What is Lent? Jesus in the Wilderness

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And 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.

–Mark 1:12-13

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday. In many liturgical traditions, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lent season with the placement of ash in the shape of a cross on the forehead. Historically, this ash would be produced from the palm leaves used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The purpose of this strange ritual is to remind us that we are dust: fragile, finite, and utterly dependent on God’s grace for salvation from death.

As finite, embodied beings embedded in time, we bring order to our lives through rhythms. There are the rhythms of the day–the morning ritual of coffee and preparing for a day of work ahead, the evening ritual of turning on the TV and unwinding after a long day, the nightly ritual of a shower before sleep. There are the rhythms of the week–church on Sunday, work on Monday, meeting up with friends and family on Friday, going to the park on Saturday. And there are rhythms for the year–seasons where deadlines and reports for work are due, seasons for vacation in the summer and winter, seasons where we pay special attention to our family with birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

The Church Calendar invites us to shape the rhythms of our days, weeks, and years according to the pattern of Jesus’ life: The advent of his coming, his birth, his early years moving into his ministry, his road to the Cross, his death, resurrection, and ascension, and his sending of the Spirit. In creating this calendar, the church was following the example set by their Jewish forebears, who ordered their time according to seasons of festivals, feasts, and fasts that were handed to them by God when they were in the wilderness. By doing so, the Jews and Christians hoped to use the seasons of time to orient their lives toward the worship and contemplation of God.

It is in this context that we approach the season of Lent. Lent is a season of fasting–40 days of fasting, when we exclude the 6 Sundays that are supposed to be “mini-Easters” where we break the fast in anticipation of the Easter celebration to come. During this time, we give up “good things” that threaten to become “ultimate things” in our lives, to teach us to place our highest hopes and affections on Christ. It is a time to know Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings, humbly aware that his sufferings were orders of magnitude above our own. In particular, our suffering in pursuit of Christ should spur our recognition of our Savior in the faces of our poor and suffering neighbors, and move us to acts of charity and service.

Unfortunately, our consumer-oriented culture shapes us to see Lent as yet another opportunity for self-improvement: We give up chocolate because we know we should try and lose weight anyway.

Lent does have an element focused on the self, but our fast is for the purpose of self-examination in light of our sin and God’s holiness. Just as Moses and Elijah each spent 40 days fasting to focus on God and prepare for a special work, Christians fast not for some modern pursuit of self-improvement, but to focus on the beauty of God in preparation for the task given to us through Jesus’ Resurrection.

In other words, the Lenten fast allows us to create space to see ourselves, to see God, and to see the other.

For the next 6 weeks of Lent, we will be focusing on the sufferings of Jesus on his road to the Cross. Starting next week, we will spend three weeks examining the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. On the fifth Sunday of Lent, we will look at Jesus’ message of the Kingdom and the Cross. And on the last Sunday before Easter, we will contrast Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with his laments over Jerusalem’s fate.

Today, we will briefly see how Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness not only mirrors Moses’ and Elijah’s time of preparation for ministry, but also recapitulates the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering before they entered into the promised land.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led out into the wilderness by the Spirit. Already, this should spark a number of associations for us.

First, Jesus’ entry into the wilderness follows his baptism. As we saw earlier, Jesus’ baptism is a reference to the crossing of the Jordan and of the Red Sea. Israel is also led into the wilderness following its deliverance from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea.

Second, Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Israel also is led into the wilderness by the Spirit, which takes the form of a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night.

Third, while in the wilderness, Jesus faces a number of temptations, which revolve around food, trusting the Lord, and worship. While in the wilderness, Israel also faced temptations surrounding food, trusting the Lord, and worship. However, where Israel repeatedly failed and succumbed to temptation, Jesus is able to overcome the Devil.

With these parallels, God is telling us that Jesus is the true and better Israel, the successful royal priest that Israel (and before it, Adam) had been called to be and failed. Though he was fully human and tempted in every way that we were, Jesus did not fall to sin but instead emerged victorious over it.

Because of his victory, we too now have victory over sin, death, and the Devil. Today, we can share some small part of his sufferings, confident that because of the true Israelite, we are no longer just dust, but dust that has been fought for, bled for, redeemed, and that will be raised to New Life.

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