The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is the same every year. Lent begins with Jesus being led (or driven, depending on which Gospel we’re reading) by the Spirit into the wilderness, and with the story of what happens to Jesus there. This year, I was discussing the readings for the beginning of Lent with a friend and colleague with whom I sometimes collaborate as we prepare our respective sermons. He said to me, “I love that term you coined.” I must have looked a little confused because he explained that as I was talking about the Gospel reading, I kept referring to Jesus as being not in “the wilderness,” but rather in “the bewilderness.” It was only then that I realized that I was really talking not about the Gospel lesson at all, but about where I was spiritually as Lent began. I was in “the bewilderness.” And so, I want to share with you, as we are about to move from Lent into Holy Week, a little bit of what I learned in "the bewilderness."
We usually refer to what happened during those 40 days in the desert as “Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.” During our Eucharist, in fact, one of the prefaces specifically refers to Jesus “who was tempted as we are, yet did not sin.” This year, we finish Lent with the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, a story that I always read as foreshadowing Easter, a resurrection before the resurrection and a demonstration of Jesus’ power. But what if Jesus’ time in the wilderness was not so much about temptation, but rather about discernment? What if the key character in this story isn’t some devil personified, tempting Jesus, but the Spirit leading Jesus into a lonely place, where he could claim for himself what he had been told by God at baptism: “You are my Beloved, my [child], in whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus spent those long 40 days and those seemingly endless 40 nights deciding what being God’s beloved child would mean in terms of the way Jesus would live the rest of his life, and the way he would be in the world.
After all, while Jesus rebuked the devil and refused his invitations, Jesus actually went out and did a lot of what the devil invited—it’s just that Jesus did those things on his own, and more importantly, on God’s terms. Jesus didn’t turn those stones to bread, but he multiplied bread to feed thousands, turned water into wine and proved God’s abundance and generosity. Jesus didn’t hurl himself off the pinnacle of the temple, but he did stand resolutely and bravely in the temple and testified to God’s love in the face of fear and hate. Jesus didn’t seek power or dominion, at least not in human terms, but he did show God’s power, and he demonstrated a love that is more powerful than death.
This isn’t just a story about Jesus being tempted and besting even the devil; it’s about how Jesus chose to live and about how he would respond to his own baptism and God’s anointing—and it is an invitation to each of us to do the same. Each of us is baptized into Christ Jesus, and like Jesus himself, each of us is God’s own beloved child.
The truth is, sometimes we can find ourselves in a place that feels like a spiritual desert, a kind of wilderness. We are human, and life deals us suffering; pain is real, and none of us is spared. We all hit rough patches, places where we feel alone, frightened, desolate even. Quite honestly, I have found myself at times in a state I can only describe as bewildered grief—that is to say, the bewilderness. When we find ourselves in the bewilderness, sometimes all we can do is to allow ourselves to feel those feelings, to face the situation and not to try to run from the pain or grief, or worse, to yield to the darkness. Sometimes all we can do is remember that we are not alone, and we are loved. While God may not fix everything, God never leaves us. (That’s one of the lessons of Holy Week. God doesn’t always fix everything the way we want, and even Jesus had to face that fact.)
In those dark, scary, arid places, where we’re tired and spent, spiritually hungry and thirsty, bewildered, grieving, even angry, we are not alone. God’s Spirit is within us, and is leading—or even driving—us to face whatever our own “Bewilderness” may be. As beloved ones, children of God, children (as Scripture repeatedly reminds us) of the light, we can choose love and hope. We can allow God’s love to cast out fear and replace it with faith. We can remember that even when we feel broken, as the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen put it, “It’s in the broken places that the light shines through.”
We end Lent with a resurrection story, of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. I love the line in which Martha, Lazarus’ sister, asks Jesus not to remove the stone covering the tomb, since it has been four days since her brother’s death, and surely, she tells Jesus (in the King James Version), “he stinketh.” As I read that story this year, I remembered that there is such a thing as feeling spiritually dead, feeling stuck and, well, stinky. Just as Lazarus was brought from death to life in the physical realm, so we can move from spiritual death into life and health. The way out of the bewilderness is, alas, through it. And on the other side, we can claim our place as God’s beloved sons and daughters. When Lazarus emerged from the tomb, still wrapped literally in the trappings of death, Jesus commanded the startled crowd to “unbind him and let him go.”
As we journey into Easter, remember that even if you are in the bewilderness, you are loved, longed for, called, claimed. Love is more powerful even than death, and God wants us to be whole and brave and free. Let the Spirit lead you into the light. Let the crucified and risen Christ unbind you and set you free.
--The Rev. Mary Scott Wagner is the bridge priest at St. John's Church in Saugus. This reflection first appeared in the April 2017 issue of "St. John's Good News" and is republished here with permission.
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