How do you normally observe Lent?
“Wilderness” is a rich and layered idea in the Old Testament - reflecting on it may offer some helpful ways forward as we seek to engage with Lent this year. By Helen Paynter
For many of us, Lent is a time when we give something up – fast, if you like – in order to realign ourselves with God and to seek to become closer to him. In this, we are modelling ourselves on Jesus’ actions after his baptism, when “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) for forty days of fasting, prayer, and testing.
This year, for many of us, the idea of giving something else up is intolerable. We may feel that we have spent the whole of the last year in the wilderness, deprived of so much that we value and love.
But “wilderness” is a rich and layered idea in the Old Testament, and reflecting on it may offer some helpful ways forward as we seek to engage with Lent this year.
Our initial thoughts about the wilderness may well be as a place of deprivation. Deuteronomy 8:15 remembers it as “that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water”. Isaiah views it as a place of horror, poetically speaking of places where demon-like goats dance (Is 13:21; 34:14). Indeed, the gospel writers tell us that when Jesus was in the wilderness, he was with the wild beasts (Mark 1:13).
Viewed in this way, the wilderness is a fearsome place indeed. It might be regarded as a place where we will come to harm, a place of threat and constant danger. It is not a place one would seek to go.
But wilderness is not always viewed in such a negative way. In Psalm 55:6, the songwriter longs for the wings of a dove with which he could “wander far away” to “lodge in the wilderness”. Those who are interested may wish to examine this psalm more carefully and consider what are the terrors which make the wilderness a place of relative safety for him. There are disturbing resonances with situations in today's world.
For the people of Israel, the wilderness was often a place of provision. In the great song of Deuteronomy 32, our writer describes how God adopted Israel as his son. Verse 10 reads:
“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.”
The writer is of course referring to God’s care for Israel in the desert, on their way between Egypt and the promised land. Exodus 16 describes in detail the way that God provided both quails and manna for the people. The provision of manna is particularly striking. God didn't give them a month’s worth at a time; he gave them each day's supply in the morning (with the exception of the Sabbath, which was provisioned by a double portion the day before). There is something to be reflected on here, about the way that God meets us and our needs day by day, and invites us to rely on him for ourselves and our families. It is surely this story, and Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness, which leads him to teach his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” so soon after his return from the desert (Matt 6:14).
The Festival of Booths, commanded in Leviticus 23, was a way for Israel to remember this provision. Once a year, even after they were settled with house and cities in the promised land, each family was to make a booth out of palm branches and “the boughs of leafy trees and willows” (v.40), and live in it for a week. This re-enaction of the wilderness experience was accompanied by offerings of the fruits of cultivated trees – a celebration of God’s provision in both the desert and the land.
For Elijah, the wilderness was a place where God met him after his victorious, but exhausting, encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19). It was a place of rest, provision, and where his vision was renewed through an encounter with God.
Ultimately, Israel would look back on its time in the wilderness as a place of testing. Not temptation, so much as a place where their mettle was tried, where their protestations of undying loyalty to God were proved true or false. It was a place of practical learning and growth. Turning once again to Deuteronomy, God describes what Israel went through in the desert as him “testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not,” but always with the plan “to do you good in the end” (Deut 8:2, 16).
We began by likening our Lenten pilgrimage to Jesus’ time in the desert, which was also, of course, the place where Satan attempted to derail his ministry at the very start. Satan’s temptation was framed as a challenge to his identity: “if you are the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3,6). But for Israel, and Jesus, the desert was the place where God’s Fatherhood was most apparent. And so Jesus’ responses to the tempting of Satan emerge from a deep meditation on this portion of Israel's story. Each time, he responded to the test by quoting from the desert recollections of Deuteronomy. Most particularly, the temptation to satisfy his physical hunger was countered by a recollection that humans do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4), the lesson that Israel learned in the desert (Deuteronomy 8:3).
This Lent, rather than trying to deprive ourselves of something that brings us joy, perhaps we could reflect on the desert, and our own experience of wilderness in the past year. Has it been for us a place of peril and fear? Where have we seen God's daily provision? And in what ways has it tried our character, tested our mettle?
These are questions we may want to reflect on, prayerfully, in this road to Holy Week. May the desert be the place where we rediscover our sonship or daughtership of our Father in heaven – holy is his name – to whom we pray:
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us
Lead us not into the time of trial
But deliver us from evil.
Helen Paynter, leads the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, Bristol Baptist College
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This is the latest in a new Lent series written by Baptists - a new reflection will be published each Wednesday throughout Lent
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