Time in the wilderness to focus on God

Mary Copping, 21 February 2021

Genesis 9: 8–17; 1 Peter 3: 18–22; Mark 1: 9–15

I wonder what you’re going to give up for Lent. I can hear the cry: ‘I’ve given up enough already in this pandemic – my freedom, my social life, my holidays, my day-to-day encounters with others. What more do you want me to give up?’

During this Lent we as a church are encouraged to give up or cut down on meat. This would help the environment in many ways. But the idea of giving something up is not just to help the environment, or to lose weight or to give up something we’ve been trying to give up for months. This is also about setting aside time for God – being focused on what God wants us to do in our lives, being intentional about our relationship with God.

In Mark’s gospel we’re told that after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness. It’s typical of Mark’s gospel to be short and fast-paced, as if Mark wants to get on with letting people know the important things about Jesus, letting them know about the good news that he has been witnessing. And the Spirit didn’t gently lead Jesus into the wilderness, according to Mark; he was driven. I wonder if we feel that about the lockdown and the isolation: we didn’t choose this, we know it’s necessary but we didn’t want it, we’ve been driven to it.

The Spirit didn’t gently lead Jesus into the wilderness, according to Mark; he was driven.

Perhaps for us, we feel we’re in such a place as a desert or a wilderness. We’ve lost all our markers, we’ve lost all our certainty about what lies ahead. We’ve been taken away from everything we knew.

This happened to the Israelites in the Old Testament. They wandered through the desert for 40 years led by Moses, until they reached the Promised Land. They complained bitterly about all the hardships; Moses complained to God about having to lead these ungrateful people. God provided them with water, with manna to eat and with fire to lead them by night and a cloud by day. He gave them all that they needed.

But it was a time when God’s people discovered who they were, and who God is. They needed this time to bring them closer to God, more reliant on him and more trusting of him to provide all they needed – preparing them for when they got to the Promised Land. They were ill-disciplined slaves, having lost everything, but became a victorious people ready to enter the Promised Land.

As Jesus went into the wilderness for the 40 days, he too needed to be prepared for his ministry. The first temptation, ‘Turn these stones into bread’, tempted Jesus to take care of his own needs, to provide his own food miraculously rather than trusting God to supply his needs. The second was to throw himself off a high mountain and prove that God would save him, but Jesus refused to put God to the test. The third was the temptation to follow the ways of the world rather than God’s ways, but Jesus’ response was to quote, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve’.

In each temptation Jesus proved that he would follow his heavenly Father in all things and do just what he asked him to do. And as he came to the end of his time in the desert, we hear that angels waited on him – a wonderful picture of God sending his messengers to take care of his only Son, who had been through so much but came out victorious and ready for the work that he came to do and the salvation that he came to bring us all.

Some other people who went into the desert were the Desert Fathers (alongside Desert Mothers). They were early Christian hermits and monks who lived in the desert of Egypt from the third century AD. They, however, were not driven into the desert but felt that they were called by God to give up all and live a solitary, simple life devoted to God and to prayer. We thank God for these people and their prayers, and for their writings of deep spiritual significance that we still have today.

So for us, perhaps we can feel driven rather than called into the wilderness that we are in at the moment and then coming into this Lenten time of 40 days. First, we must embrace pain and loss that we’ve felt and acknowledge all the suffering we’ve been through in this time already. Then we must look at what God is forming in us and what he is preparing us for as we see signs of coming out of lockdown. I heard a speaker likening God’s work with us through this time to the angiogram he’d just had. He described it as ‘an investigation into his heart’. And he said that God is doing this to us at this time – seeing what is in our hearts. What might God have been doing in all this pain and suffering, what might he have been creating in us over this time, and what more in these 40 days of Lent?

When the Israelites were preparing to go into the Promised Land, Moses said to them, ‘When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.’

For us, as we allow God to work in our hearts, as we go through Lent and see the end of lockdown coming … let us not forget what God has been showing us during this time and let us take the valuable things we have learnt into the new future we have – for ourselves, for this church and for the world. And let’s remind ourselves that this will not just be recovery, not back to old ways, but transformation.

A quote from Evagrius (AD 345–399), a Desert Father, who said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind being dispersed and your stillness lost’. Something for us to take into this Lenten time. Amen.