Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Colossians 3:16
Disciples in the Wilderness
Lent is a time of preparation. Though it was a time, and still is a time, for penitence, originally, it was also a time devoted to preparing those who were to be baptized. It focuses on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. What are our creeds? What are the teachings of Christ such as the Sermon on the Mount? What are the disciplines of the Christian faith? This is a time for reaffirming who we are as baptized people and disciples and reflecting on faithful living in anticipation of Easter.
Lent is a time to repent—to turn around, to change directions. The first step of this is to confront our mortality. If you went to church last Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—I used ashes to make the sign of the cross
on your forehead and said, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Remember the old movies about the Roman Empire? The General, in his chariot, would make his triumphal entry into Rome after some military victory. Standing behind him would be a slave holding a crown over the general’s head and whispering in his ear, “Remember you are mortal.” That was supposedly to keep the general from getting too swelled a head and running afoul of the people who were really in charge. And, it’s the same with us. No matter how good we are, no matter how much we accomplish, we are not in charge. This is part of the ‘broken spirit’ thing we read about in Psalm 51.
If we are not willing to die to our old selves, we cannot be raised with Christ. To have the new life that is beyond the power of death, we have to die with Christ who was raised for us. New life requires us to daily surrender the old life, let go of the present things of this world, so that we may embrace life in Christ. In dying, we live. Throughout Lent, we will try to pry loose our fingers, one-by-one, from worldly, but false securities, and plunge into unknown baptismal waters—waters that lead to new life.
Lent begins in the wilderness. This is not a particularly safe place to be. In the Bible, the wilderness is always a sign of grave spiritual danger. The wilderness is the devil’s realm, a place of temptation, a threat to life, limb, and soul. But, this is where Jesus began his ministry here on earth. If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to start where he started.
After Jesus was baptized, he wasn’t gently nudged into the wilderness. It wasn’t a suggestion. He didn’t go home and think about it and makes plans for being away. He didn’t start his ministry and then later find himself in the wilderness—as so many of us do. No. The Greek language used says he was driven out. He was literally hurled into the wilderness where wild animals prowled.
Jesus had not said a single word in public. He had not preached two words of a sermon before he experienced temptation and danger to his life and spirit. But, perhaps, this is because Jesus could not say or preach anything until he went through the wilderness. Jesus had to experience the worst evil in this world before he could declare the kingdom of God. You see, after this, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Maybe, it is that the kingdom of God cannot come near until the kingdom of darkness, the wilderness, the devil, is engaged in spiritual battle.
Years ago, when I was young and immortal, I went to the Army’s jump school and learned how to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Now, assigned to each airborne unit was a chaplain and each chaplain stood in line, shuffled to the door and jumped out of those airplanes too. You see, what would some kid think, who comes to see the chaplain for counseling because he’s scared to death of dying, and he asks the chaplain how he manages to go out that airplane door. What would that kid think if the chaplain said, “Well I’ve never actually done it.” How could he possibly know what he was talking about. What interest would a scared soldier have in pious platitudes from one who has not experienced the fear, the dry mouth and cold sweats, while looking into empty space—and one who has not received the discipline that comes from training which allows them to make that leap. That’s why chaplains jump out of airplanes.
That’s why Jesus went into the wilderness. Jesus could not say that the kingdom was near until he had faced the unknown, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because, then, when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone would know that these were not unrealistic, pious platitudes. He had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and was victorious. As we often say in our call to confession, “He was tempted as we are yet without sin.” Jesus went to the wilderness and survived, spiritually intact. We can survive as well.
1Scott Hoezee at Calvin Seminary sums this up nicely: “Lent begins in the wilderness, in the worst parts of life in a fallen, broken world. It begins there as a reminder that Jesus is transforming this world by his very presence. Lent begins in the wilderness so that by the time we see Jesus enter into nothing short of hell and death itself on the cross, we will know that somehow, in some way—by a grace and a power we can never understand—Jesus will leave even those places changed. He’ll pass through the hell of death and Jesus, the Son of God will leave Life in his wake.”
And all God’s people said,
1Scott Hoezee, “Mark 1:9-15,” Center for Excelence in Preaching, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-1b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel (accessed February 21, 2015).