Wilderness comes up regularly in our lectionary readings in Lent. In our Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent, Jesus was baptised and a voice from heaven called him the ‘beloved.’ Immediately after this, Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. In this Sunday’s Old Testament reading the people speak against God and Moses saying, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’ (Numbers 21:5b).
Jesus was called the beloved and immediately after that he was tempted in the desert. Isn’t this our reality as well? We have an experience of our ‘belovedness’ and soon we are in the wilderness, being tested in many ways. Our wilderness experiences are of course rather ordinary compared to those of Jesus, but they are no less real.
As one pastor said: ‘It is perhaps by little moments of betrayal, of love, of faith and hope that we first unravel and our world is harmed. It is not so much always powerful temptations…we often face small acts of unfaithfulness to our “belovedness,” a tiny worm of hurt, hate, selfishness or self-doubt creeping into our heart, rather than a mighty satanic snake.’
It’s then that we can complain against God and ask in the words of the Israelites: ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’ But such times of wilderness often force us to ask to whom we really belong, what are our priorities and what motivates our choices and actions. These are good questions to ask also as church communities.
In biblical imagery, the wilderness serves a cathartic and purifying purpose. It is in times of sojourn in the wilderness that we can become aware not only of the beasts of fear, to use Patrick Oliver’s words, but also of the fact that we are daughters and sons of God. We are the beloved.
And we can learn a great spiritual lesson. This wilderness, this desert, is a habitable place and the way out of the wilderness will come through God’s ways and means and not ours. This is our Lenten journey, a journey of learning to live in this wilderness of Lent, but looking forward to Resurrection Sunday, as we confess in the words of St Augustine, ‘We are Easter people and Alleluia is our song.’