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The opening line of the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is disturbing to me:

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

We know the story that follows, how Jesus fasted in the desert and resisted the devil’s temptations to turn stones into bread, throw himself from the temple, or worship Satan in exchange for the promise of the kingdoms of the world and all of their splendor. My track record against temptations much less serious than those isn’t very admirable. As Lent begins this year, this has made me realize that perhaps, for me, there’s a fourth temptation in the story which is a better place to start:

Can’t I get by just fine without following Jesus and the Spirit into the Lenten wilderness at all?

Instead of the devil-infested wilderness, I would much rather have the Spirit lead me to more pleasant places. I’ve been through Lent enough times that, here in its beginning this year, a big part of me wants to skip straight to Easter. I don’t want to think about what might surface in me if I follow Jesus and the Spirit into the Lenten wilderness by letting Ash Wednesday’s gut-wrenching prayer of confession from Psalm 51 simmer in my mind throughout the next six weeks. I’m also a bit fearful of where I might find myself in the stories: would I be a member of the crowd which welcomed Jesus as king and deliverer only to shout “crucify him” within a matter of days? Would I be a disciple who stood by watching as a woman interrupted dinner to anoint Jesus for his burial? Could I even give up on Jesus altogether, allowing him to wash my feet just before heading out to betray him to his enemies? Each year, different parts of the stories of Lent grab me and confront me with things about myself and our world that are hard, so there is an undeniable appeal in the thought of skipping Lent this year.

Obviously, I wouldn’t skip Lent in a noticeable way. I could still “do” enough Lent to look devout to others, but without really ever stepping foot in the wilderness. As long as I have one of the standard answers ready in case someone asks me what I’ve given up this year, I’m capable of getting what seems to be the best of both worlds: the appearance of observing Lent on one hand, while avoiding its wilderness on the other.

But if I sit still and allow myself to be quiet long enough, I become aware that there are other characters in the stories of this season, and my desire to be like them goes much deeper than my surface-level wish to skip the Lenten desert this year. It’s true that I have some Judas-like tendencies, but I want to become more like the woman he chided for adoring Jesus so lavishly. If I were one of the other disciples, surely I too would have fled at Jesus’ arrest and left the one who loved me all alone, but I also deeply want to become the kind of disciple who could be close enough to him to whisper in his ear in the upper room and to hear his faintest words at Golgotha.

So, I realize the counter-intuitive wisdom that has been passed down to us in the tradition of Lent: If I skip the wilderness and go straight to Easter, I’m more likely to always be a character on the wrong side of the stories. However, if I follow Jesus and the Spirit, I can find practices like fasting, and places like the desert, to be surprisingly strengthening instead of frightening. It’s in accompanying Jesus into his desert (and allowing him to lead us into ours) that we become willing and able to respond when he calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.

Even though Lent has already begun, Jesus and the Spirit are still there in the wilderness. You and I are invited in with them, on this journey toward Lent’s cross and Easter’s empty tomb.

 

Our Guest Blogger:

Daniel Ethan Harris lives in Midland, Texas, where he works on a ranch and explores life in the kingdom of God with others. He is the author of Live Prayerfully: How Ordinary Lives Become Prayerful and Follow: 40 Days of Preparing the Soul for Easter. He blogs about topics including fatherhood, church, scripture, and Wesley & Methodism at www.salvationlife.com.

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