Lent: Meeting God in the wilderness

prairie wilderness

Our contemporary season of Lent (six weeks + four days – six Sundays = 40 days!) continues the understanding of this period before Easter that emerged in the early centuries of Christianity. While initially focussed on those preparing for Baptism at Easter, by the 7th century, the 40-day pattern as we know it, became normative in the Western Church. Our Lenten observance, while recalling 40-day fasts by Moses and Elijah, is primarily based on Jesus’ 40-day period of fasting and praying in the wilderness – as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Our Lenten observance is primarily based on Jesus’ 40-day period of fasting and praying in the wilderness. What was Jesus’ experience of the 40 days?

What was Jesus’ experience of the 40 days? Jesus did not go into the wilderness to meet God. Quite the opposite. Both Matthew and Luke write that Jesus, after having a glorious experience of the outpouring and infilling of God’s Holy Spirit, “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Mark’s account is much briefer but even more strident: “the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan …”

The words that Matthew and Luke use have a sense of being brought on a journey – Mark’s word has a sense of being forced to go somewhere. (Interestingly, it is the same word that is used many times to describe Jesus casting out evil power from a person.)

Jesus went into the wilderness to come to terms with his being human – and all that would entail – including temptation and harassment by evil power.

It might be more accurate to say that Jesus went into the wilderness to come to terms with his being human – and all that would entail – including temptation and harassment by evil power. He went into the world to learn what it would mean to live in faithful obedience to God in the fallen world of humanity. All three Gospels record that when Jesus emerged from the wilderness he began his public ministry of preaching, teaching, healing and exorcism with authority and power.

What, then, are we to do with this 40 day time of Lent? We don’t know exactly where or what the wilderness that Jesus went into looked like, but we probably imagine it was a lonely, uninhabited, perhaps desert-like, place. Given the part of the world in which we live at this time of year, the vast expanse of uninhabited snow-filled prairie might be a suitable image.

 In the wilderness one comes to terms with one’s limits and limitations. And then the final question that emerges is, “To what end? Why am I testing these limits and limitations?”

Yet, for the vast majority, checking out of their usual lives for 6 ½ weeks is not a possibility. So what is of underlying importance in this wilderness experience – even if we can’t be there physically? In the wilderness one comes to terms with one’s limits and limitations. How long can I manage without speaking to another person? How satisfied can I be with a reduced and simplified diet? How well can I function without the usual perks and affirmations of my daily existence? And then the final question that emerges is, “To what end? Why am I testing these limits and limitations?” Surely it is not a kind of sole-survivor experience!

We are called, led, perhaps even driven into some kind of wilderness in order to experience the strength of God in our human weakness.

Again, it is quite the opposite. We are called, led, perhaps even driven into some kind of wilderness in order to experience the strength of God in our human weakness. This experience of strength-in-weakness – this discovery of power-when-I-am-spent – this gift of hope-when-mine-has-long-since-faded – this presence of totally unexpected grace is the life-in-the-midst-of-dying experience of meeting God in the wilderness. It is the spiritual dying-and-being-reborn work of the disciple in Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

It is the spiritual dying-and-being-reborn work of the disciple in Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

For most of us, Lent will not mean a 40-day pilgrimage in some sandy and desolate place. It will not mean a 40-day survival ordeal on the wind-whipped, snow-covered shores of Hudson’s Bay. But it can mean an intentional, disciplined choice to alter our daily and weekly routine by either giving up a cherished practice, or adopting an uncommon discipline of study and prayer. Either way, our purpose will be to enter into a kind of wilderness where we are made more aware of our humanity and our need to submit our lives to, and rely on the grace and presence of God for our livelihood.

In so doing we too, like Jesus, will be further strengthened, equipped, and emboldened to live as faithful disciples – bearing witness to the love and truth of God in our lives – and throughout this world.

By Rev Donald Phillips