Through the Wilderness: Lenten Theology and Preaching

The Lenten image of the biblical wilderness has particular resonance for congregations this year.

The Lenten image of the biblical wilderness has particular resonance for congregations this year. Not only has the Great Recession brought suffering and austerity to many communities, upending settled patterns of life and prosperity, but congregations are also wrestling with powerful currents of change sweeping through society and the wider church. This has brought conflict, displacement, and loss. Underneath it all is a deep and disquieting question: who are we in this strange new landscape?  This is the question of the biblical wilderness and a key question to ask ourselves as the church in Lent.

Biblically, the wilderness (or desert) represents a between-space, a space of testing, trial, learning, discovery, and transformation outside of the established rhythms and norms of community life. God knows it is not an easy place to be. The wilderness is where comforts are stripped away. It is where God’s people come face to face with who they are and have become–and in the process, come to know God in deeper and surprising ways.

It is in the wilderness that Jacob wrestles with the angel and receives a new name and identity as Israel (“the one who strives with God,” Genesis 32). It is in the long wilderness journey of 40 years that the freed slaves of Egypt become a holy people under the covenant. It is into the wilderness that the Prophet Elijah flees when persecuted by the corrupt King Ahab, seeking the voice and direction of God (1 Kings 19). It is into the wilderness that Jesus is driven by the Spirit to be tested between his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry.

The lectionary texts for the Sundays of Lent take us into the wilderness in several moments. The first Sunday of Lent offers us the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4. No sooner has Jesus received the affirmation and promise of being God’s beloved Son in baptism than this identity is tested by Satan in the desert. Satan’s temptations–for self-provision, for power, and for spectacle–are temptations Christians and their congregations face today in various forms. Weakened by fasting, Jesus nonetheless holds true to the identity given him in baptism: to be God’s beloved. For churches accustomed to material abundance and social centrality, or caught up in trying to catch the attention of spiritual consumers by staging a show every Sunday, Jesus calls us back to who we are at root in baptism–God’s beloved people, redeemed and forgiven.

Lent 2 takes us into a pivotal moment for that nomadic desert-dweller, Abraham, in Genesis 15. The word of the Lord comes to him in a vision in which God reiterates the promise of descendents and land, both of which have yet to materialize in the story. As a “deep and terrifying darkness” falls upon Abraham, the Lord ritually seals the covenant by passing by. As the ancestor of faith, Abraham teaches us what it means to live as people of a promise that has yet to be completely fulfilled, or, as the day’s epistle reading from Philippians 3 describes, as citizens of a heavenly kingdom which is both present and painfully incomplete amidst a broken world. It is an invitation to recall our own identity as promise-bearers to a world of so many false and disappointed promises.

The third Sunday of Lent takes us into that enigmatic moment of the call of Moses in Exodus 3, which is where the Lord’s name and identity are revealed at the burning bush. Moses has fled into the wilderness after he murders the Egyptian, and his call emerges from the upheaval and displacement of exile and the shame of a fugitive. For Moses, the call is a call to re-enter society and speak a prophetic word of judgment to the forces of empire. It is only having left the household of Pharaoh and the trappings of empire that Moses is able to receive and fulfill this call. How might the Lenten wilderness be a time when our attentiveness to hear God’s call grows more acute as defenses are stripped away?

The Old Testament lesson from Joshua 5 on Lent 4 marks a key shift with the story of the transition from manna of the wilderness to home-grown harvests in Canaan. The manna is a paradigmatic wilderness element–a substance that cannot be hoarded, forcing the people to look to God for their daily bread rather than their own storehouses and provisions. Figuratively, Canaan is where many of our churches have lived in the Christendom era–a settled land. Yet for many churches whose endowments and budgets have dwindled and whose institutional future is uncertain, what does it look like to be God’s pilgrim people on the move, trusting primarily in God’s abiding presence and call as we wander through difficult social and cultural terrain? The epistle and gospel texts on this day bring into sharp relief the promise of being genuine new creations (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) who are welcomed home with rejoicing by a father whose love is prodigal (Luke 15). This is both the new reality in which we walk and the destination toward which we travel.

Finally, Lent 5 gives us the image, from Philippians, of pressing forward through sufferings and trials to receive the heavenly prize in Christ–a good description of desert discipleship. Paul’s example reminds us of the profound discipline and intentionality of life in Christ. God’s promises are true, but often take us where we don’t particularly want to go–through deeper valleys, drier deserts, harsher recessions, seasons of conflict, uncertainty, and loss–before we arrive. The wilderness is all about the transformation along the way. May Lent be such a space for us too.