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So We Enter the Wilderness
by Thomas Hall, DPS homiletics editor
based on Matthew 4:1-11

Lent, for all of the non-alleluias and abstinence associated with the season, isn’t even in the Bible.  Doesn’t make so much as a cameo appearance.  Early Christians did not have a place for such a season.  We’ll see some giving-up of meals here and there in the records, but the forty days of Lent was not in the agenda of early Christians.  Self-denial, however, was always in season.  Many early Christians were clearly distinguished by their love for one another, by their willingness to give up status, freedom, and even life and limb for the faith they owned.  Life was always in the balance, lived on the edge in those early days. 

            But once the adrenaline rush of persecution ended, life reverted to ho-hum again.  Accommodation not aggravation.  Since Jesus hadn’t returned according their last days calendar, everyone settled back for a long wait.  Eventually accommodation gave way to acculturation—fitting in took top priority.  In fact, there was scarcely any discernable difference between Christians and nonchristians.  They no longer expressed such bold love for one another, and fewer and fewer were getting arrested for siding with those who were poor, sick, handicapped, impoverished.  Accommodation in.  Extremes out.   Crosses of martyrs produced a cottage industry of devotional jewelry and mantle pieces.  And Christians became comfortable.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian.”[1]

            So eventually—no one knows exactly when—Lent was invented as a six-week period of spiritual discipline before Easter.[2]  Playing loose with the numbers will yield the number 40.  Moses was on the Mountain of God for forty days.  Forty were the years he stayed on the backside of the wilderness.  Forty were the years that Israel wandered in the wilderness and the days that Jesus went without food in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time; it reminds us that we’re talking about a process rather than a once-for-all event when it comes to the conversion of our lives.  No quick fixes, that’s what Lent says.  Instead we are invited on a forty-day journey that becomes a process peeling away the veneer that overlays our soul.  There is a part of us that can only be sustained by God.  So Lent reminds us once again what it is like to rely on God’s grace alone and not by what we can do for ourselves.

            I recently met with a man who was a father, businessperson, and a sex addict.  He had come to request space for a newly formed SA—sexaholics anonymous—group.  As we talked, this man told the story of powerlessness over lust that had spiraled out of control.  The cost of such addiction was severe; it cost him a marriage, his job, and family before he was willing to admit his addiction.  Of himself and those in SA he said, “We admit that our habits have whipped us,” he said.  “We know that our problem is physical, emotional, and spiritual.  We need healing in all three areas.”  Though my friend has practiced sobriety for quite some time, he knows what addiction can do.  But he also knows what God has done for him. 

            These friends—most of them Christians—are not oddities, nor freaks or monsters.  They are human beings who have become painfully honest with their lives.  They will tell you that they have made a series of bad choices and that those choices have impacted them and their families.  In the wilderness of their lives, they have made the discovery that all is not well with their lives.  So they come together from all walks of life because they are convinced that life was meant to be lived on a higher plane than what they’ve experienced. 

            I couldn’t help but sympathize with such persons who have finally broken the sad silence about their lives.  Honest to God.  And self.  And family.  Such persons have finally rubbed some of the veneer off their soul and freely admit that they have tried to fill in the blank with the wrong things. 

Pascal once said that inside of us there is a God-shaped vacuum.  I also recall  Augustine’s famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  I think both of these sayings speak to the hollowness that we feel when God’s special place is filled with lesser gods.

If addiction is, at its core, anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us which belongs to God alone, then I wonder if maybe all of us or at least 99% of us are addicted to something.  Food, fashion, accumulation, blaming, shopping, fitness, diet, the pursuit of happiness, even care-giving could fit the bill.  Anything really.  And so whenever that emptiness becomes unbearable, it’s quite easy to fill that emptiness with something other than God to numb the pain.  Yet, as Augustine discovered, there is nothing on earth that can fill emptiness of the soul but God. 

It was during Lent that she finally got honest.  She was a PK—a preacher’s kid.  Christian faith, a Christian family, Christian worship, and Christian music had surrounded her for her entire life.  Now twenty something, my young friend wanted to live life on the wild side to see what she was missing.  She told me about drugs and parties and what she wanted to try.  But in the end, she didn’t go down that path.  Nothing I had said would have dissuaded her.  She discovered on her own a relationship with God without Christian props.  There during Lent in her own wilderness she gave up her reliance on the Christian scene and claimed God’s love and presence for herself and in her own way. 

            Lent says to us, “pay attention to your life.”  Which temptation gets to you?  Chances are that whatever it is that has filled the vacuum will only get more demanding and inflexible.  “Are you kidding?  Stop doing that?  You’re crazy, you’re taking this Lent too seriously.”  “This gives you real meaning and identity.  And you want to give it up?”

            You know where that voice comes from—just look in Matthew 4.  But the answer of Jesus to the tempter is our answer too.  “Worship the Lord your God and serve no one else,” he tells the devil. 

So enter the wilderness.  Expect great things from God, do great things for God, for with God all things are possible.              And especially during the season of Lent.

So we enter the wilderness,  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), page 66.

[2] The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, J.G. Davies, ed.  (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986), page 299.