In our gospel reading for this morning, the Spirit takes Jesus – fresh from his baptism – and leads him on a forty day journey out into the wilderness. And today, that is exactly what all of our readings are doing with us. Our texts are full of these themes of wilderness and desert and wandering preparing us to begin our own forty day journey through the wilderness of Lent.
In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are finally coming to the end of forty long years of wandering in the desert. They are preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan at long last. This reading is part of a long sermon that Moses preaches to his people, reminding them of all that has happened up until this point and exhorting them to stay faithful to God in their new lives in Canaan. Moses wants to make sure that the people remember their history – that they remember where they came from – and especially that they remember how God has been unfailingly faithful to them throughout all of it.
The first thing he instructs them to do in their new home is to make a thank-offering of the firstfruits of the land, in recognition that their whole harvest is a gift from God – especially since they didn’t plant any of it! And the first thing Moses instructs the people to say as they make their offering is: “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” In other words: Today I declare that God has kept God’s promise.
And Moses then instructs them to tell the story, starting with, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” Basically the story goes: Our ancestors were nobodies. They were a bunch of foreigners living in Egypt, but by God’s grace they prospered there and grew in number – until the Egyptians decided to enslave them. Our ancestors were treated harshly and forced to do hard labor, so they cried out to God – and God listened. God heard them. God freed them by signs and wonders and led them out of Egypt, promising to bring them to a land of plenty. And here we are. God has been with us this whole time, from slavery into exile into the promised land – so here’s some fruit to say thanks!
So the Israelites are just coming out of the wilderness in our first reading, and in our gospel reading, we meet Jesus just going into it. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit after being baptized by John and that same Spirit leads him out into the desert, where he fasts for forty days. And during this time, Jesus is continually challenged and taunted by temptation: he’s tempted to use his divine power to feed himself, tempted to abandon his spiritual quest in favor of earthly rewards, tempted to put God to the test. And the Devil gets tricky on that last one – he even quotes scripture to try to convince Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. But Jesus resists temptation by standing strong in his faith and by rooting himself in the word of God. And he actually does this through quoting Moses! All three of the scripture passages Jesus quotes here are from the book of Deuteronomy.
Both the writers of scripture and the compilers of the lectionary – and, for that matter, Jesus himself! – are trying to help us see the connections between these two stories. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, from the end of the Israelites’ exile in the desert, and his forty day sojourn in the wilderness is deliberately meant to make us think of the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. In fact, right before the story of Jesus’ temptation, just after the story of his baptism, Luke inserts a geneology of Jesus’ ancestors – it stretches from Jesus, son of Joseph, to Judah, son of Jacob, all the way back to Seth, son of Adam, son of God. It shows that Jesus’ ancestors were among those who followed Moses; and so Jesus himself – both human and divine – is doubly part of this story. And his journey into the wilderness echoes that same overarching message: that God is faithful and present, even in the wilderness. It’s the same story – the same faithful God – just a different wilderness.
Whatever the wilderness may be in these stories, wherever it is, it’s usually a place of struggle; it’s a place of scarcity, and even danger. And, perhaps because of this, the wilderness is also a place where encounters with God happen. It’s a place where our illusions about ourselves are stripped away – our illusions of control and self-sufficiency, our illusions that we don’t need God or our neighbor in order to survive. In the wilderness, we are drawn out of the familiar – out of our comfort zones – and into the unknown. And that forces us to trust God in a new way. When we are lost and unsure of the path ahead, we have to put all the more faith in God to guide us.
It kind of feels like preaching to the choir to talk about wilderness in these days. We are no strangers to the feeling of wandering in the wilderness. It seems like we’re finally (fingers crossed) coming to the end of our long journey through the wilderness of this pandemic. But instead of joyfully entering some kind of promised land, it seems like another wilderness has opened up in front of us, a wilderness that echoes with the question: “What now??” What’s next for us in a world that has been so changed by this pandemic, a world that is being changed by warfare and violence, a world that had already been changed by decades of decline in the church? Where do we go from here?
Every year on Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent, we talk about starting off on our Lenten journey through the wilderness. But it’s probably truer to say that Lent is a time for us to slow down and acknowledge that we are already wandering in the wilderness in many ways. We are already on some kind of a journey – one that has thrown us for a lot of loops – and we still don’t really know where it’s all going.
But these forty days (plus Sundays) that we observe Lent are deliberately meant to make us think of the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty days in the desert. They are meant to help us find our place in the story of God’s people – and realize that we are still living the same story. The same faithful God who kept promises to God’s people is the God who’s with us now. The same God who guided our ancestors and provided for them in the wilderness, who led them into the promised land, is the God who is still guiding and providing for us now. Same story, different wilderness.
Lent is a time for us to grow even closer to God. The discipline of Lent is less about God drawing near to us than it is about us turning around and drawing near to God – because God has been there for us and for our ancestors the whole time. And our readings for today offer us wisdom on some ways that we can work on growing closer in our relationship to God during this season:
In our first reading, when the Israelites finally come into the land that has been promised to them, the first thing they do is to recognize all that God has done for them and to give thanks. (How can you tell the story of what God has done for you and offer your thanks for God’s faithfulness to you?)
Also in our first reading, Moses tells the Israelites to be sure that they share the abundance of the land with the “alien and the Levite” – in other words, with immigrants and strangers and those who had little land or wealth of their own. (How might you share God’s abundance with someone who has less than you do?)
In our gospel reading, Jesus fasts for forty days and he is hungry. But even when tempted to turn rocks into something to eat, Jesus reminds himself that “one doesn’t live by bread alone.” He knows that our physical hungers and needs and wants can often drown out our deeper need for God. (What physical hungers or temptations make it hard for you to recognize your spiritual hunger? How can you root yourself in God’s word instead?)
And both Paul and the writer of Psalm 91 stress the importance of crying out to God in prayer. In our second reading, Paul urges the Corinthians to call on the name of the one with the power to save – Jesus Christ. And the psalmist extols God as our refuge and our dwelling place, and reminds us that God responds lovingly to all who call for help. Whatever struggles or sinfulness or temptation we may be dealing with, both writers encourage us to keep close to God through prayer. (What burdens are you trying to shoulder alone as you wander through this wilderness? What’s stopping you from taking these things to God in prayer?)
These are challenging days. And in the last several years, it’s continually felt like we’ve been living through one historic and unprecedented moment after another. But the scriptures remind us that, to God, it’s nothing new. God has faithfully walked beside generations of God’s people through times of trouble. It’s the same story, different wilderness. It’s the same story of a people wandering, trying to find their way – and the same God who loves them too much to let them go it alone.