When we were called to the observance of a Holy Lent last Wednesday, we were in many respects called to enter the wilderness as a preparation for Easter. While St. Mark tells us very little about Jesus' time in the wilderness except that he was tempted or tested by Satan, he was with the wild beasts and was waited on by angels, the portion of the twenty-fifth psalm appointed for today gives us many more clues as to what we can expect in the weeks to come.
The psalmist begs God for leadership in the paths of righteousness, and in doing so recalls not only the stories of Yahweh leading the people through the pillars of cloud and fire in Exodus, but also, more generally, recalls the whole formation of Israel as a people. It was in the wilderness that they were given identity as a gracious gift in the granting of the Torah at Sinai (Exod. 19:16-20:21). The Lord told them that they were not like other people but had a distinct identity. And those people were taught the paths of righteousness in the trials and tribulations, the testing and the teaching for forty wilderness years before they were able to enter the Promised Land.
So what are we going to learn about the paths of righteousness in the wilderness time of this Lent? Well, first off, we can expect to learn something about enemies. Perhaps those are the beasts, the wild beasts of Jesus' experience. Our enemies can be found outside us or within us, but for most of us, most of the time, the real danger lies within us. Even when we can identify our enemies outside us, they can tempt us to forget who we are as beloved creatures of God. It matters little whether we are at war and our enemies are trying to kill us, or someone at work is trying to force us out, or someone at school is cheating and getting ahead of us, or we are entangled with someone unpleasant in a legal conflict. Any of these enemies can lead us to all kinds of thoughts and ways of behaving that make us less than we were created to be. That is where we meet the enemies within in our desires to be vengeful or mean, when we become afraid or depressed, when we're filled with murderous rage or inclined to addictive or other self-destructive behavior. When we give power of any kind to our enemies without, we will soon find ourselves confronting the more immediate destruction wrought by our enemies within. If you haven't chosen a Lenten discipline yet, perhaps you could consider consciously naming and praying for your enemies each day, paying particular attention to the enemies that you find within yourself and the temptations you face to be less than you were created to be. Our enemies are all those things which once we renounced at baptism and which draw us from the love of God. Try a particular discipline of prayer and the Lord will instruct you in the way and lead you in the paths of righteousness.
Lenten practice of this sort is sometimes called ascetic discipline after the Greek word askesis, a word that means 'exercise' but in its earliest use referred to shadow-boxing. I like to think that in Lent we are taking on the shadows, sparring with the shadow side of our life, those areas of our individual lives and our common life that cry out for light. Of what can that be more true than our taking on inner enemies that make us less than we were created to be, enemies that compromise our freedom and impair or impede our being in right relation with God and our neighbor?
If we pray for our enemies or follow any other Lenten practice, we can expect that like the psalmist we will soon find ourselves pleading for forgiveness:
Be mindful of your mercy O Lord, and of your steadfast love...Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions....
Penitence is a consequence of wilderness more than it is a goal. It is what happens when we pay attention to what is going on in our hearts. If you think about it, in many of our congregations we find our way into confession as a response to the gospel. An early piece of most of our services of worship will include listening to the scriptures read and proclaimed. We respond in prayer, in some traditions perhaps reciting the Nicene Creed and offering various forms of petition and intercession. It is in the act of praying that we remember once again that we are not God, and we become aware of the apparent absurdity of our imagining that we can importune the Lord of the Universe about anything at all. And so we assume an attitude of humility, metaphorically, or in some congregations quite literally, falling to our knees and we confess that we are not God. From there we are raised to the new life of grace, expressed as forgiveness, perhaps marked by some sign of peace and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in holy communion.
So the psalmist tells us to expect that we will confront enemies in the wilderness, to expect that we will be led to self-examination and repentance even while we are being led in the paths of righteousness. But there is a final clue for what we can expect in the weeks to come and that is in the reminder that the wilderness is preparation. The paths of the Lord, we sing, are steadfast love and faithfulness, and it is those paths that will lead to righteousness or right relation. The people of Israel were prepared in the wilderness for the Promised Land, and Jesus was prepared in the wilderness for his public ministry of proclamation. Just so, we are being prepared for the renewal of right relationship and the promise of peace on earth that will be proclaimed by the risen Christ at Easter.
I pray that you will be granted a blessed and Holy Lent a wilderness time long known by our psalmist. I pray that you may remember who you are as a beloved child of God, and that you find the renewal of righteousness or right relationship in your life. Finally, I pray that this time will be preparation for a truly joyful celebration of God's unspeakable grace and mercy this Easter.
Let us pray.
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom. Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies that we surely trusting in your defense may not fear the power of any adversaries through the might of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.