by Rev. Susan Bennett

The first Sunday in Lent is always the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Always. Matthew and Luke go into poetic detail about the powers and the riches and the status that Satan dangles before Jesus in his attempt to derail Jesus’ ministry before it gets started. But not Mark. In our Gospel today, Mark gives the whole experience two sentences: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

I saw a cartoon online this week that showed a man asking his wife, “What are you giving up for Lent?” She consults a paper in her hand and replies, “I don’t know. Let me see what I’ve already given up for the pandemic.” Too true. In the year since we last gathered in person, we have been terrified, horrified, bereft, bored, grieving, depressed, deprived, and deranged. We have had moments of joy and contentment, times of love and warmth, but the background of Covid deaths and misery, of political insanity and social upheaval is always there.

So this year, let’s be careful about pressuring ourselves to manufacture more deprivation as a Lenten observance. Maybe this year, Lent can be a season of sabbath for us, an oasis where we can rest. Where we can narrow our focus and open our hearts and spirits to restore a deeper relationship with God.

Just look at the passage from Mark. Jesus passes through his forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. He emerges, still in the wilderness, but now – instead of The Adversary, The Tempter – he is with the wild beasts, and angels wait on him. This wilderness isn’t a bad place, or an empty place, or a desolate place. It may be empty of crops or orchards or flowers, it may be empty of houses or temples or barns, but it is full of God.

Mark’s brief description reminds me a little bit of the garden of Eden. The animals here are free. They’re wild, yes, but not hostile. They just haven’t been tamed and exploited for human wants and needs. They are beautiful examples of the entire order of God’s original creation, full of life and energy, unspoiled by greed and cruelty. There is a return to that original, holy community of created beings.

And the angels? The angels are servants of God and they minister to Jesus and his needs. Just as they and all servants of God minister to our needs. They show us the presence of God and the intimacy we can have with God through the Holy Spirit. An intimacy that is uninterrupted by the hustle and bustle of humanity going about its busy work and play. Without distractions, we see and hear their voices singing to us of God’s love and care. The wilderness may look empty, but how can it be, when it’s full of wild beasts and angels?

This wilderness takes Jesus, and takes us, back to basics: creation and the God of creation. It’s a place where physical life is important. It’s a place where spiritual life is important. A place where neither one is more important than the other. So, here we see Jesus in the best possible place to find the meaning of his baptism and to discover the strength for his work. And when we enter the oasis of Lent, we too can use this period of rest and restoration to explore ways to recommit to our baptized lives and to develop ways of strengthening ourselves in faith and hope.

And the wild beasts and angels can show us how.

Paying attention to our physicality – our health and well-being – is one way to strengthen ourselves. Good sleep, healthy food, the pleasure of movement – all these things can restore us to our created selves and help us connect with God. So can the quiet appreciation of the created world around us: being in nature (if it’s freezing or flooding, perhaps admiring its majesty from afar), tending to pets, just looking out the window at tree branches swaying – these small things done with attention can have a big impact on us and our well-being.

So can paying attention to our spiritual lives. In the past year, we have all experienced grief, loss, and pain. And you know, times like these are when the Holy Spirit does some of her best work. Give the Holy Spirit a broken, messy space and she sails in through the cracks, helping us use this time to find our way back into intimate, right relationship with God and to be transformed.

Prayer is what connects us to God. Everything we do flows out of our relationship to God and that relationship is best nurtured in that one-on-one prayer time. It’s hard to hear God when we’re occupied with Facebook, Instagram, or Netflix. If my brain is tied up on YouTube and my heart beats with fear or anxiety, there’s not enough room for me to hear God’s messages, or feel God’s love, or recognize God’s gifts.

Sometimes, praying might feel like another item on a too-long to-do list. This Lent, we can wonder about how we might make prayer into something we desire to do, instead of something we think we ought to do. Remember, your prayer space doesn’t have to be a church or even a quiet place. Some find God’s voice in music; others find God’s presence while taking a walk. The point is to find a time and a place to be with God in an intentional way.

How do I know if I’m hearing God’s voice? How does prayer help me feel God’s presence? Jesuit priest Father James Martin refers us to the fruits of prayer for an answer. If you come to an unexpected insight during your time in prayer, it might be God speaking to you. If emotions well up unbidden, pay attention to those feelings. How might God be saying something to you in those feelings? When memories intrude into your quieted mind, they may not be distractions. They may be the voice of God using your past to reveal wisdom and love to you now.

When we emerge out of the pandemic, it will be into a world that is changed and that needs changing. We must prepare ourselves for a new world that will give us new work to do, new ways to be the church, and new ways to be faithful.

Lent is about becoming, doing, and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right here, right now. It’s a summons to new life and a new life means transforming the old life. It’s a call to change old habits, like not looking for God’s presence in the world, like not hearing the rustling wings of the Spirit, like sleepwalking through life. Conversion, repentance, transformation – they all mean taking stock, making necessary changes, and turning toward God again. And again. And as often as we must.

We will recognize our transformation by its fruit: compassion. We will recognize our transformation by its fruit: compassion. This is the acid test and I fail it regularly. There’s a meme online that says, “You will never look into the eyes of someone God does not love.” So simple to say, so hard to live up to. Because all of our transformation has the target of helping us to view life through the heart of God. Trappist monk and contemplative author Thomas Merton wrote this: “There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid, and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like a lily.”

He also said, “We will know we have come to see God when we have come to see people as sacred.” May wild beasts and angels help give us this sight. Amen.

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