On the first Sunday of Lent, the Gospel reading in each Lectionary cycle is about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. This year we read Mark’s account of this event. The details throughout Mark’s narrative are sparse.
The temptation of Jesus follows his baptism by John the Baptist. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus went into the desert immediately after his baptism, led by the Spirit. Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee begins after his temptation in the desert. No polite invitation, but rather an urgent driving, almost violent force, compels him into the wilderness. The Tempter was waiting. “Prove yourself,” is the temptation. The Tempter knows that things happen in the wilderness. The wilderness is the mirror, the temptation is to look away. Jesus looks, with the voice of creation still ringing in his ear. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The days turn to night. Night turns to day. Longing, hoping, praying. Forty days
The fact that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert is significant. Throughout the history of God, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the barren places. From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the wandering of the people of Israel for forty years, the wilderness has become a place of refining and self-discovery.
But our forbearers never faced the desert alone. For forty years, God journeyed with Israel. For forty days, God watched over Noah. The prophet Elijah also journeyed in the desert for 40days and nights, making his way to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he was also attended to by an angel of the Lord. Remembering the significance of these events, we also set aside 40 days for the season of Lent. For forty days, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us.
During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. We are tempted to turn away from the mirror of the Tempter. But if we are to follow Jesus, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face the wild.
In Mark’s Gospel, the desert marks beginning of Jesus’ battle with Satan; the ultimate test will be in Jesus’ final hours on the cross. In a similar way, our Lenten observances are only a beginning, a preparation for and a reinforcement of our ongoing struggle to resist the temptations we face in our lives. During Lent, we are led by the Holy Spirit to remember the vows of Baptism in which we promised to reject sin and to follow Jesus. Just as Jesus was ministered to by the angels, God also supports us in our struggle against sin and temptation. We succeed because Jesus conquered sin once and for all in his saving death on the cross.
God’s work begins with a pesky Holy Spirit sometimes dragging, driving, and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. The angels are there. His footsteps can still be found. Out in the wilderness, we are faced with many temptations. But the biggest temptation is to not enter the wilderness at all.
We need this time to renew our baptismal commitment to God and to strengthen our bonds of fidelity with God and with the people to whom we are committed. Traditional Lenten practices can help us do that: a more focused effort at personal prayer; healthy acts of self-sacrifice that awaken our hunger for God and our solidarity with the millions of hungry people in our world; the gift of our time and treasure to the poor and others in need; the commitment to work at reconciliation in strained or broken relationships.
Six weeks from now, at our celebration of Easter, we will publicly renew our baptismal vows and be blessed with the Easter water, a sign of new life in Christ. During this time of preparation, we gaze on the cross of Christ. May we see in the outstretched arms of Christ the singular sign of his love for us, his undying commitment to us. May this Lent be a season of grace for each of us, a time to renew our covenant with God and with the people to whom we are committed.
Jesus Christ is calling. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Amen.