Lent: transforming our wilderness into a desert

Romans 10.8b-13

‘The word is near you,

   on your lips and in your heart’

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Luke 4. 1-13

The Temptation of Jesus

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,

   and serve only him.” ’

 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you,

   to protect you”,

and

“On their hands they will bear you up,

   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Lent! Doesn’t that word sound dead, dull, even depressing? Forty days and forty nights, of giving up chocolate, or booze, or flowers in church. Lent sounds like lentils, like every caricature of a puritanical and frugal vegetarian (not that many or most vegetarians are puritanical and frugal). It seems to go with dull grey skies and dark winter clothes and bare branches on trees.

Because our society doesn’t tend to mark the seasons by church festivals any more, Lent is in danger of being forgotten. Even church people like us might get a bit puzzled by it. It passes most of the world by. So what do we make of it?

I think there used to be a sense that it was a time for making ourselves miserable. For sitting in a corner and bewailing our sins, a bit like the old cartoon picture of the naughty schoolchild made to face the wall and wear a dunce’s hat.  There’s always been a rather joyless puritanical streak in Christianity, especially here in northern Europe.  And of course sin is real, and it’s a bad idea to pretend everything is OK and we have nothing to repent of. But that doesn’t mean that  Lent is a time for moping about our sins.

Most  of the translations of the Bible into English say, as we have just heard, ‘Jesus was led… into the wilderness.’  Maybe it’s just me, but I think there is a difference between a wilderness and a desert. To my mind, a wilderness represents what our garden would look like if it was left to me. Overgrown with weeds, and any plants that look beautiful or useful in danger of being choked to death. And that is probably a good analogy for most of our spiritual lives. Before we can grow we have to get rid of all that is restricting that growth; cut down the poison ivy and strangulating bindweed.

So a wilderness is a good image for a place of struggle and temptation. But when you have chopped down all the weeds, what then?  I think we are left with a desert. A desert is bleak and bare. Sand or rock and harsh weather conditions – glaring sun and baking heat by day; cloudless skies and freezing temperatures by night. There is no room for shades and subtle distinctions; everything is black or white; sunshine or shadow. Good and evil come face to face in the desert like nowhere else. We have to choose, and we can’t choose the self-indulgent luxury of feeling sorry for ourselves. Moping for our sins is not the way of Lent: moving on from our sins, is.

Jesus in this desert landscape was left completely alone, except for the angels. He didn’t even have twelve records, the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare (though I suppose he more or less was the Bible). He was alone with his thoughts and his one-ness with God. It was his strong sense of being God’s Son, being held in God’s love, that enabled him to resist the temptations of the devil.

Nearly 2000 years ago saints like St Antony of Egypt, and others like him that we call the Desert Fathers or Mothers, sold all their possessions and went off to live alone in the desert. They left behind family ties, and dreams of wealth or success, and simply lived lives of prayer and of service to others. Like Jesus, they didn’t find it easy. The devil got to them… they were tempted to take all sorts of short cuts to get close to God. But they persevered, most of them, and were rewarded with a glimpse of the beauty and presence of God.

Our task this Lent is to transform our wilderness into a desert. Confessing our sins is the start; freeing ourselves from the distractions and worries of everyday life is the next step. Not that they will disappear; we’ve still got to carry on whatever our problems with health or worries about Brexit or fears for our future and our children’s future. That is all real; but in the clarity of the desert we should begin to see God’s love more clearly. Our spiritual life, especially our Lenten experience, is a process of being ‘simplified out’ (a phrase of Thomas Merton’s).

The word Lent means spring. It comes from the Old English word lencten which means to get longer: it’s the time when the days lengthen, the light brightens and new life appears. That’s when God can get to work.

The prophet Isaiah said ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall rejoice, the desert shall blossom and burst into song.’ If we were still surrounded by the weeds and undergrowth of the wilderness, we wouldn’t see the life of God springing up all around us. That’s where God breaks through: when life is hard and all seems dead and hopeless.

So, a happy Lent, and a happier Easter when it comes.

David Emmott, Associate Priest

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