Picture the scene as Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted. He is a lonely and pathetic figure as he leaves the fruitful, the familiar and the friendly and ventures alone into the uncharted wasteland. A rocky, windy, arid expanse stretches ahead of him. Here be dragons! Already the desert wind is making him too hot and is irritating his skin and snatching at his robes and tossing dust into his eyes. Already Jesus is anticipating the hunger, the discomfort, the lack of sleep and the nagging voice telling him that this whole Kingdom of God enterprise is pointless. Already the divine voice which uttered a blessing at his baptism in the River Jordan has begun to fade in his memory. Welcome to Lent, Church of Christ. Welcome to the desert. Jesus enters the wasteland for our sake. Jesus is our representative in the wilderness of depression, desolation and disillusionment. Jesus experiences the empty days and the dreary hours and the hollow achievements of our most negative moods. And if that isn’t bad enough, the Tempter is waiting for Jesus and for us. He will bide his time of course. Satan will wait until hunger and despair and loneliness have done their worst. Then he will appear to point to the easy way out of this slough of despond. It appears that the Devil is interested in all the good things which concern us church members: how to reach the world with our message, how to touch the world with our love, how to engage the world in our mission. Old Nick has an evangelistic strategy which is bound to touch the hearts and minds of people who want a convenient God. The devil has a map with all the short cuts marked in bright red marker pen. All Jesus needs to do, all we need to do is follow the satanic instructions.
- In a world of many hungers turn stones into bread. How they will rush to your soup kitchen, Jesus!
- In a world where might is right, the devil shows Jesus a YouTube video of the vast empires of Rome and Persia and promises him untold influence, a hand on the tiller of power. All you need to do, Jesus, is compromise with Satan, just a little you understand, just a little.
- In a world where the latest sensation is all the rage, the devil takes Jesus to the roof of the temple and suggests a spectacular leap. Well, why not? After all, most people find religion boring. All you need to do, Jesus, is to liven it up a little. Boy, will they flock to your circus!
Satan promises to make our challenges easy. Of course these are the fantasies that the desert flings in our face along with the aching dryness in the throat, along with the sandstorm stinging our eyes, along with the roaring in our head as the sun grows ever hotter. Welcome to Lent, Church of Christ. Welcome to the hardest forty days you can imagine and welcome to the torture of seeking compromises with evil and comfortable escapes from hard decisions and cowardly evasions of the Truth who is Jesus Christ. Picture the scene as we enter the desert with Jesus to be tempted. Picture the scene and prepare for an ordeal.
But the world despises all but the easiest routes to contentment. The world supports the most user-friendly religion on offer. The world demands a short cut to happiness. The world has no use for the pilgrim’s staff. The world sees no point in the silence of a prayer of contemplation. The world has no appetite for the bread and water of austerity. We demand feasting, not fasting. We demand success, not searching. We demand fame, if only for fifteen minutes, rather than self-effacement. Any religion worth bothering about had better take the waiting out of wanting. Otherwise we are not interested. Too often we have the attention-span of a house-fly and the spiritual depth of a shallow puddle at noon and the patience of a prima donna. What is all this business about wilderness experiences? We have instant coffee; you just add water. We have instant entertainment; you just jab the tv remote control. We expect instant God; you just add syrup! R.S. Thomas will always have limited appeal in such a culture. R.S.Thomas is the clergyman-poet who spent hours in his empty church in the Welsh hills waiting for God and frequently finding only God’s absence. Thomas embraced Lent in his life, in his mind, in his soul. His pared-down poems make perfect Lenten reading, but take them slowly, one per day perhaps, lest the barrenness enters your soul too. ‘He had no power to pray,’ writes Thomas about himself as he knelt in the lonely porch of the stone church. ‘He had no power to pray, / His back turned on the interior / he looked out on a universe / that was without knowledge / of him and kept his place / there for an hour on that lean / threshold, neither outside nor inside.’ Thomas presents us with the sheer bleakness of Lent, forty days and forty nights of emptiness, ‘neither outside nor inside.’ No wonder many people choose to avoid Lent like the plague. I’m a self-made person; why should I unmake myself with Jesus in the wilderness? I’m a self-reliant person; why should I go to the desert where I must rely on God alone to keep me from falling? I’m a celebrity; get me out of here! The world insists on short cuts, short cuts on every journey.
