I think we have Lent all wrong. On Ash Wednesday I was in a really good mood and when it came time for worship, I honestly wasn’t feeling all that penitential or somber. Now, I’m not really known for reverence or piety anyway and as someone that evening pointed out to me, why did I have to act differently than I normally do? Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that some times and places are sacred and holy and not all behavior is acceptable at those times, but I do sometimes struggle with the seemingly artificial somberness of Lent for me. This week on Facebook and in general conversations, I heard people talking about what they are giving up or adding for Lent in order to spend more time with their family (such as in giving up FB or all social media), to lose weight, to be more productive at work, to give their Starbucks money to a charity, or even to start a new spiritual practice that they are sure will bring them closer to God. None of these things are in and of themselves bad but it got me to wondering what Lent is all about. Is it a time of Christian New Year’s resolutions? Is it really self help disguised as piety for Jesus? Is it the modern day equivalent of the medieval practice of self flagellation? If that’s what it’s about, then do these scripture readings simply support the fact that we have temptations (not the musical group) that we have to overcome for God to love us or to experience Jesus? Is there nothing of God in chocolate and Facebook?
So, “what is Lent, really”? And what does this Mark 1 story have to do with giving stuff up so that we are closer to God? Do you know what the word Lent means? Spring! Hope! New Life! Green grass, tulips, baby animals, baseball and short sleeves! Lent does not mean suffering, denial, death, sadness, and let’s all be Eyeore’s for six weeks under a gray gloomy cloud. I think we have Lent all wrong.
We are once again revisiting Mark 1 the baptism of Jesus that we just read a few weeks ago at the beginning of Epiphany. This time we lose the John the Baptist stuff and gain the four verses of Jesus in the wilderness and proclamation of the Kingdom of God coming near. I, frankly, preferred dealing with the loveliness of Jesus’ baptism versus wilderness and temptation. Let’s talk about glory a little bit more, Lent is so sad and dismal! I miss Epiphany with the light and the revelation and the shine Jesus shine. But here’s where once again, we get Lent all wrong.
We hear these two verses of Jesus being driven out to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and tempted by Satan and immediately ask the question “why”? Why would God drive Jesus to the wilderness for temptation? We tend to interpret these verses to mean that maybe we are to accept that God causes us to be tempted and tested for strengthening our faith. Or that it means that we need to rid ourselves of any temptations in Lent that might be from Satan. A popular theory in our culture is that God has a purpose for our own personal time in the wilderness, whether that is physical or mental disease, joblessness, financial insecurity, loneliness, fear of what’s going on in our world, or just fear in general. What if we have this wilderness thing all wrong?
Yes, the Holy Spirit did drive, or the Greek is hurl which I love, Jesus out to the wilderness but it’s not that God was tempting Jesus or giving him difficulties to make him stronger in faith or to make a point. Jesus was sent out to the hard, barren places because they exist in our lives. This IS reality whether we like it or not, even for Jesus. And God didn’t tempt Jesus or cause or allow Satan to tempt Jesus, Satan just did because evil is real, the unknown and brokenness of our world is real. What if Jesus was sent to the wilderness not for Jesus but for Satan? What if the Spirit hurled Jesus to confront the reality of evil and brokenness with God’s love? God is proclaiming that Jesus is even for Satan and God will meet Satan right where evil is, with love. There is no where that God’s love can’t be hurled and to no one that God’s love will be denied.
There are wilderness times and places for us all. God doesn’t cause them, allow them or use them to teach us a lesson or for a purpose. Why there are wilderness places, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that other than we live in a world that is broken, the kingdom of God is near but not yet fully come. I don’t know why people get sick and die, I don’t know why groups of people think that they have the right to kill other people in God’s name, and I don’t know why people go to bed hungry, lonely, cold or with no bed at all. I don’t know why evil exists and why we fight with one another over silly and inconsequential things that don’t really matter at the end of the day. All I know is that I have wandered in the desert, I have experienced those places where I was sure that God didn’t exist or was sure that when God said that everyone is loved, God didn’t mean THOSE other people who cause suffering and harm. I have been in the wilderness and I was met with God’s unconditional love and grace.
I think we have this journey of Lent all wrong, it isn’t about us and what we add on or give up. This journey of Lent is the journey of God being with us always even if we are in the reality of the wilderness with wild beasts. Lent is not about what we think we need to do differently to be closer to God but the reality that the kingdom of God is nearer than you think. Lent is about the good news that the love of Jesus will meet you wherever you are, whoever you are, no matter what you do or don’t do. This journey of Lent is about how everything in our lives is of God even if we don’t see it, experience it or recognize it. Everything. Even the people, places and situations you don’t like and feel like barren wilderness with wild beasts.
The wilderness exists and when we are in those places of wilderness, as God’s people, we bring the love and light of Jesus with us. The spirit drives us out to places we don’t want to go because we are people also hurled into the world, not people called to sit in safety. We go to places in our world that are hard because that’s part of all of our life’s journeys but they are places where God already is at work with love, hope and mercy. We are the ones who point to God’s loving work in those broken times and places that exist and we don’t know why.
I think we might have Lent all wrong because we make it about us and not about God. But the kingdom of God has come near even when we get it wrong and God offers us over and over the story each and every day of God’s promise of hope, new life, continual presence, unconditional love and forgiveness. This Lent, let’s tell the story, the kingdom of God is near and near us all. The kingdom of God is at work in the world, in the joyful and peaceful places and situations and in the hard, difficult and barren places. God is everywhere at all times and in all places and that is the good news to proclaim. Amen.