As Lent begins each year, we retell the story of how Jesus goes out after his baptism into the wilderness. We remember that he spends forty days and nights praying and fasting until he is famished, and then talking with the devil and receiving angelic visitors. I wonder: why would Jesus do this?
In our tradition, wilderness time is holy. Time in the wilderness, in our scriptures, is not a punishment, but an opportunity. It’s a way to prepare ourselves for the new things God will do in us and in the world. Noah and his family spend forty days and forty nights sailing in a wilderness of water, preparing to be part of the renewal of creation. Moses and the Israelites spend forty years traveling through a desert wilderness, preparing to be free people in a faithful society in the Promised Land.
Now it is Jesus’ turn for wilderness time, time to prepare for public ministry. Jesus uses this time to consider the temptations he will face in his ministry and to practice his resistance. Jesus resists the temptation to use his power for his own security, to make bread out of stones. Jesus resists the temptation to use his power to impress others, to stage a dramatic angelic rescue. Jesus resists the temptation to use his power to possess and to rule.
Jesus needs wilderness time to prepare himself to use the great power he has for holy purposes. And his preparation works – we know the rest of the story. When Jesus starts to preach and teach, does he only feed himself? No, he feeds great crowds of hungry people. When Jesus works miracles, does he do it for his own glory? No, he does it to heal other people. When Jesus gains a lot of attention and followers, does he try to become an earthly king? No, he works to strengthen the kingdom of heaven among us.
Jesus spends his time in the wilderness getting ready for ministry. And it works; it strengthens and changes him. What will we do with our wilderness time? Our church calendar provides us with forty days of wilderness time every year during Lent, whether we want it or not. Lent is a time to fast, a time to pray, a time to look within, a time to struggle, a time to prepare for whatever will come next. What will we do with our wilderness time?
Some of us here today started a season of wilderness before our liturgical season began. There are those among us who are already in a major transition, or a time of deep self-reflection, or a time of grief or pain. For these folks, I hope the changes in our liturgy, the resources for prayer, will support what you are already experiencing, and help you to feel the presence of God, and the ministrations of the angels, in your wilderness.
What about the rest of us? Those of us who are more or less persisting? Why should we embrace a wilderness time?
If you take a good look at the ground this week, you’ll see that it’s grown hard during the winter. The cold has frozen it. The snow has pressed down on it. Water has drained through the soil, compacting it even more. The ground is hard; I tried to fix our rainbow flags this morning, but there was no budging them. I have trouble imagining any new life ever pushing itself up through the soil out there.
So it is with many of us. We may not be in crisis, but we are still compressed by the challenges of life. We have developed habits of thinking and acting to cope with ordinary and extraordinary challenges. These habits, while helpful, also make us hard and inflexible, impervious to new spiritual growth.
For us, the liturgy and the spiritual disciplines of Lent can help to loosen the soil of our hearts; make some room for air, and water, and even seeds. Lent can be an opportunity to open ourselves to the new thing God is trying to do in us, and in the world around us.
On Wednesday night, some folks gathered here for Ash Wednesday. We decorated tin cans as pots and filled them: with stones, and then with soil, and then with two marigold seeds; and then with water. The younger folks who were there prepared some containers for our table, too. Some of them already have tiny sprouts in them; come and look after the service.
Those of you who weren’t there, of any age, I hope you will come and make your own pot after worship in North Hall. Let’s all keep some loose soil near us this season. As we water it, and smell the soil, and watch for a sprout, and hope for a flower, we can be nurturing our spirits as well, and watching for signs of growth.
Lent isn’t a punishment. It is an opportunity. I hope you will seize it. Come to church every week if you can. Pray at home. Choose a fast. Make space for silence. Wrestle with your demons. Watch for angels. Try something new for these forty days and nights that will loosen and enrich the soil of your heart. God invites us to grow. Thanks be to God.