It is not exactly the kind of post-baptism celebration to which we are accustomed – no brunch with proud family, friends and godparents, no champagne, no gifts, no oohing and aahing over the newly baptized.

    There is none of that for Jesus.

    There is an amazing moment as he comes up out of the water, when the skies open and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

    But that moment is very short lived. There is no time to bask in the glory, to ponder what it all means.

    In fact, Jesus barely has time to dry off before that same Spirit immediately drives him into the wilderness. There is no dove-like gentleness here. The Greek verb in this text is the same verb Jesus uses later as he casts out or expels demons.

    There is force involved, propelling Jesus into the wilderness, whether he wants to go or not. Even being the Son of God does not exempt Jesus from struggle or testing. 

    Other gospel accounts of Jesus’ wilderness sojourn go into great detail about the experience.  Mark’s details are sparse. We know that Jesus is there for 40 days, that during that time he is tempted by Satan, that he encounters wild beasts and is cared for by angels.

    There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s telling of this story, a strong sense that it is necessary for Jesus to spend this time in the wilderness before he begins his public ministry. 

    The symbolism is heavy here, beginning with the number 40, an auspicious figure in Biblical stories. For 40 days and 40 nights rain fell on the earth in the great flood survived only by Noah and his ark-load of family and animals.

    For 40 years, the people of Israel wandered in the desert wilderness, trying to make their way from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. 

A look at the map shows that there were shorter, less perilous routes the Israelites could have taken. But instead they were led by God into the desert, taking the harder, more onerous and hazardous route, where dependence on God was the only saving grace.

    “They are shoved down the difficult path so there will be no thought of ever turning back,” theologian Beldan Lane writes in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. “They cover grueling miles of terrain so torturous they will never be tempted to recross it in quest of the leeks and onions they longingly remember in Egypt.

    “Perhaps others can go around the desert on the simpler route home,” Lane says,  “but the way of God’s people is always through it.”

    And now for 40 days Jesus is also in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan and encountering wild beasts.

    The wilderness, whether it is a storm, a desert,  or a dark forest, is a time and a place of testing. The wilderness is filled with forces that are hostile to God, a place where danger lurks at every turn.

    For Noah, the danger was obvious in the storm and floods that filled the earth, and in the despair and tension that surely filled that crowded ark.

    For the Israelites, there was danger in the hostile environment of the desert, the challenge of finding food and water, the fight against discouragement and unfaith as year after year passed with the Promised Land seemingly no closer.

    For Jesus, there is the danger of being continuously tempted to abuse the power he has been given as the Son of God.

    But the wilderness can also be a place of breathtaking beauty. God is also present there. God protects the ark in the midst of the storm. God provides manna and water to the Israelites and leads them through the desert. God provides angels to care for Jesus.

    With that divine help, the wilderness becomes a time of transtion, a time of purification and letting go of the past, a time of preparation for a future filled with promise.

    Noah emerges from the ark to see a rainbow, a sign of the covenant between God and all creation that never again will God cause destruction across the whole earth.

    The people of Israel enter into the desert fleeing slavery and oppression and come out a unified people of God, ready to enter the Promised Land and to be, as God has promised, a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.

    Jesus enters into the wilderness as an obscure carpenter and comes out ready to claim his authority as the Son of God, proclaiming that God’s kingdom is drawing near.

    Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a 40-day season in which we are called to acknowledge and wrestle with the times and places of wilderness in our own lives.

    It may look different for each of us, but we can be sure that we all, at some point in our lives, will be forced to dwell there for a while.

    Maybe it is a struggle with illness, or addiction or depression. Maybe it is a time of difficulty in relationships with those we love, or grief over the loss of someone we love.

    Maybe it is a time when our work no longer seems meaningful, or our very lives no longer seem to have meaning.

    Maybe it is a time when we are called to take a courageous, even prophetic, stand for justice or truth, even when we know that doing so will carry a great personal cost.

    Maybe it is a time of intense loneliness, a time when even God seems absent.

    Times in the wilderness are, of course, not controlled by a liturgical calendar. They can come upon us at any time, as abruptly as Jesus was compelled into that dark place. They can last much longer than 40 days.

    But each year, during the season of Lent, the church asks us to examine our lives, to see where the wilderness is for us today, and to remember that God is present in those places that are hard, lonely, and frightening.

    Where do our lives seem to be out of control? Where do we need to repent? On what human-made things are we putting our faith instead of in God? What decisions are facing us? In what ways are we tempted to do the easy thing instead of the right thing?

    Lent is the time to ask ourselves those questions and struggle with the answers, always knowing that when we are led into the wilderness God is there waiting for us, caring for us, and showing us the path home.


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