1st Sunday of Lent
Gospel Mk 1:12-15
My first Lenten season occurred while I was in RCIA, many years ago, and since then, the quality of my Lenten experiences have run the scale from worthwhile and beneficial to difficult and discouraging. With of course this being the first Sunday in Lent, I have spent some time reflecting upon my past Lenten experiences, and that has caused me to ask, “What makes the difference?” What makes the difference between a spiritually fulfilling Lenten season that culminates in the joy and celebration of Easter, versus a deflating and discouraging Lenten experience that limits my Easter joy?
As I previously mentioned, my very 1st Lent occurred as I was preparing to join the church as an adult. I remember this experience for many different reasons, but one particularly stands out because in the midst of my conversion journey I came upon a crossroads. I came to a place where my doubts and concerns about joining the church were preventing me from moving forward. I was so troubled in my mind and spirit that I contacted the priest and asked to meet with him to discuss my dilemma. This was during Holy Week, 3 days before I was to be confirmed in the church. I was so troubled by my doubts and questions that by the time I walked into the priest’s office I had made up my mind that I would not confirm. His counsel saved me. He said, “Jason, when you take a journey, any journey, do you know how it will end before it begins?”
“Of course, I don’t!” I answered.
He then said, “If you wait to have all the answers before you start a journey, you will never start your journey.”
In today’s Gospel we are given a little insight to the start, the beginning of Jesus’s journey. The Gospel reads, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” The Greek word used and translated as “drove” is associated with exorcism. This use of the word implies that that this 40-day period of desertion on which Jesus embarked upon, was both intentional and necessary. Though Mark’s Gospel does not provide us with the details of what exactly occurred in the desert, we do know that he was tempted by Satan, he lived among the wild beasts, and that immediately following its completion Jesus began his public ministry.
Today, however, rather than Jesus’s experience in the desert I would like to focus on the place of his experience, the desert. The desert, as it is presented in the bible, is not just a geographical location, but it also a destination. The biblical desert is where Moses encountered the burning bush. The biblical desert is where the people of God received the stone tablets of God’s Law. The biblical desert is where Elijah heard the gentle whisper of God. In these examples the common thread that binds them is that the desert is the place where God chose to reveal himself.
Whether it is the rocky, arid, desolation of the high mountain, or the sandy, hot, lifeless deserts of Africa and Asia the desert is a place that is resistant to life. It is not an environment conducive to human existence. The things that are necessary for life are not easily obtained in the desert. Water, food, shelter, and companionship are not abundant or readily available. Yet, it is in this environment, this environment of want, struggle, and strife, that God has ordained as the place where he chooses to encounter his people.
I propose to you today that for us, as followers of Christ, the desert is not just a place defined by topography and geography, it is also a space, a period of time, and a journey, too which we have been driven, that is resistant to our spiritual life. In this desert we will feel lonely, abandoned, and often despair. In this desert, our tried and proven spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and study, will become less effective and more difficult, and we will begin to question its purpose and value. In this desert, distractions abound and bring with them doubt and fear. In this desert, we will often ask the unanswerable question of God, “Why… Why, God, are you doing this to me?”
But I remind you that the desert is not just a place of inhospitality, it is also God’s chosen meeting place. It is in the desert that you will hear his voice, find his strength, experience his grace, and receive his comfort. When God calls us to the desert it is not a punishment, it is an invitation. An invitation to encounter him personally, tangibly, and remarkably.
This Lenten season the church has given you the guidance and the instruction, the survival kit if you will, in order that you may be best prepared for your desert journey. This survival kit contains prayer in order that you may find God. It also contains self-sacrifice allowing you the ability to leave behind unnecessary things and habits, and it contains service to others in order that you may not lose your way.
I wish to encourage you to pursue this Lenten season with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Do not let the desert cause you to quit and abandon your pursuit of God. Rely on those around you to be your compass and support in the difficult times and, I wish to leave you this day with the words that the priest gave me to on that day 17 years ago as I walked out of his office, he said, “See you at Easter, and Jason, it will be a great party.”