Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert.
How Do You Feel?
The tradition I grew up in didn’t observe Lent—not in the seasonal sense, that is. One could say we practiced Lent year-‘round, just like we celebrated Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost every day. We were taught to devote ourselves to prayer and fasting always; to rejoice daily in the miracle of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection; to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and power in everything we do. This by no means suggests Christians who set aside times of year to focus on specific aspects of their faith believe and live with any less day-to-day fervor. In fact, most of us here follow the ecclesiastical calendar and our collective comments, blogs, and testimonies ring with joy in walking daily, closely with Christ. I draw the distinction only to say not until my partner and I found a home in a welcoming congregation that observed Lent did I really understand and fully appreciate its importance.
Prior to that, all I knew was from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday some Christians sacrificed a thing they enjoyed, a subset of whom abstained from meat on Fridays to remember the crucifixion. Oh, but I get it now. I marvel at the beauty of millions of believers walking into the wilderness en masse. I’m awed by the faith that surges when Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Greeks and Russians kneel penitently as one before our Maker. And I’m mystified by the deeply personal impact of joining brothers and sisters from every corner of the planet in self-denial and prayer for God’s mercy. There’s a spiritual that asks, “How did you feel when you came through the wilderness? Were you leaning on the Lord?” To my mind, leaning on the Lord as a people is what Lent teaches. So, two weeks into this most sacred season, how do you feel? Are you leaning on the Lord?
The Middle of Nowhere
Lent reminds us God maps our lives across desolate passages to strip us of arrogance, delusions of self-sufficiency, and useless desires. We’re led to the middle of nowhere to reawaken our awareness that whatever we accomplish and accumulate depends on God. Grandiose success fantasies evaporate in the wilderness, where surviving one day to the next constitutes triumph. Popularity and status have no value out there. The desert is an unforgiving place where we live with our thoughts and keen to hear God’s voice. Isolation from the clamor of materialism and self-gratification opens our eyes to how silly and unprofitable much of what we pursue can be. The wilderness teaches getting what we want is pointless if we ignore what we need. It humbles us, restores clarity of purpose, and purifies us of frivolous vanities.
Here’s the truth of it: family, friends, and fellow believers will only travel into the desert with us until its demands and discomfort turn them around. As they fall away, loneliness looms and panic sets in, stirring accusations of unconcern and disloyalty. It takes time to realize this is our wilderness to cross. Its centerpiece is the point of abandonment where no one’s left but God and our only option is leaning on Him. Realizing He’s all we have and everything we need reorients our purpose from surviving the wilderness to leaving it.
We commonly view our lives as natural landscapes. But the metaphor doesn’t always fit since life’s irregular topography is seldom seen in nature. For example, many wilderness experiences immediately follow thrilling peaks of feeling we’re on top of the world. We see this often in Jesus’s life. After starting His ministry abroad, He returns with great fanfare to preach in Nazareth only to be run out of town. Similarly, He enters Jerusalem on waves of wide—some think scandalous—acclaim; within days, He leaves the city for a hill where He’s sentenced Him to die.
We might attribute such stark turnabouts to fickle human nature if it weren’t for the first time we see this happen. Jesus’s baptism by John has just ended with a supernatural display. God has audibly confirmed Jesus as His Son and the Holy Spirit has visibly lighted on Him to signify His divine anointing. This occurs in Luke 3. Turning the page, He’s immediately led into the wilderness—this time not by an unfaithful crowd, but by the Spirit. Luke 4.1 says Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit. It's the Spirit within Him leading Christ to to master physical drives, silence doubt with solitude, stare down temptation, and learn to lean wholly on God’s direction and mercy. Lent’s 40-day fast emulates Jesus’s wilderness example, but its significance isn’t calendar-based. It starts and ends with the Holy Spirit’s presence in us. Regarding Lent as an annual observance diminishes its power and obscures its purpose. Lent isn’t following tradition. It's learning to lean. It’s being led.
We're led into the wilderness to learn to lean solely, wholly on God.
(Tomorrow: What Shall We Say?)