Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.
Let us begin today by setting the scene: Following our Lord's baptism where he has a powerful experience of the presence of the Spirit, that same Spirit guides Him to the desert to be tempted. I have been fortunate enough to have visited the area most scholars consider to be the place where our Lord had gone. It is barren, dry, a long way from any population centers, capable of being extremely hot during the day and, conversely, very cold at night. There were certainly no amenities, and, in summary, one might offhandedly say of it, "It is the last place on earth one would want to go for 40 days."
Yet the desert wilderness is a familiar place of testing in the Hebrew Scriptures. One recalls:
* Moses' 40 days on the mountain without food.
* Elijah's 40-day flight through the desert to Mount Horeb.
* And, most importantly, Israel's 40 years of wandering in the desert.
Our Lord's time spent in the desert wilderness is one of reflection and testing, culminating in a conversation or debate with the Spirit-filled Jesus and the dark one, the devil. Whether or not the meeting involved an actual, literal encounter or simply a spiritual encounter of the soul is, to me, unimportant. What is important is the fact that both the time in the wilderness and the encounter with the devil are intended to raise and answer the question of what sort of ministry our Lord would have. Specifically, each temptation pertains to some opportunity to seize a form of earthly power, be it personal power or political power or religious power. Our Lord succumbs to none of these. Instead, he holds firm to the things of God, not humankind!
Now, what might all of this have to say to each of us? Is there someone listening who has not had a desert experience - a time of change decision, transition, growth, discovery - times when we have cause to pause and ask ourselves exactly what God is calling us to be about? Our Lord begins his ministry with this kind of period of reflection, discernment, and struggle. The Spirit of God that accompanied our Lord accompanies each of us in our desert experiences.
That same Spirit is with us at those inevitable places where questions of integrity or loss or despair or uncertainty confront our souls. And, for us, at this very moment, for the Christian, the Season of Lent has always been a self-imposed desert experience that calls us anew into God's presence, calls us anew to discern once again what it is that God is asking of us each in this short, earthly journey.
Will we have that kind of desert experience in our lives this Lent of 2004, in what the English author Evelyn Underhill calls a secret correspondence of the soul?
As we come close to all of this for the Christian, there have evolved certain ingredient parts offered-that are offered up in a life during Lent-in enabling and bringing to life our desert experiences.
One, there is that ingredient part I least enjoy: fasting, that ancient custom. It may well be manifested in giving up one meal a week and donating its value to Oxfam or the Heifer Project-giving up that meal with a deliberate prayer for the child in this world who dies every seven seconds of malnutrition or hunger. Fasting needs to be achieved without calling undue attention to one's self and certainly without driving everyone else in our household crazy with any form of subtle or false piety.
The underlying value to our desert experience follows, it seems to me, along these lines:
* It imposes a healthy and right degree of self-discipline upon our sometimes unruly lives.
* As well, fasting inevitably enables us to better meditate and reflect upon the genuine needs of those who are without in this world.
* It is most certainly a lesson in stewardship, reminding us that all that we have comes ultimately from God.
* And, finally, it helps make us to be at one with Christ in His own desert experience.
Now, secondly, beyond fasting, there is that ingredient part to a holy Lent which involves us in deliberate, planned acts of self-sacrifice - acts that seek to serve and benefit others in new and creative ways. I think of an elderly person to be visited, or a godchild to whom we communicate our love and counsel in this season, or a troubled colleague to whom fresh time and attention is to be paid.
Perhaps some of these acts are wrapped in anonymity. All avoid hastily passing by another human being. And each carries the price of self-sacrifice.
And the underlying value to our desert experience-it follows, I believe, along these lines: Every time we consciously seek to ease the pain of another human being, we strangely and wonderfully begin to ease our own pain and disquietude, in what I am fond of calling "the strange reverse economics of the Christian faith."
There is also the advantage that in the pure reality of deliberate acts of goodness, we most readily grasp the meaning of our faith as Christians, for Christianity is in fact far more about behavior than theory. It is best understood in practice, not idea.
Now, thirdly, our self-imposed Lenten experiences need always to be accompanied by earnest study: a class attended in our church, a series of meditations read aloud to ourselves each morning; or a book that demands attention and challenges preconceived notions about the Christian faith.
And what is the value for our particular desert experiences in this Lent 2004? As C.S. Lewis reminds us, "With God all things are possible, but we must take the first few steps towards God." For reasons I do not entirely understand, God has fashioned God's creation in such a way that we must always be willing to seek after God as God seeks us. Study enables that.
Deliberate and challenging study opens up avenues and vistas to know the God in whom all of life is to be centered. Our Lord, in Saint Matthew's Gospel, says it so perfectly, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
Now, finally, lest time run out on this broadcast, there is that which stands, arguably, at the very epicenter of any form of desert experience, any form of observing a holy Lent: There is prayer. To pray as Theophalus the Hermit, a Russian Orthodox monk of earlier centuries, so well defines it in these words: "It is to descend with the mind into the heart to behold the face of God."
* It is to arise earlier than is the norm and to sit in one's favorite chair to offer prayers for the morning, for the day which is ahead.
* It is to maintain a journal about relationships or emotions or decisions and their relationship to a Christ-centered life.
* It is to retreat to some place to be alone in silence with the God who has created us and made himself known to us in Christ Jesus.
* It is in the season of Lent to gather even more regularly for corporate worship in a Christian community.
And what is the value of this in our own freely constructed desert experiences?
With this I conclude, with one of the great truths of today's lesson: To withdraw, to reflect, to pray is to understand the strength our Lord gained in the wilderness. It is to grasp the value to be achieved each day as he went away to pray. It is to experience within ourselves the calm power and courage he demonstrated at a later date in Holy Week's garden and in his passion upon the cross.
Like Him, it is from our prayers that we gain the deep inner resources and perseverance, the courage, to accept difficulties and to accept them patiently and rightly, to put our lives less in rhythm with this world and more in rhythm with God. Such was the case for our Lord in the desert in his 40 days, and, hopefully, such will be the case for each of us.
Let us pray.
Lord, Jesus Christ, help us to fashion of these Lenten days a season of inner redemption and holiness. Again and again, may we use these days to come quietly into your presence in those we serve, in that which we seek to learn, and in the mystery and wonder of our prayers offered before your very throne in heaven. Amen.