by David Pattinson
Mark 1:13 “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
Our natural desire for being able to see ahead, to plot and plan our lives has never been more evident than now. Daily we yearn for a “route map” so we can see clearly the way out of lockdown.
Reading in The Church Times, Archbishop Stephen Cottrell was commenting on the challenges facing the church of England which have surfaced in a discussion document “Money, People and Buildings”, and saying that these are exceptional times and we do not have a ‘route map”.
And I sympathise with wanting a route map. If I set out on a journey I like to know exactly where I am going and the best way to get there. It even slips into daily routines – the first question of the day is often “What’s on today’s agenda, and What’s for dinner?”
But in the wilderness there are no sign posts! In the desert of Covid we have lost our usual markers.
We might be tempted to think that Jesus, as God’s Son, knows, even at the beginning of His ministry, exactly how things will turn out, exactly what the route
map is. But the very fact that Jesus was tempted underlines the reality that Jesus will be faced with choices; that he will be tempted to take a wrong turning. Even in Gethsemane before his death, Jesus prays that the cup of death will be taken from him. There is still a choice to be made. So we might expect that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is thinking about the question “What does life hold for me? Where am I going? What’s the route map?” Jesus has had confirmation of who he is in the baptism by John “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” says God. And then with the urgency and immediacy that is one of the hallmarks of this gospel, the same Spirit that descended on Jesus has an appointment for him in the wilderness.
But in the wilderness there are no signposts! In the desert where Jesus is driven there are few markers.
So why the wilderness? Why 40 days? Commentators see here a reference to the 40 years the people of Israel spent in the wilderness after The Exodus. But they also see a clear reference to Moses and Elijah. Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the second version of the 10 commandments. It is in these commandments that God renews His covenant with Israel. “He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water.” (Exodus 34:28)
And it is to the same “mountain of God” that Elijah is taken when he flees from Jezebel who seeks his life. It’s a journey of 40 days sustained only by the cake and water of Angels (1 Kings 19:5-8). Here God speaks in the silence to confirm that His covenant will continue, that there will be 7000 who have not bowed their knee to Baal. So we see the wilderness and the 40 days/years as a place and time where Israel as a nation is shaped and formed; where the law is received; where there is a re-discovering and renewing of a prophetic calling.
So what is happening to Jesus in the wilderness? His companions give us a clue – Satan; the wild beasts; the angels. I liked a recent description of Satan as “that which prevents us from being and becoming what we are – children of God”. The wild beasts could be actual animals or they could be the demons within us. The angels are there to support and sustain, as they did with Elijah; to reassure that what is happening in the wilderness is divinely inspired.
The time in the wilderness seems to be a necessary part of Jesus’ formation. Here he finds “a test of faithfulness, and a promise of deliverance” (Jane Williams) He wrestles with Satan and maybe the wild beasts, but throughout it all, the angels minister to him. Here he begins to understand his mission to “fulfil the law and the prophets”.
So where does that leave us in this 40 day period? We could describe this Lent as a “Lent within a Lent”, like a play within a play. Life has taken on the nature of a wilderness; we have been robbed of all our usual sign posts; the route map even when it comes, seems fragile. But perhaps the very lack of a map is the opportunity to ponder on the even more important things in life. A speaker at a recent online preaching conference suggested that after such a difficult year, this Lent might not be the time for abstinence. Rather we might prayerfully explore what is our joy, our desire, our delight for ourselves and for the world.
In a Lent like few others, perhaps we can still take time to reflect on how God is shaping and forming us; to confront our demons; to be reassured of God’s love and protection; to know we are his children. So that we get to the place where we realise that it is Jesus Christ who is our way; our guide; our destination.