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Tomorrow I bring the lenten meditation for the second of our Lenten lunches. I hope this helps you find your own desert during this Lenten season.

Sent Into The Desert

Mark 1:12-13
13And 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.

Seeing Lent from a new perspective

We are now in the second week of Lent, approaching the third. Lent is a 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, not counting Sundays, which is a time of confession, repentance, and reflection. The 40-days is taken from the 40-days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, but before he began what we call his “earthly ministry.” Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose-driven Life, challenged readers to read one chapter of the book for a period of 40-days for their own life-changing experience. Warren cited the significance of 40-days in the Bible:

  • the great flood lasted for 40-days and 40-nights;
  • Moses was on the mountain of God for 40-days and 40-nights;
  • Elijah spent 40-days fleeing from Ahab, but found God in the process;
  • Jonah preached to Nineveh for 40-days;
  • Jesus spends 40-days in the wilderness; and,
  • Jesus appears to his disciples during a 40-day period after his resurrection.

So, this period of time — 40-days — is significant in the stories of the Bible, and so that gets a lot of attention. Add to the story of Jesus in the wilderness the fact that Jesus fasted all those 40-days makes it all the more impressive. At our house we have trouble going without food for 40-minutes!

But, as interesting as the significance of the 40-days is in all of these stories, I don’t think that’s the main point of the story that Mark tells us. Mark’s account of Jesus temptation is the shortest and most concise of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Do you know what I think the main point is? Are you ready?

I think the main point is that Jesus goes into the wilderness. Not forty days, not temptation, not the devil, but the wilderness itself.

Mark says the Spirit was at Jesus’ baptism, affirming God’s pleasure; and, then immediately, the Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness.

Now, some folks might say, “But, Jesus goes there to fast and pray.” Well, he could have done that in the city, or in his hometown, or even the Temple in Jerusalem. To which others might say, “But, the devil had to tempt him.” And, that is certainly true. Jesus was tempted or tested, more accurately, by the devil. But, that could have been done in the city, and actually the devil and Jesus wind up in Jerusalem on a pinnacle of the Temple in the last temptation! So, Jesus didn’t have to be in the wilderness to fast or pray or be tempted or even encounter the devil.

But, the Spirit sends, drives, him into the wilderness. Mark says Jesus was with the wild beasts, was tempted by the devil, and the angels came and waited on him. All in the wilderness.

The wilderness as spiritual journey

So, it’s the wilderness, not the 40-days, that’s the main focus here. And, wilderness, or desert, has a history in the stories of the Bible as stellar as that of the 40-days.

  • Moses is on the backside of the desert, avoiding God, when he encounters God in a burning bush;
  • Israel wanders in the desert, taking a 40-year detour to the Promised Land;
  • God feeds Israel manna in the desert;
  • Elijah, on that 40-day journey to Horeb, goes to the desert where he meets God in the still small voice.
  • Isaiah speaks of streams in the desert, and the prophets speak of the desert blooming like a rose.
  • John the Baptist preaches in the desert, and multitudes flock to hear him.
  • Jesus is led, driven, by the Spirit — by God — into the desert.
  • The Essenes, one of the three prominent Jewish religious societies, establishes their settlement in the desert.

So, the desert, or the wilderness, figures prominently in spiritual formation in the lives of people whom God is calling. Even as the early church in the the 3rd and 4th centuries was already growing cold and lax, a group called The Desert Fathers — and there were Desert Mothers, too — left the great cities where church bishops vied for political power to find spiritual vitality in the deserts of Egypt and Syria and other parts of northern Africa.

Why the desert?

When the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Piedmont, South Carolina, wanted a mural painted in their baptistry, they asked my grandmother to paint it. She and my grandfather had been members there for half their adult lives, and now they are both buried in the church cemetery across the road. My grandmother was a remarkable woman who had an 8th grade education. But, Marguerite Callaham Warnock was born with a sense of artistry and style that exceeded her formal training. She started collecting beautiful antiques — giant poster beds, massive sideboards, and museum quality tables — long before it was fashionable to do so. And, in her 60s she taught herself to paint.

