Forty days, or forty years, in a short hand way of the Bible telling us that something very significant is happening that brings about a new order of being. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. (RCL Mark 1:9-15) It rained for forty days and nights on the ark before they reached dry land and a new order began. The chosen people of God wondered forty years in the wilderness between leaving oppression in Egypt and reaching their promised land.
We also have the theme of watery death and transformation happening. In the story of Noah all those who did not heed the call are lost to a watery death which ends one part of human history and marks the beginning of the next. We begin the gospel story by revisiting Jesus’ baptism and the declaration that “ You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then Paul makes the link between the watery death and new beginnings of Noah and the saving grace of baptism for believers.
In the season of Lent we look to the journey of Jesus toward Jerusalem, his passion for us even unto death, and in Easter we celebrate his resurrection and new life. But Lent is not something we can participate in only from the sidelines for we are called on a journey too.
So how does this journey begin? Shockingly Jesus moves, according to Mark, from being declared Beloved to being driven by the Spirit immediately into the wilderness. From high to low in a moment. From acclaimed to tested in a single movement. One of the things I think it is good for us to note is that being Beloved of God does not mean we are safe from wilderness experiences, that we are exempt from struggle and temptation and testing.
Indeed we might speculate that being beloved by God will lead us into the wilderness for at least a time for the wilderness is a place of encounter – think of Moses and the burning bush, Elijah fleeing the wrath of Jezebel who eventually stops running and hears the still small voice of God – and transformation as we are seen and see God.
One of the things I love about Mark’s account of the time in the wilderness is that Jesus was companioned by wild beasts and angels. We are not told specifically what he grappled with as we are in Matthew’s version but we know he is tempted by the great tempter Satan. I think we are invited to understand that it was the twin experiences of being blessed and declared beloved and then tempted and tested as fine metal is tempered by fire which was the finishing school for Jesus’ formation as teacher, healer, prophet, and saviour. And he comes bursting out of this experience clear as to what the good news is.
And the good news is? That the kingdom of God is near. It is a phrase that we hear often but what does it mean? Marcus Borg, who has recently entered heaven, spoke of the Kingdom of God being “ the dream of God for the earth”. The kingdom of God is a way of being the world that has God at the centre and that brings us in to right relationships with God, with each other and the whole created order, and therefore with our selves. And this way of being us, being human, is near.
In Jesus we saw this most fully lived out. He looked into the world as it was and saw that the nearness of God and proclaimed it and challenged the people he met, especially his disciples, to turn away from what was deadening and hardening for the heart, and commanded them to turn toward what was of God and life. To repent and believe the good news that God was very near and wanting to be fully present in their lives.
So what about confused, ambivalent, timid us. We too need to know we are loved before we can bare the trials of the wilderness and the tempter. That we are beloved of God must be our starting and ending point for everything. Too often people’s suffering and struggle is magnified because they feel that the very fact they are struggling is proof somehow that they are on the outer with God. No! The victory of Easter is that struggle and suffering is not the same as separation or being forgotten.
And if Jesus’ experience of beasts and angels is to be believed then we too shall encounter in the wilderness not only what is tempting, frightening or disheartening in some way but also what is delighting, dazzling, comforting, transforming. We can go into the wilderness with the hope of being remade even if in ways that are beyond our control. The sort of struggles and transformations that might be described as being in the company of wild beasts and angels is not simply having a few nice careful thoughts – surely this description is more apt of wrestling with what threatens to overwhelm us. Sometimes wilderness experiences come to us in life through external events – the loss of someone or something of great value that leaves us upside down and inside out – and sometimes we go and seek the wilderness experience because it is time for our souls to stretch and grow.
In the church we follow this pattern of once a year making time to allow our souls to spend this special time in reflection and study. Generally it is less tumultuous when we go into the wilderness in this way but once we are in the space of the wilderness we cannot be in control of what happens and there may be memories, issues, desires and teachings that we will not have predicted to be encountered.
Take heart that when we make ourselves available that we will ministered to by angels; that we too shall experience the kingdom of God very near; and will find ourselves being turned around – away from what deadens us and toward what wakes us up to life.
And the truth is that this process can raise up feelings of sadness, shame, fear – needs for healing. For many of Lent may well be a season of exhaustion and numbness. My prayer for each of us, that whatever we encounter in this season of study and reflection, of wilderness time, that we begin the journey knowing ourselves deeply loved by God, that we be ministered to tenderly by angels, that we find the transforming love of God very near to us, and that we be turned around in ways that make us more available to the delight of life.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come.