Written by Father Seth Richardson, Pastor of Discipleship at St. Andrew’s Church, Little Rock, AR.
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil…” Luke 4:1-2
Lent always begins in the wilderness.
In the wilderness, we feel disoriented, raw, and at our wits end. In the wilderness, all the devices we use to silence inconvenient truths are unavailable, and we are forced to face deeply buried brokenness and pain we’d rather leave undisturbed.
The wilderness often feels like punishment – like we must have done something wrong. It feels like the place most distant from God. It feels like spiritual dryness. We would rather be anywhere other than the wilderness and even evaluate our spiritual maturity based on how infrequently we find ourselves there.
But the wilderness is not punishment.
Some of us would prefer for the wilderness to be punishment. We would prefer to pay penance in order to ease our anxious conscience and make up for all the ways it seems like we’ve disappointed God. Some of us prefer penance because we still believe our hurt and brokenness and fear is something we can fix or manage. Penance works for those who are still clinging to control and holding out for a recovery that doesn’t involve actually being dead.
But thank God the wilderness is not punishment.
The wilderness is simply part of our journey with Jesus on the way of the cross. When we walk the way of the cross with Jesus, we are formed into his image – more of our life becomes his life and more of his life ours. So the wilderness is part of our journey because Jesus journeyed there.
Notice how Jesus ends up in the wilderness. He wasn’t being punished. He wasn’t being lazy. He didn’t do something wrong. He followed the Spirit’s leading.
Notice, too, when Jesus ends up in the wilderness. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness on the heels of his baptism before his ministry went public. He wasn’t trying to prove his worthiness. He wasn’t hiding from or wallowing in a deep hurt. He was led into that demonically conspicuous region having already received the Father’s affirmation as the beloved one.
Notice, finally, what Jesus experiences in the wilderness. Another voice offers another way – a cheaper, cross-less version of what already belonged to him as the beloved one. Appetite? Ambition? Approval? Jesus trusts his Father’s voice – embraces his identity as the beloved one.
Lent begins in the wilderness because Lent is all about learning to receive and participate in resurrection life, and the wilderness offers ripe conditions for uncovering where we most need resurrection life to take root and grow. The wilderness is the Spirit’s tilling of the soil – preparing for sowing seeds of resurrection life. Thank God.
In the wilderness, harsh as it is, I cannot continue to prop-up the illusion that I can ignore my brokenness or deal with it in my own power. In the wilderness, I am offered the opportunity to face the truth about myself and trust the Father’s voice.
The truth is, my addictions and idolatries don’t go away simply because I’ve resolved to try harder and do better. The truth is, I need to detox at the foot of the cross – to allow the residual junk lurking in the shadows to come into the light. The truth is, I cannot trust and embrace my identity as the beloved one in Christ until I’ve uncovered the extent to which I continue to trust and embrace other cheap, cross-less offers to satiate my appetite, ambition, and need for approval.
The truth is, entering the wilderness this Lent in order to face and name that junk is the best possible thing. Resurrection life only springs up where there are graves, after all.