So, when Mt. Pisgah needed a baptistry mural, Marguerite Warnock was called upon. But, she wanted it to be authentic, so she asked her son — my father — to send her photographs of the Jordan River from my parents’ latest trip to the Holy Land. From those photographs, she painted the baptistry mural. She did a marvelous job, accurate to the last detail. But, some of the church folks didn’t like it. Why? Because it looked like the desert. Most of them had images in their heads of lush greenery, verdant trees, palms, and undergrowth sprouting up from the banks of the Jordan River. But, the reality was, it was desert. A few scruffy palmetto-looking plants, a lot of dirt, and a small river.

Well, our idea of the desert in this story is just as wrong as the picture some of the members of the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church had in their heads. We have often thought of the desert that Jesus went into as a bad place — a dismal place of deprivation, hardship, and temptation. But, the Spirit sends Jesus there. Why? Because he can be with God without distraction. No food, no crowds, no questions, no disciples, no interference from the Pharisees, nothing to keep him from God.

But, “I thought he was with the devil” you might say. Oh, the devil came around. But, Mark tells us he was really with the wild beasts. And, I don’t think the scene is a replay of Daniel in the lions’ den. I think Mark is making a theological statement here. Jesus was with the wild beasts, and he doesn’t get eaten. Jesus was with the wild beasts and they don’t attack him. Jesus was with the wild beasts and he’s safe. His only adversary in the desert is the devil, who ultimately takes him from the desert back to the city. The desert becomes the place that Jesus encounters the wildness of God’s creation in all its untamed glory. The desert becomes Eden again, fallen maybe, but not forsaken. The desert becomes the place Jesus begins to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

The wild beasts, the animals, leave him unharmed. The angels come and wait on him. The desert becomes a temple, the place where the purpose of God for his creation triumphs over the forces of evil, greed, depravity, and sin. The desert becomes the highway for our God that Isaiah spoke of, for it is not only John the Baptist who proclaims that prophetic word, but Jesus who fulfills it.

The desert in modern culture

We have long thought that wilderness, nature, the desert, was a place of spiritual renewal. John Burroughs, a naturalist and farmer of the late 1800s spoke of his “divinity school days in the mountains” which he said help us develop “sharp eyes” to see nature’s dramas, and the ability to interpret what we see. Back to the land agrarians like Wendell Berry echo Burrough’s sentiments.

And, adults aren’t the only ones who benefit from going into the wildernenes. In his book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that children are missing the wonder of nature, and connection with the mysteries of life because most no longer play outdoors. One child, when asked where he liked to play, said, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

There was a time when we lived with nature as part of our daily routine. Now we do everything we can to insulate ourselves from nature. We close our windows, drive instead of walk, whiz past trees at speeds to fast to see them, and live our lives in what we think is the safety and security of controlled environments. But, we need the wilderness.

Our desert during this Lenten season

So, not only is this Lenten season a 40-day period, it is a time when we seek our desert. A time when we ask the Spirit to drive us into the presence of God in all his wild and glorious beauty. A time when we are stripped of the easy and the familiar and the distracting, and find the God of the universe who makes all things new.

I’m reading a book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. Berry is a farmer, a Christian, and a writer who has been writing about the society in which we live for about 40-years now. One of the things Berry says is that when we quit caring about the land, creation, we began to lose our way as a people. Of the land, Berry writes –

This is the justice that we are learning from the ecologists: you cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself. — The Unsettling of America, p 116.

If the Spirit drives us into the wilderness this Lenten season, it may be to reconnect with God by taking a walk in the woods, or watching the birds find new homes, or being whipsawed by the whirl of the winds of spring. But, undoubtedly, it will be to find God by living with his creation, rather than listening to ours.

Some folks give up things for Lent, feeling that by doing so they follow the experience of Christ as he fasted. But, my point today is that we have already given up too much. We have given up our connection with God’s creation, and now value nature as a scenic destination, rather than as God’s creation. Our prayer should be that we are driven into the wilderness to encounter God as Moses did in a burning bush, as Elijah did in the still small voice, as John the Baptist did in animals skins and a diet of locusts and wild honey. Until we spend time in the desert, with the untamed God of creation, we cannot come into his presence in the comfort of the Temple.