Welcome to the wilderness

Lent 1C
Luke 4:1-13

In the name of God.  Amen.

Welcome to the wilderness.  The season of Lent stretches out in front of us, only just having begun.  And right now, it can seem like a lot.  But at least part of the role of Lent in the Christian experience is to give us a moment to walk with Christ in the wilderness.  If we mean to walk with Christ in the teachings and philosophies Jesus shared; if we mean to walk with Christ in healing the sick and feeding the hungry and drawing justice out of the well of neglect and complacency; indeed, if we mean to walk with Christ in the way of resurrection – the way of eternal life – the way of salvation – if we want to walk with Christ in all of those ways, we also need to walk with Christ through the wilderness.

The wilderness isn’t the aspect of the Christian faith that we share with people when we’re trying to draw them in – to show them all the benefits that faith in God offers.  We talk about life and healing and growth – not wilderness and self-denial.

But even so, wilderness is a real part of life, and as such, it is a real part of faith.  Faith would mean nothing if it wasn’t real, and sometimes, reality is more than just the fluffy stuff.  Sometimes reality is hard, or prickly.  Sometimes tears are more real than laughter.

It’s just true.  And the practice of the Christian faith is a practice of uncovering and sharing truth.  Not idealism.  Not fantasy.  Truth.

And we’re used to the wilderness.  We all know what it means to walk in the wilderness.  Even if you’d never known it before (but of course we all have) – this season of pandemic has thrust us into wilderness.

In the story of Jesus, the time in the wilderness was a time of preparation.  It was a time for Jesus’ spirit and faith to be cleansed – to put away the things that life had placed in the way of true faith; to wipe the slate clean.  It wasn’t a punishment for unworthiness, but a way of evaporating away everything but the worthiness.  To concentrate the worthiness into the truest representation of God’s ideal.

Jesus didn’t leave the wilderness with a goal of rushing back to normal.  Jesus left the wilderness with a renewed understanding of what should be normal.  He left the wilderness with a clearer direction.  He didn’t want to get back to normal, because the point of the wilderness was to prepare him for something more.

We have begun to see some of the earliest inklings and signs that our wilderness may be fading over the horizon.  It’s been a long two years, and there’s almost no chance that the wilderness will instantly vanish out from under us.  But as it fades, it’s worth asking: how has it changed us?  What have we learned?  Have there been aspects of our experiences in this season of wilderness that have left us distilled into some truer understanding and expression of ourselves?

If, as the wilderness fades, we rush to reclaim the “normal” that was lost, we’ll have missed every chance we were given to grow.  We will miss every chance we’ve been given to see how this experience might shape our understanding of God’s will in our lives.

These seasons of wilderness tell us a lot about what it means to practice faith in God and faith in Christ.  Wilderness and Lent help to define our faith.  Not because they are all that is, but because they give us the contrast that God has painted into our experience.

Right now, the forty days of Lent seem to stretch out long before us.  But it’s important to remember that while Lent is 40 days, Easter is 50 days.  The heaviness of Lent may feel long, but it’s not as long as the season of Resurrection.

The forty days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness may seem like a lot – but even they aren’t the focus.  Jesus’ three years of ministry meant more than those forty days did.  And eternity that spent in the age of Resurrection means even more.

Think of that as these days spread before you.  Think of that as this season feels heavy.

It is heavy.  And the days are long.  But they are nothing when compared with the joy that they prepare us for.  The experience of self-denial is nothing when compared against the gifts that we know from being God’s people; God’s church.

Even this pandemic – even if it were to stretch on for another year – even that would pale in comparison to the years that will come after it finally passes.

There will always be seasons of wilderness in our lives.  There will always be times when life feels heavier than it should.  The goal of our faith isn’t to shield us from that or to spur us back into what was normal and steady before, but to help us make use of it.  What do these seasons teach us?  How do they bring us into a clearer understanding of the truth that God is trying to show us?

Don’t just fight the struggles in a futile attempt to reclaim lost comfort.  Grow through the struggles to claim a truer version of God’s will.  And know that that truer version – that season of gift and joy and celebration – it will always outlive the seasons of wilderness.  Amen.