As we journey through Lent, we are remembering the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness, which, in turn, recalls the 40 years of Israel journeying in the wilderness. In the context of our 21st century Northern Virginia culture, the concept of “wilderness” may seem far distant. After all, most United Methodists in the Alexandria District live in comfortable surroundings and secure homes, not desert sands and portable tents.
Many of us have been reading through the Bible with Bishop Lewis this year, and it is fitting that we are in Deuteronomy as we enter the first weeks of Lent. Deuteronomy recalls the lessons of the wilderness journey, as well as the perils that come with entering the promised land. In many ways, today we are living more amid the perils of the promised land, in terms of our physical and economic status. What are the perils of the promised land? Basically, it is that we will forget the lessons of the wilderness! We will forget that God is the One who provides, who guides, who expects moral living, who forgives penitent hearts, whose grace is sufficient for every time of need. When we come into a place of plenty like the promised land, the danger is that we will forget about God. We will act like we do not need God. This, I think, is where people in our culture find themselves.
However, it does not mean that the wilderness is unimaginable to us. Parts of our experience liken to the wilderness. Certainly we know the voices of murmuring, complaining, and rebelling that arise in the wilderness; those voices fill all manner of media, as well as infiltrate our own spirits. Certainly we experience spiritual hunger and thirst that makes us wonder about God and God’s presence and purpose for us. Certainly we experience threats to our well-being from forces that lurk beyond us and within us. Certainly we experience temptations to think that we do not need to rely on God for our life, for our hope, and for our deliverance and salvation.
The wilderness journey encroaches into our promised land, just as Jesus goes to the wilderness immediately after He enters into the promise of His baptism. The wilderness is not to be avoided, but embraced. We need the wilderness of Lent to remind us that we cannot get to Easter without God.
Of the many lessons of the wilderness, I lift up three. First, keep praying. Both Jesus and Moses rely on prayer to be their lifeline for faith and courage in the wilderness. We should not expect to make it through with anything less.
Second, be patiently determined. We cannot rush our way through the wilderness because we would miss out on essential truths that we will not otherwise receive. Nor should we settle in as if there is not another destination calling us. Jesus and Moses both endured the ordeals of the wilderness, and both knew that they were being equipped for the Kingdom of God that overflows with grace, mercy, love, and life that flourishes.
Finally, celebrate the signs and wonders of God’s work with us and among us. Worship is a key ingredient in the wilderness with Moses. The angels tend to Jesus in the wilderness; the Word from scripture gives Him victory at every turn; and He defeats the evil one as a forewarning of what will be the final outcome at the Cross. God is very much at work in the wilderness of our 21st century American context. We are the people of the wilderness journey, who draw near to God and rely on God, following Jesus, so that God’s goodness and mercy may be evident to all.
Blessings for this journey!