But God enables us to persevere on the hard road to glory. God enables us to join Jesus in his wilderness wanderings and emerge unscathed. God enables us to contemplate the devil’s short cuts and see them for the blind alleys they really are. As he grapples with Satan in the Badlands Jesus responds to his tormentor with determination. Our Lord unfurls his banner before the fight. See it rippling in the desert breeze, a golden banner with a red cross and the motto in large letters: NO SHORT CUTS! ‘Should I turn stones into bread?’ ponders the Nazarene. No! ‘Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’ Soup kitchens make for dependent disciples. That way is a cul de sac. ‘Should I compromise with worldly power?’ wonders the Carpenter. No! ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve.’ Power matters of course, but the manipulation of people is out of the question for one who wants willing disciples. That way also is a dead end. ‘Should I compromise with people’s love of spectacle?’ the Saviour asks himself. No! Circus tricks become boring after a while. The true Spirit of God does not dazzle people with a sensational performance; the true Spirit of God lets love nurture discipleship. ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ That way also leads to a road block. So learn the lesson of our Lord in the wilderness. There are no short cuts to anywhere worth going to. Jesus wins the struggle in the desert, but there will be no popping champagne corks, no street parades and no fanfares of trumpets. What he wins is the freedom to continue on the way of the cross. He will meet the tempter again later, for Satan will be in attendance at Gethsemane and at Calvary. God enables us to keep right on to the end of the road, but what a road! What a road full of dread!
So welcome to Lent, Church of Christ. Welcome to the way of the wilderness. Welcome to the rocky road, the long road, the winding road, the uphill road. You didn’t really believe those short cuts led anywhere, did you? You didn’t really believe that the general public could be cajoled into being religious by a few conjuring tricks? Surely not! You didn’t really take the word of Satan, the Prince of Lies? No way! So take the first step along the wilderness road. Yes, the wind cuts into you. Yes, your coat is too thin to divert the sandstorms. Yes, you should have brought a water bottle, but it’s too late now. What did you expect in Lent, a rose garden? This is the church of the crucified.
- Back in the second century Saint Irenaeus knew it. He saw the world with its hardships as a ‘soul-making place.’ In Lent God teaches us soul making.
- Back in the sixteenth century Martin Luther knew it. He explained his success as a reformer of the church. ‘It did not come simply by reading and studying,’ he said, ‘It did not come simply by reading and studying, but rather by conflict, temptation, being condemned, dying and living.’ In Lent God teaches us to face up to trails and temptations.
- Back in the 1970s Archbishop Michael Ramsay knew it. ‘It may be the will of God,’ he said, ‘It may be the will of God that the church should have her heart broken.’ In Lent God teaches us about broken hearts.
A missionary in Africa was making good progress in his relationship with one particular tribe. He befriended the chief and was invited to preach when the whole clan gathered around the fire after dark. The missionary’s words had power that night. He told the story of Jesus as he had never told it before. What a performance! The tribe laughed as our Lord matched Satan in the desert. They gasped as he healed the sick, expelled demons and raised the dead. They wept at the cross and cheered at the resurrection. After the missionary sat down, the chief asked the uncomfortable question. ‘Tell us about your people in your country,’ asked the chief. ‘Do they all believe this?’ the missionary told the truth. ‘No. Many do not believe,’ he said, ‘and I too at times do not believe. But I know no better road to travel and I want you to walk it with me.’ Welcome to Lent, church of Christ. There is no better road. There is no better road. There is no better road. Amen.