Almighty God, who made the green grass on the Fenway, the blue waters of Dorchester Bay and the tan sands on the Cape, we have a simple prayer: Enough with the snow already. Whatever mysterious point you’re making about endurance, or patience or your own awesome power, we get it: we’ve endured, we’re plenty patient and we get that you can do the snow thing. We love the Fall, especially in the suburbs. And we love the summer, especially on Cape Cod, on Cape Anne and on the South Shore. We love all those beautiful parts of your world. But we’ve had it with the snow. I mean, have you looked out my window? So we’d like to ask you to stop sending us the snow. And, just to be clear, when we say snow we also mean freezing rain, sleet, black ice, any kind of flurries and that new creation of yours, thundersnow. We promise we’ll be good during Lent, we’ll be kind to one another, and won’t ask for another thing, at least until the Red Sox start to play. Amen. — Fr. James Martin
I’ve sent out a lot of prayers, and sometimes people thank me, but this one really hit home. (I sent it out in an email to the parish this week). This is our prayer – we feel besieged, weighed down, spent. The world is adversarial. Everything else seems harder. Save us: from snow, from temptation, from all that is scary or hard. And God does, but generally not in the way we want.
God saves us not by obliterating the bad, but by transforming us and our relationships with that which seems to threaten or defeat us. Lent is a season in which we open ourselves up to that transformation. And to get that process rolling, we have one of the most fascinating stories in the gospels.
It starts out all sweetness and light: Jesus is baptized – great! – and the Holy Spirit wings down like a dove – we recognize that!
BUT – then the mood shifts. And that “sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove” does something totally unexpected and seemingly non-sweet.
Then Holy Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness. He is sent to the place of desolation, temptation, threat. What is the wilderness? The place of uncertainty and anxiety – the enormous ice dam, yes, but also the war zone, the ICU, the unemployment office, the angry argument between partners or spouses. It is the place where we doubt God.
Jesus is met there by Satan – the accuser, whose role in scripture is to personify that tendency in us to doubt that God is God and doubt that God is good. “What kind of a god would…” “If God loved me then….”
If God loves his Son, why would he send him out into the wilderness? What kind of God sends his beloved Son out to the wilderness? Why wouldn’t God send him to a nice house or to the Temple or hide him away so he doesn’t get arrested like John?
The kind of God who would do this is the kind of God who loves those who are in the wilderness. God loves those who struggle with doubt, those who have known real hardship and loss, who have suffered a broken heart or a broken body, who through many dangers, toils, and snares have already come. In other words, God loves you.
God so loved the world that he sent his son, not to offer a blessing from afar but to dive right in alongside us, to understand from the inside what it’s like to be sleepless with worry, bent over with care, wracked with guilt, roiling with anger. This is the wilderness and these are our wild beasts, and the Holy Spirit hurled Jesus into it straightaway to touch it, to breathe into it, to wrestle with it, & to transform it.
Notice that Jesus is not alone in this wilderness: He is with the wild beasts and the angels. What could that possibly mean?
This scene is a sign of transformation: of a new creation coming into being. “If the wild beasts pose no threat to Jesus, if he sleeps with his head on a lion’s back and with a Komodo dragon alongside him for warmth, then creation has been transformed.” (Matt Skinner) It is (again) at peace with itself. Through Jesus, as a result of victories he will win over powers of chaos and destruction, things that appeared to be at odds, people who we understand as our enemies, places which appeared to be where the wild things are – all of this will be restored to right relationship.
In Lent, we return to the Lord. We bring our fears and doubts, our sorrows and regrets, our anger and our brokenness to God. The vision in today’s gospel reminds us that we can do this whole-heartedly because we know God is with us, working for transformation in us.
We cannot bring about the peaceable kingdom on our own steam. We cannot heal ourselves or our world on our own steam. But we can and must trust the Spirit to heal and save.
This Lent, in our formation work, we are inviting the congregation to focus in particular on the wilderness of racism in ourselves and our society. We are doing this not because the diocese told us to, not because we want to look good, but because last fall when we invited people to name the things they wanted to study, this was the most frequent answer. And so it is a prayer welling up within us: God help us to understand ourselves and our neighbors and be part of healing in this world.
Both in the book study and in the anti-racism training we are offering, our goal is not finger-pointing or making people feel guilty. Rather our goal and our work will be to make a space for self-reflection, mutual discovery, and the transformation that God can do.
This is hard work. You may feel vulnerable. We need as diverse a range of perspectives as possible in order for the Spirit to work. And we need to hold one another well, as we are called to do as those who gather for love’s sake, holding on to a vision of Jesus with the wild beasts and the angels.
Jesus will leave the wilderness to announce the coming of God’s restoration. He will teach and touch and heal and walk to Jerusalem, where his promise of restoration will be such a threat to those in power that he will be killed. And on the third day, which we will celebrate on Easter, he will show us that nothing is beyond the power of God to save, and that not even death can get in the way of God’s love.
This Lent, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe the good news.