Here at St. Barnabas, we are about to begin the forty-day journey that in our Christian tradition is called Lent. When I was a child growing up in Catholic school, the only thing I remember about Lent was that I wasn’t allowed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday or any Friday thereafter until Easter. I was also told I had to choose something else to give up, or perhaps even a new practice to take on. Someone may have explained to me the reasoning behind all of this, but if they had, I must not have been paying very good attention.
When I think of Lent now, I liken our disciplines to being in the wilderness, for it is in the wilderness, when we are removed from things that make us comfortable, comforts that we all too often take for granted, that we tend to encounter God. This is true all throughout the bible and is a running theme within our lectionary readings during Lent. As we will hear in our gospel lesson on the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus, right after his baptism, enters into the wilderness to fast, pray, and be tempted before he begins his ministry. Yet this is by no means the first biblical reference of God showing up in the wilderness.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we also find Moses wandering with his flock in the wilderness, where he will soon encounter God in the burning bush. Others also encounter God in the wilderness. The Israelites ate mana from heaven and drank water from the rock for 40 years as God led them (albeit with a considerable detour) through the wilderness to the promised land. Given this information, it would seem that the wilderness may be a destination for those who desire an encounter with God.
Yes, it really does seem that God is more willing to meet us when we are completely reliant on him, when we are not the ones setting the terms, and when we don’t feel in charge of our surroundings. I believe as the ascetics once did (and still do) that God meets us in the wilderness times and places in our lives. And I believe this, because these are the times and places where we find that we need God the most. However, we often still feel so very alone in the wilderness, and still, I can say with confidence that when I have looked back at my own wilderness periods in life, that is to say my own dark night of the soul or time in the desert, I can see evidence of God’s presence, strength, and leading without a doubt. So, perhaps it might be better for us to say that during our own journeys through the wilderness, we are given the gift of awareness, either in hindsight or in the moment, of a loving God who is consistently reaching out to us and calls us to move out from the distraction of complacency so that we might realize just how present the one whom we call Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is in our lives.
During Lent, there is much to learn from purposefully taking a season to wander into a self-imposed wilderness of sacrifice and denial of day-to-day comforts. These sacrifices not only help us to be more aware of God in our lives, but also help us to connect with the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. This is the sacrifice that has set us free from the bondage of sin and death. Glory be to God! And this is the sacrifice that should inspire the way in which we lead our lives. So, as you begin this Lenten journey, I would like to invite you to choose a discipline or two as we purposefully walk into the wilderness together. Remember that God will meet you there, and remember that this, indeed, is holy ground.