The first Sunday of Lent

Each time that we come around to year “B” in the Lectionary, I sort of look forward to the quick pace of the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t waste words. Stories that run into paragraphs in the other gospels might get a sentence in Mark. Mark goes from the baptism of Jesus to the temptation in the wilderness to the arrest of John and the launch of Jesus’ ministry in six verses. The temptation in the wilderness is two sentences: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

That’s it. 40 days in a single sentence.

You know that there is more to the story.

And like many other stories in the life of Jesus we supplement with information gleaned from other gospels and with our own imaginations.

Actually forty days in the wilderness is a significant undertaking. I read about wilderness adventures quite a bit. I’m a big fan of canoe adventures in the wilderness of the arctic north. I know a little bit about the planning, preparation and gear that have gone into successful wilderness expeditions. I have read about how the loneliness of being out their can play tricks with the human mind and how challenging it can be to remain focused on the tasks at hand. And I’ve read some of the stories of the failures - the trips that fell short of their goal and the ones where the adventurers did not survive. The wilderness can be a harsh and unforgiving place.

Yet we are driven to the wilderness - or called to it by the Spirit. It might not be the same for contemporary explorers as it was for Jesus, but there is definitely something about the wilderness that calls to us. We are excited by the sense of adventure, the unknown beyond the horizon, the beauty of pure unfiltered nature.

As a theologian, I have been known to slide into an old mistake of describing Jesus in terms of God’s experience of human nature. In Jesus, God becomes flesh, to be sure, but the nature of humanity was no mystery to God before the person of Jesus. God created all of humanity. God understood all of the human experience before it was experienced by humans. God didn’t need a messiah experiment in order to figure out what human nature is about.

It is, rather, the other way around, God comes to us in Jesus to reveal to humans the nature of God.

God, who is unafraid of tough decisions made under intense pressure. God who is in no rush, but is patient with the pace of the wilderness. God who looks beyond the petty and the detail to reveal the bigger picture. God who doesn’t run from the presence of evil, but simply allows the good to shine through.

These are important reminders if for no other reason that we often feel like we are lost in a wilderness. It may be a wilderness of our own making, but it is a wilderness all the same. I watch the video clips of the students addressing a Florida rally after 17 people died on February 14 and I can’t help but feel that we have somehow failed those young people. I feel personally responsible for the inaction in my life that resulted in tragedy so far from where I live. I have been paralyzed by the violence in our society and silent when I could have acted. It is a kind of wilderness.

I read the news stories of how the White House actively worked to scuttle a compromise that was brewing in the Senate to provide a path to citizenship for the dreamers and it feels like our own government is lost in a wilderness.. It is a wilderness of our own making, but it is a wilderness none the less.

We try to distract ourselves with our games and competitions and we enjoy watching the dedication and skill of athletes but we know that the lives of olympians are exceptions and that the majority of the world’s children do not have enough nutritional support to become elite athletes. They will spend their lives in a struggle for enough food to eat and adequate shelter from the storms.

It is a wilderness out there. Forty days might not be enough time to find one’s way through it all.

So, for us, Lent is something that we do every year. It isn’t exactly something that we look forward to. It isn’t exactly something that we do because we enjoy it. It is placed before us as an invitation to be reminded of who we are and how we are connected to the others who are part of this world.

Pain is real. Death is real. Grief is real. And we are given an opportunity to look them in the face. Forty days each year. And over a lifetime, perhaps we begin to experience enough to get a glimpse at the graciousness of God - the deep love of God whose love shines through the darkest of moments and the deepest of our self-made wildernesses.

Despite the failings of our human nature, despite the evil every present, despite the pain so powerful, despite the grief that overwhelms - God loves us just the way we are. It is perhaps the most powerful message of Lent: You are loved in the midst of the wilderness. You are loved as you are. You don’t have to fix all of life’s troubles in order to be beloved by God.

In today’s response the Psalmist declares: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness.”

All the paths. Even those that lead through the wilderness.

Every trip into the wilderness is a journey of learning. We have much to learn as we enter this season of our lives. May this year’s Lenten journey reveal to us even more of God’s great love.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!