Lent has traditionally been associated with following Jesus into the wilderness. In one sense, this year is no different, although the world is a very different place to what any of us has ever experienced before. The call to isolation certainly feels less metaphorical this year.
Having arrived back in Australia only days ago, I am currently in quarantine with my family. Needless to say, self-isolation is a wilderness experience of sorts. The parallels hardly need spelling out.
Wilderness means distance from the familiar. It is a place where we are forced to recognise that we are not in control, that we never have been.
It is a place (and time) of preparation, because what follows is the resurrection life of Easter, filled with hope, new life and promise.
It is a place where wanderers attain greater self-understanding as fear and resentment bubbles to the surface and we are confronted by inner demons.
Wilderness is a place where pride is driven out to make space for humility. And if the experiences of Israel and Jesus provide a template for our own experience, it is a place of temptation.
Temptation to what exactly?
Well, let me ask you a personal question: what happens to you when you find yourself ‘wandering’ in isolation? And before you read on too quickly, take a minute to think on what temptations you’re facing right now …
Do you resort to escapism, going from one film or game to the next, hardly giving yourself time to think about who’ve been and who you are becoming?
Do you retreat inside yourself, offering very little (perhaps even nothing) to those around you?
Do you release those inner demons of anger or bitterness, excusing their presence because, after all, life’s not treating you fairly?
Or do you, quite in spite of your newly barren context, simply forge new paths to self-promotion?
These are just some of the temptations that have been known to badger well-meaning folks passing through the wilderness.
In Deuteronomy 8.2, Moses calls the Israelites to attention: “Remember the entire path that the LORD your God caused you to walk for this 40 years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart: would you keep his commandments or not?’
They did not.
What is remembered of Israel’s time in the wilderness is neither obedience nor humility, but rebellion. To borrow the Bible’s language, the Israelites hardened their hearts. (Ps 95.8; Heb 3.8,15)
By contrast, Jesus fulfilled Israel’s calling in the wilderness by humbling himself, resisting temptations of all kinds, and by choosing obedience (Luke 4). In a remarkable turn of phrase, the writer to the Hebrews states that Jesus, the champion/leader/pioneer/author of our salvation, was ‘made perfect’, or ‘brought to completion’, through his sufferings (Heb 2.10). Isn’t that a wild notion? That Jesus was made perfect through suffering!? And in what follows, the author continues to use that phrase of those who follow Jesus.
So here we are … isolated in this lenten wilderness, awaiting the promise of resurrection life.
But the testimony of Scripture is that our present experience ought not overwhelm us. Nor should it be aimless. On the contrary, like Israel and Jesus, we are being led through this arid wilderness by the life-giving and remarkably creative Spirit of God, whose breath inhabits dry bones, and whose light overcomes the darkness.
We may be isolated from one another for a time, but together the church continues to follow Jesus into this Lenten wilderness. And as we are being brought to completion, let’s continue to pray this simple prayer from Psalm 143.10:
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
Let your good Spirit lead me
on a level path.
Dr Paul Jones
Principal of Trinity College Queensland and Lecturer in Old Testament and Homiletics