There is something about the Season of Lent which brings out the curious in non-believers. I have a friend who wishes me a “Happy Ash Wednesday” every year and still another who never ceases to ask what I’m giving up, or “what are you doing for Lent?” Over the past decade or so, it has become in vogue to add something to your routine or what we have come to call “taking something on” as if somehow adding something to your routine may somehow be more fun for us than trying to observe a time of sacrifice and self-denial such as giving up smoking or forgoing that glass of wine at dinner. This year, when I was asked what I was either giving up or taking on, I was quite happy to reply, “I am giving up my second job for a few weeks”
Many of us talk about giving up something we enjoy or taking on another project or making it a point to do extra acts of service and kindness. Others mark the season as a period of reflection and set aside extra time for meditation. These practices are meant to help focus us on getting ready for Holy Week and and the joy that comes with Easter. They are all right, good and joyful things … always and everywhere. But there is another aspect to our Lenten disciplines, which are sometimes shown in a subtle way and sometimes they are obvious …. And that is the aspect of surrender.
We have just ended the season of Epiphany, a season where we celebrate the signs and wonders of Jesus’ ministry. Over the past few weeks, we heard stories about Jesus’ baptism, the casting out of a demon, and the calling of the first disciples. Last, we were treated to a true mountaintop experience at the Transfiguration, where Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. But like all mountaintop experiences, they must eventually end and we must leave that mountain and descend into the valley. After the highs of Epiphany, we are now called to a sojourn into the valley of Lent.
The First Sunday in Lent is typically reserved for a look at the temptation of Jesus. Today’s Gospel says he was driven, into the wilderness for 40 days so that he will be prepared and equipped for his ministry. The wilderness is often seen as a setting for a period of testing, or used to describe a difficult time our in spiritual lives. God sent his people, the Israelites, into the wilderness for 40 years to wander with only the presence of a cloud or pillar of fire to guide them. Noah was on the ark in the wilderness of the floodwaters for 40 days until he was brought to rest on the shores of a mountain.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe and in a fair amount of detail the verbal sparring match Jesus has with the devil. But here, in the Gospel of Mark, we have only a mention. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” If we didn’t have the other books, we would have no idea what transpired. The focus of this passage is not so much Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, but on his baptism and giving us a preview of the core message of his ministry: “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the Good News.”
Jesus’ baptism presents us with a puzzle. We say that Jesus was sinless and blameless, but he goes through this act of repentance. Why, then, does he do this? By requesting to be baptized, Jesus demonstrates that even though he may not need to repent of anything, he does so as a sign of surrender to the will of God. In fact, the entire passage here: his baptism, his time in the wilderness, his temptation, even his encounters with wild beasts and angels show us that God is moving in a way he has not done before. He is showing that the old system of the world is no longer valid, and a new way of living is being ushered in. In the time when the Gospel of Mark was written, people would immediately connect the time of 40 days in the wilderness to the story of Moses leading his people to the promised land after they wandered 40 years in the wilderness. In the Bible, the wilderness represents a place of testing, of self-examination, of turning away from the things of this world and focusing on the things of God. It is a crucible where the people of God are changed and transformed into vessels that God can use for his glory and to advance this Kingdom that we hear so much about. It is a place of surrender.
When Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness, the devil tries to get Jesus to use his immense power to tend to his own needs by turning stones to bread, and to show that he is God’s favoured by throwing himself off a cliff knowing that he will not be harmed. Each time the devil tries to get Jesus to show himself as a type of Superman, but each time Jesus refuses. When does use his power, it is always for the benefit of others. He heals the sick, he raises the dead, he casts out demons, he feeds a crowd. He surrenders the use of his own gifts and talents for his own benefit, and uses it to strengthen and edify the people of God.
Israel’s journey in the wilderness was marked by trials and tribulations at every turn, and it was also marked by sin and rebellion and even a plea to Moses to return them to Egypt and to slavery. Jesus’ time in the wilderness re-writes that history by not succumbing to the temptations the devil throws at him and trusting in God’s grace, God’s love and God’s provision. Even before he begins his public ministry, Jesus is about making all the old things new. The coming of Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, where all the old obligations of temple sacrifice … the obligations to Herod and to Rome … the obligations which keep us under the yoke of the powers of this world … are done away with.
When God calls us into the wilderness, it may be that he is shaping us for what is to come. We are invited to take this time as we journey to Jerusalem and to the Cross as a way of looking beyond ourselves and using our gifts and talents for the benefits of others, just as Jesus always insisted on using his power for those who are in need.
Being in the wilderness is tough. It is easy get there and easy to find ourselves inside of it, but it is not so easy to get out. Israel was encouraged to trust God to guide them through and they resisted at every turn, even going so far as to say they can find their own way out of the wilderness, thank you very much. Like them, it is very easy for us to think that we know what’s best instead of listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to guide us through. We may be tempted to go our own way and do our own thing, just like the devil tempted Jesus. I said before that the wilderness is where God meets us and changes us …and change can be uncomfortable at best or even frightening at worst. That fear can cause us to act in ways we normally would not.
I recall an article from the New York Times I read some years ago which began, “Pam Stout did not always live in fear” and then went to talk about how she was afraid the country she grew up in was nothing like the one she lives in today, so she tried to change the way things were going. Pam’s zeal for change is not motivated not by love or a desire for justice, but by fear and anxiety. When we give into those forces, or to our own most base desires, we start to lose touch with the gifts that God has given us …. our talents, our skills and even in extreme instances, our friends or loved ones. It is difficult to not take matters into our own hands as the devil tempted Jesus to do. The Good News I have for you today is that the devil failed … and because of the cross the devil stands defeated and remains defeated. The devil stands and remains defeated because Jesus surrendered to the call into the wilderness and trusted the Father to see him through.
When bad things happen, or when calamity strikes, a question we may ask is, “Where is God?” The answer is, “Well, He’s right here, of course! He hasn’t gone anywhere!” A better question though might be, in what way is God here NOW and how or when will we know that He’s hanging about with us.
Instead of insisting on doing our own thing, when we turn our gifts and talents over to God and surrender to doing God’s will, we find that ordinary people like you and me can do the most extraordinary things. In this act of surrender, in this act of “no longer living for ourselves but for Him who died and rose again,” we will find that God’s power “working through us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
God doesn’t promise our journey through the Valley of Lent will comfortable. God doesn’t promise it will be easy. In fact, there may be plenty of times when we just want to give up and go back to Egypt and the comfort of a life that we know instead of a life that we don’t, even if the life we know is a life of slavery and bondage. But if we trust God … if we live and act like we trust God … God does promise he will see us through the wilderness … through the valley of Lent … to the foot of the Cross … and out the other side to the empty tomb.