In these last weeks of winter, when the days lengthen and the earth begins to awaken, we also find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection and preparation leading into Easter. The 40 days of Lent (not counting Sundays) have traditionally been set aside as a time to follow Jesus into the metaphorical desert, or wilderness, where the Spirit prepared him for his public ministry. In ancient days, the church prepared new converts for Baptism during this time. More recently, we’ve tamed the wilderness experience, focusing primarily on modified fasts, like giving up chocolate or Facebook. This year, I invite you to a different kind of experience.
See, the metaphor of the desert is loaded with paradox: the days are scorchingly hot yet the nights are dangerously cold. Deserts are known for their lack of water and dry, arid conditions, and yet sudden rains can create dangerous flash-flooding conditions. Also, while the soil contains rich nutrients, without water very little can grow. On the other hand, though most of the plants that do grow have spiny limbs and prickly branches, in a pinch many are edible.
Few come come willingly into the dangers of the desert. Few come willingly without preparation, that is. Which brings us to the most striking paradox of our Lenten desert. While logic would tell us to prepare before we enter, the Lenten desert experience is more about preparing us for what awaits us when we leave.
Take Jesus’s experience from the Gospels. In Matthew 4, we learn that Jesus was led to the wilderness by the Spirit immediately after his baptism. The Greek word translated “led” is ἀνάγω, (anagō) which has a lot of different connotations. Its use can be quite generic, as in simply conveying someone to another place. In a nautical context, it can mean “to set sail or put to sea.” But in a more symbolic sense, ἀνάγω can mean “to offer up as a sacrifice,” like a sheep led to slaughter. In this way, we might say that Jesus was offered up for 40 days of temptation in the desert to prepare him to offer himself up on the cross three years later.
As we enter the wilderness, however, we don’t come exactly like Jesus, perfect and without sin. Instead, we’re more like Israel, who wandered the desert for 40 years on the way to the promised land when Moses led them out of Egypt. They weren’t prepared for the experience either, leaving with such haste that they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise. And like Jesus was led by the Spirit, Israel followed the direction of God himself, who came as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Yet, the two stories have at least one major difference. While Jesus entered the wilderness after his baptism with the heavenly proclamation, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10 that “God was not well-pleased” with most of the Israelites, who were “laid low in the wilderness.” Jesus used his desert experience to prepare for God’s purposes. Israel spent their desert experience resisting God’s work among them. Paul tells us they were idolaters and grumblers, they were immoral and ungrateful, they were proud and self-righteous and ready to give up at every turn.
But we don’t have to spend our desert experiences that way. In fact, Paul tells us we don’t have to live our lives that way. That’s why he reminds us of the shortcomings and deep failings of our spiritual fathers.
“Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction,” Paul writes. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
So that’s our task over the these next few weeks. To avoid being laid low in the wilderness. To take heed. To receive the story of the Israelites as a cautionary tale of how not to follow after God.
We’ll do this with a series of questions, what I’m calling Desert Wonderings. By jumping off from Paul’s letter about the experiences of Israel, we’ll make an inquiry of our own hearts by asking six questions. The first three will dig into the ways we sin, much like Israel in the wilderness.
- What are the idols in my life?
- When do I act immorally?
- Why do I grumble and complain?
The final three questions will help us look for God’s leading in our lives, acts of grace and kindness we might miss, like the Israelites did, because they were too caught up in sin.
- What miracles is God performing in my life?
- How is God providing for me?
- Where is God leading me?
I’ve been preparing for our journey for weeks, but nothing can ready us for the work God can do in our lives when we open our hearts to him. This time may not be easy; in fact, it probably won’t. This is the wilderness we’re entering, afterall. But life is a wilderness, too, full of paradox and uncertainty, full of beauty and danger. And this season of preparing anew to face the cross of Jesus will equip us once again to take up our own crosses and follow after him, all the while anticipating Resurrection, the source of all our hope.
One final thing: at least some of you who are reading probably worship in traditions that will mark today by receiving ashes across the forehead and by “giving up” something until Easter as part of your Lenten observance. I hope these Lenten devotions will serve only to enhance this season of reflection and repentance for you, not replace what you usually do.
On the other hand, if you are new to Lent, as I suspect a few of you are, you may never have received the mark of ash or given up chocolate right before Easter. You may not even be sure why you are receiving these emails so randomly during the month of March or why I’m asking you to think about your own sin. For those who need it, here is a primer on Lent from BibleGateway.com. As well, here are a few posts about Lent from my own blog archives (Beware: Some of them might be quite old!).
Interested in going deeper this Lent? Subscribers to my mailing list will receive the Desert Wonderings devotions in their inbox each week, along with an audio version and a printable daily reading and discussion guide. Sign up to start receiving yours today.
Artwork by James Tissot, public domain.