Readings - Genesis 9:8-15; 1Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
Today’s gospel is very short - only three sentences. But I want to distill it down even further because, I think, it’s useful to simplify things as much as possible. It’s a bit like making a sauce for dinner - by boiling away the water, you are left with these rich, concentrated flavors. I think, sometimes, the same applies to Scripture. And I want to boil this week’s gospel down to one word: desert.
The desert. Seems simple enough - it’s a place. And while we don’t have deserts around here, it was a very prominent part of everyday life for the Israelites. Israel is just a thin strip of land, barely 50 miles across in most places. Most people in Jesus’ time lived within a day’s journey of the desert and, as you might imagine, it was a place of emptiness, fear and death for them. Very few willingly traveled into the desert. It was unforgiving and unrelenting.
So, the fact that this gospel is set at the edge of the desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, tells us something because location is everything in the gospel. This gospel is happening at a crossroads between life and death.
And what happens? Right after being baptized, Jesus is pushed into the death and emptiness - back into the desert. There’s this violent movement of Jesus into the first of many deaths he will suffer.
This is how Jesus’ ministry begins - in the cleansing emptiness of the desert. But from death, we eventually learn, comes a new life. And that’s why I want to focus on this one tiny bit of the gospel for a few minutes. It’s critical to our own Lenten journey.
Lent is not a time to clean up around the edges of our spiritual life. It needs to go much deeper than that. The true Lenten journey must take us to a place of complete emptiness because this is the only place that we can discover how hopelessly weak and lost we really are. It is the only place where we can come to recognize that nothing can save us except for the grace of God.
Jesus was forced into the desert to discover his true nature. This Lent we are called to do the same thing. We need to go to our own desert and figure out what exists at the core of our being. We need to discover our true purpose. Some may argue that the past year has been a massive Lenten experience. And, those folks probably have a point. But what if we looked at this experience not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity. Not to ignore the pain and disappointment of the past year, but to use that as a chance to create something better.
What if we reoriented our minds to think of the coming days not as just another month of isolation in a long year of isolation but, instead, as a mindful journey into a physical, emotional and spiritual desert? Instead of longing for the ‘return to normal’, instead of trying to go back to the way things were, instead of trying to fit into a shell that we’ve long outgrown … what if we used this Lent to push further into the desert? Sure, there’s always some comfort in retreating back into our safe place. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, why would we want to do that? Why would we give up what we’ve earned - the knowledge, the tears, those unexpected moments of joy, the devastating loneliness. We’ve already paid a price. Why would we willingly give that up to retreat back where we started? We’ve already journeyed a long way across the desert, why not finish the trip? Why not use this as the warm-up for our Lenten journey. Call it a head start.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to do exactly what Jesus did? Forced into the desert against his will, tested in ways that pushed him to his limits - he emerged ready to withstand the trials of his ministry and, eventually, his own death. We have the chance to do the same thing and come out the other side as someone completely different than the one who left it almost a year ago. That is a Lent worth living. But we need to have a certain attentiveness to be able to pull it off. We were pushed into this against our will, but what we do with the opportunity is our decision alone.
I am reminded of a story about a young man who was challenged to put three large piles - one of sand, one of gravel and another of larger rocks - into a Mason jar. After trying and failing many times, his teacher showed him that this seemingly impossible feat was possible if he put the large rocks in first, and then the gravel, which filled in the spaces between the rocks. And, finally, adding the sand, which filled in the remaining crevices. The moral of this story is, of course, that we need to put the largest things, the most important things, into the jar first.
This is why the desert metaphor is so important. We need to start with an empty jar in our own lives. And this is the perfect Lent to begin again because of the turmoil we’ve already experienced. I doubt we could mess things up any worse, so why not take a crack at emptying our own jar back out onto the table and start again, making sure that the big rocks go in first this time.
None of this is easy, and none of it is painless. But if we really want to understand the message that Jesus is proclaiming today, then this must be our starting point. We need to head deeper into our own desert, where we give up all control, because that’s the only place that this change can happen. We need to mindfully push back the noise and demands of our lives to give God some room to work.
Find your own desert and allow God to reveal himself to you every single day. Give yourself that gift this Lent. This past year has been painful. Many times I’ve found it difficult to pray. Ministry in the community - a central part of who I’ve become - was ripped away. The foundation of my diaconate life has been turned on its head. I’ve felt an emptiness in my gut that I’ve never felt before. I already feel lost in the desert. I have to imagine that many of you have had the same feeling about your own lives. This Lent, we have a chance to reclaim some of what we’ve been seeking. Instead of being pushed into the desert, we can walk deeper into it by our own choice.
I can’t tell you what the other side of the desert looks like because I am walking alongside each of you. Simply another fellow traveler. But I will say that if we can intentionally embrace the emptiness and begin to listen more intently for the voice of God, we will be well on our way to becoming the person that God intends us to be.
Retreat back to the safety of who we were, or push forward deeper into the desert. One of these will lead us to a truly unforgettable Lent. The choice is up to us. Amen