Coming in from the desert

My Lenten journey began on Wednesday night

when in a very simple service,

we read and prayed (but no singing)

and a colleague marked my forehead with soot, and said

“remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For many generations of Christians, these words have marked the beginning of the season of Lent

a season that can include reflection, self-examination, fasting and prayer.

All these things are considered an excellent prologue to the Easter event

the festival of the resurrection – and the church, predictably,

has turned these things (and this time) into a formalized and ritual observance,

and what that usually means

is that while we might remember to follow the pattern of the church –

with particular reading – a particular piety –

and attention to particular parts of the story of God’s people –

we have lost sight of the purpose of our activities and of our observation.

We’re convinced that it must start in the desert.

The desert seems to be a pretty popular starting point for God’s people;

the Israelites, after escaping Pharaoh, wandered for forty years, some say.

Jesus, having been blessed by his cousin John,

was lured into the wilderness by a hunger for holy things.

The desert in Scripture is often portrayed as a testing place –

a proving ground for a chosen people –

a test-track for an new theology/a new understanding of the One God –

and we have taken up the metaphor with some enthusiasm.

There is a problem, however; deserts are also dry and desolate –

places, in our understanding, of despair rather than hope.

We are inclined to think negatively on our desert experiences

to imply that in the desert, we are forsaken, abandoned,

and otherwise bereft of God’s grace.

Nothing could be further from the truth as Scripture records it…

While the story of the Exodus certainly has its low points –

the people, more than once, embrace fear, express doubt, and embody frustration –

in every instance they are reminded – often spectacularly –

of the constant, sustaining presence of God.

On the edge of the wilderness, years from their Egyptian captivity

our reading from Deuteronomy this morning (Deuteronomy 26: 1-11)

suggests that the people remember in ritual and worship

that God has journeyed with them, provided for them,

and will continue to provide in “the promised land”

the journey through the desert was a journey marked by profound and persistent hope.

Jesus – “ led by the Spirit in the wilderness” – does not meet despair in the wilderness

he meets temptation – a very different thing –

and if we are to begin our Lenten journey in the desert with him,

it pays to know the difference.

Jesus is tempted…and hungry; but he doesn’t let his hunger rule him.

He meets every temptation with hope, not despair

and the tempter is left discouraged, departing “until an opportune time.”

Jesus shows us how to face the desert;

knowing full well what the desert holds.

It holds hunger, loneliness and stark surroundings to be sure,

but that same desert presents the opportunity to see things as they really are.

There is nothing for temptation to hide behind,

no surprises on the horizon, because the horizon goes all the way to God.

Jesus no-nonsense encounter with temptation helps us remember

that though the choices may be limited,

God is always a choice that is available to us.

Every time I come home with a smudge on my forehead –

my wife is tempted to wipe it clean (until she remembers where I’ve been) and it remains untouched

an outward, personal reminder that I’m always in the desert;

Always facing difficult choices – “sin – no sin. God – no God” –

constantly among temptation – some greater, some minor –

that threaten my developing relationship with and unfolding experience of the holiness of God

Lent gives us an opportunity in the church

to recall the difficult travels of the people of God

to retrace our desert steps and see the hope that,

for too long, has been hidden by despair.

Though we meet Jesus in the wilderness, fresh from his holy visions,

he invites us – leads us – to an oasis of peace –

a place where we can encounter God “uncluttered” by our usual distractions.

It may be a desert – but it is not deserted.

Our Lenten path is strewn with chances to choose –

our wilderness experience will leave us wanting more –

we will be tempted, and we will pass the test,

not because we must, but because,

with God’s help in Christ,

we can. Amen

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