Alison and I have very different thoughts on camping holidays. I rather like the idea of getting out into the bush, doing without the mod cons for a few days, sitting around a camp fire at night and tuning into the sounds and rhythms of the bush. Alison’s preferred mode of camping is a cute little B&B with a walking trail and a nearby cafe that serves all-day breakfasts. We generally settle for something in between – but it strikes me that like many urbanised city-dwelling Aussies I have a somewhat romanticised notion of the bush - I like the idea of wilderness but would probably find the reality of spending any real time in the outback difficult and confronting.
As Australians, the outback is a part – even if only subliminally – of who we are, or at least who we think we are. Images of the outback are woven through the stories of early settlers and explorers, the iconic image of the drover and the dreaming of indigenous Australians – tales of hardship and dispossession, mateship, self-sacrifice and genocide – resonating as well as discordant strands of mythology and history that kind of percolate away inside us to produce a narrative that tells us what it means to be Australian. We understand the bush – even if we never go there – as a place of silence, of testing, of hardship and beauty – a place at the heart of who we are that critiques and strengthens our national identity. It was also like that for ancient Israel, in fact for Jewish men and women even today, who understand the wilderness as a place of exodus, of freedom from slavery in Egypt, a place of spiritual testing, of being lost and found, of being confronted by the demons of fear and selfishness and mistrust, of learning to trust in the reliability and the goodness of God’s promises.
And so we begin our Lenten journey with the story of Jesus returning to the wilderness in which the national as well as the spiritual identity of his people had been shaped. The number 40 is the storyteller’s hint that Jesus’ journey out into the desert has got some connection with Israel’s lost years in the same wilderness. Only Luke and Matthew give any details about this experience – in Mark we get all of two verses that just tell us, in bare bones, that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, he was there forty days, Satan tempted him, wild beasts kept him company, and angels waited on him. Maybe that’s all Mark thinks we need to know. Both Luke and Matthew give us dialogue, a blow by blow account of the debate between Jesus and the devil, the ‘Tempter’ who argues persuasively that Jesus should care for his bodily needs and take the power that belongs to him by right. The devil’s offer of bread reminds us of the miraculous gift of manna in the desert; the offer of power reminds us of Moses’ brief glimpse of the holy land he was not permitted to enter; the offer of divine protection reminds us of the wilderness protections of fire and cloud. But where in the original Exodus story Israel grumbled, rebelled and went its own way, Jesus remains faithful. His responses to the devil are drawn directly from Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy – the devil quotes Scripture to tell Jesus what he could do, but Jesus understands Scripture as a model for how he should be.
It seems to me that we need to take notice of this story because this is exactly what happens – what has happened or what will happen – to every one of us. Jesus is tested exactly as God’s people are always tested, and Jesus gives us the model for how we should behave when we are. Forget for a moment the offer of divine food – the chance to never again have to go to the supermarket, just go out the back and pick up a few rocks for dinner – you’re not very likely to face that particular offer. Forget the offer of unimaginable power or the temptation to believe that you can fly. The testing that each of us has to face is not the Son of God test but the Evan test, or the Hilda or the Harry test, which is to say, variations on the regular Adam and Eve test. How well do we understand who we are and what the true context and the source of our lives is? Also wildernesses come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, for example a hospital waiting room makes a very good wilderness sometimes. Sometimes an open-plan office space makes a very good wilderness, when all of a sudden there’s a choice between corruption and integrity, between looking the other way or making yourself unpopular. Schoolyards are famous for turning into wilderness spaces at the drop of a hat, as the age old dramas of bullying and favouritism and bribery are played out – sooner or later your child gets to make a choice whose side they are going to be on. You get the point? Wilderness happens in the middle of our everyday lives when we least expect it. Quick. Think fast. How much courage do you have? What do you stand for? Who do you actually think you are?
You might think this is bad news, but actually not. You don’t choose your wilderness experiences, and when you find yourself in the middle of one you want to get out again quick smart – but whichever 21st century model of wilderness you encounter, it is the best reality-check, the most spirit-filled and life-changing place you can possibly find yourself. Take Jesus, for example – how did he get out there in the wilderness? The Spirit led him – in Mark’s gospel it says, the Spirit drove him. What was he full of? The Holy Spirit. What did he live on? Nothing, just the Holy Spirit. How long did it last? Weeks and weeks. How did he feel at the end? Famished. Well, famished – and filled with power and purpose and compassion. Famished – and free from hungry cravings for things that couldn’t give him life. Famished – and filled with clarity that the Spirit who had driven him in there would also lead him wherever else he needed to go.
There’s a wisdom about the value and the beauty of wilderness that unfortunately is fading fast in our contemporary culture and even, sadly, in the Church. There’s a wisdom about intentionally and deliberately choosing to enter the wilderness that the Church calls Lent, and it’s a wisdom based on the reality that if we actually do want to follow Jesus all the way to the cross we’re going to need all the clarity and all the freedom that we can only find in the wilderness. The word, ‘Lent’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, the lengthening of days with its associations of new life, green shoots pushing their determined way up out of the desert of snow. In our Aussie context we might think of Lent as the time of lengthening shadows, the month during which the hard light of summer softens and fades imperceptibly, the temperatures drop and the land waits for the refreshment of autumn rains. The point is, the reflective season of Lent takes place as the natural world around us changes and we see evidence of new life and regrowth.
From Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, Christians are invited to make a fast, to pare down their lives, to choose to live with less - in order to have the much, much more of being filled with the clarity of the Holy Spirit. We can trivialise this as making Lent just the time to give up chocolate or wine or dessert. Or we can avoid its impact by making Lent the time to take something up – like forcing yourself to attend a boring Lenten study, or actually read the Bible. But whatever external shape your self-imposed wilderness takes, whatever discipline of subtraction or addition you practice, perhaps the point is that we have the opportunity to unclutter.
Years ago there was a TV programme about this. A reality show called, ‘Unclutter Your Life’. Every week the chirpy team of twenty-somethings would descend on some hapless soul and get them to watch on while they literally removed everything from their badly cluttered-up apartment. All the while keeping up a merciless commentary: ‘What on earth’s this? Whatever possessed you to think you wanted one of these? Have you ever even used it ...?’ And finally, when the victim’s entire domestic life had been critiqued and moved out on to the footpath to be stared at by amused passers-by, they were allowed to bring back in anything they could make a case for actually needing – usually about half of what they started with. Of course as a TV show it depended on the voyeurism of the rest of us, but you get my point.
Our lives are full of stuff. With less stuff we have more room for the Holy Spirit. Our lives are full of props and distractions and painkillers – not just wine and chocolate, think TV, computers, mobile phones – only you know what it is in your life that you reach for as an alternative to noticing the emptiness where the Holy Spirit should be.
Unclutter your life this Lent. Kick away the props to discover what it is in your life you really depend on. Do without some unnecessary stuff in order to make more room for what really is necessary. Turn off some of the noise of our 24/7 talk-back society so you can hear yourself think. Spend less time with whatever distracts you, more time with God, more time with people you love or even with people you haven’t got round to loving so far.
It’s not too late to begin. Find the wilderness that works for you. Do Lent.