The wilderness of Lent and the journey to Calvary

Jesus Tempted, by Chris Cook

I have come to believe that God meets us precisely where we are.  Sometimes God meets us in the darkness of night or in the dawn of a new day.  Other times, in the green field of His pasture.  We find God on the mountain of praise or in the valley of grief.

During Lent, we travel with Jesus and meet God in the wilderness of testing (Matt. 4:1-11).  Just as Jesus learned to go without food in a place of vulnerability and temptation, we also sense our deepest needs and learn to trust God.

Biblical wilderness often evokes some sort of conversion and transformation.  God sent Israel to the wilderness right after the Exodus from Egypt.  There, they became hungry and thirsty; they were uncertain about their future (Ex. 16).

In facing the barren landscape of testing, Israel started to complain to Moses.

“Why have you brought us out here to die?” they asked, “When we could have stayed in Egypt and had a hot meal and a sense of purpose.”  God heard their complaint and rained manna down from heaven to test “whether or not they will heed my instruction” (16:4).

I’m sure Jesus knew exactly how the Israelites felt.  He had just passed through his own Exodus of sorts with John, and he was filled with God’s Spirit to fulfill his life mission.  He went to the wilderness for forty days and became hungry. No wonder Satan’s first temptation related to food.

“If you are truly the Son of God,” Satan said, “Then turn these stones into bread.”

Surely, turning stones to bread would have been easy for Jesus.  Satan was right: Jesus was (and is) the very Son of God.  This was the guy who eventually fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and some leftover fish.  Jesus could have made some manna of his own.

But this was the wilderness, and it was Satan that tempted Jesus.  Miracles were not meant to impress those who deceive Christ, Satan included.

Nor is our wilderness a place for miracles either; rather, it is quite the opposite.  Here, in the barren landscape of the soul, we are stripped of all things that would satisfy our fleshly desires.  We are left to a God who wants us to relinquish our entire life to him.

God doesn’t even throw us a bone, He turns us into bones that He may breathe into us His new, life-giving Spirit.  “Arise and walk,” Ezekiel once said to similar bones thousands of years earlier.

In wilderness we do not receive entitlements; our notions of self-reliance and independence fail us.  Our illusion that we have made it “this far on our own” crumble under the weight of God’s test.  Wilderness is, as Henri Nouwen once wrote, the “fiery furnace of transformation where the old self dies and the new self emerges.”

And that is really what is at stake–for the Israelites, for Jesus, and for you and me.  God requires that we drop the facade, the edifice, of the false self–the person who we think we should be–in exchange for the Christ-centered self.  This is the call to live a radical lifestyle in which we trust God for all things, including the basics of life–food and water.

Lent is a time to remember these things and enter the wilderness of fasting and testing.  But there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel, for Lent eventually gives way to the redemption found at Calvary.  There we crucify once and for all the sinful nature of the old self, and experience resurrection with Christ by “putting on” the new self.  The question is: Do you have what it takes to let the Spirit drive you out to the wilderness so that you give your all to God?

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