how odd it seems that in the season of Lent, you and I have been invited to go out into the wilderness, not on a pilgrimage to walk where the prophets of old walked, but rather to be like Jesus and the prophets, and to meet God. And if we are patient, we will be changed to return to do the work of his kingdom.
The challenge of the desert, you see, is not merely in surviving. We all have God’s promise that his holy angels will watch over us. No, the challenge for you and me is to stay in the wilderness long enough for God’s work in us to be revealed. We don’t like the uncomfortable moments of life. We don’t like being the character of Linus in Peanuts caught without the safety of his blanket, or the trapeze artists caught flying between the bars. We don’t like the ambiguity and uncertainty, and so we are ready to give in to any temptation that offers us easy security.
If we are honest with ourselves, we all have something that prevents us from truly being tested and being drawn closer to God. It is something that offers an immediate assurance or gratification. It may be the temptations of the world, the so called vices of luxury and indulgence. But often, the devil is more subtle. He uses the glittering images that distract you. They are the socially acceptable habits and vices that keep you from exploring and experiencing God’s holy purpose in your life.
Surprisingly, to those who would challenge you with fasting and abstaining from delights this Lent, Jesus’ forty days and nights in the wilderness aren’t really about you and your need to be sympathetic to Christ’s pain and suffering. The forty day and nights are about Jesus. Yes, Jesus. He was with Satan and the wild beasts, and he was tested every day. Jesus was there for weeks, and when he was done, he was famished. And what was accomplished in those forty days of solitude? The wilderness had freed him. The wilderness freed him from all the devil’s attempts to distract him. After forty days and nights out in the wilderness, Jesus had learned to trust himself and the Spirit that had led him there, and that his heavenly Father would provide for all his needs. When we hear that John the Baptist was arrested, we read that Jesus was ready, and came to the Galilee, proclaiming the good news: ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
You see, Lent isn’t intended to be what our Christian life is all about a humorless life of fasting and self-denial. The forty days and nights of Lent are actually preparation for what our Christian life is intended to be, the joy and wonder of walking closely with God. Let me say it again. Lent is not a self-perfection program. Nor is it a “therapy” program where we use fasting, prayer and sacrificial giving to make us more like Jesus. No, the message of Lent is that God’s kingdom has come now, and it is waiting for all who are ready to meet him- and that may mean going out into the wilderness for this to happen. For even if no one ever wants to go there, and once they are there, they don’t want to stay there, the wilderness can be a life changing place.
But be prepared. Afterwards, you may discover that when you pray for God to intercede on behalf of someone who is sick, God may in turn ask you to do something for those in need. You may pray for healing, wholeness, forgiveness, grace, peace and joy, but beware, God may invite you to change your own heart and do what is needed. Yes, you may be praying for the poor and hungry, the needy and the disenfranchised, but he may be asking you can to be an instrument of change. Once you have met God face to face in the desert, you will never be the same. You can no longer pray for peace in the world without becoming an instrument of God’s peace. You can no longer pray for change in the world without being changed yourself.
So, my friends, do not be afraid of forty days and nights in the desert and its testing- if that is where the Spirit is leading you. For it is there in the wilderness, that like Jesus, God will make you free. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.