The Bible loves to play with contrasts. It confronts the reader with choices, often drawn in stark terms: sometimes these are about good and bad, as in the two ways of Psalm 1 that lead either to fertility or barrenness; but at other times, the contrasts are more nuanced, such as the two holy mountains of Sinai and Zion — the former of which is wild and dangerous, while the latter a symbol of stability and safety, yet both are genuine places of encounter with God. Another of these basic contrasts is that between being in “the wilderness,” or “desert,” and being in “the Land.” The wilderness is a place of beasts, of struggle, complaints, and temptations; the Land is a place “flowing with milk and honey,” a gift to God’s people, and governed by God’s Law. Today’s readings play with this contrast in an interesting way that I think is worth reflecting on.
The Gospel reading for today is Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Right after his baptism, which confirms him in his identity, Jesus goes out into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan, ‘the Deceiver,’ over forty days. I wrote two reflections on this story last year (both are linked above), so I won’t go into too much detail about it here. But we see in this story that Jesus goes out of the Land into the wilderness, where he encounters difficulties, pain, and psychological and spiritual struggles, but where he is also cared for and protected by God. We might call this journey into the desert a centrifugal (’centre-fleeing’) principle in the life of faith; there are times when in order to grow we have to leave what is safe and known — to test our mettle and come to know our own strength and limitations and meet God in their midst. The proper response to a desert experience is not to grumble and scheme (which is what got the Hebrews into so much trouble and turned their journey of a few weeks into a forty-year ordeal!), but to keep the focus on what is known and what is true. Temptation is all about half-truths and twisted ways of telling stories. Jesus succeeds in his spiritual sparring with Satan in the desert because he is able to resist the adversary’s disinformation campaign and focus on what is true.
The opposite movement, from the wilderness into the Land, is seen in today’s reading from Deuteronomy 26. Here, the Hebrews, nearing the end of their forty years in the wilderness, are instructed about what to do upon entering the Land:
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance … you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground … You shall go to the priest … and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
This is a beautiful ritual, a thanksgiving offering, for the gift of entering the Land — the gift of coming home. It involves a few distinct movements:
- Taking stock of what the Land provides
- Offering these blessings up to God in thanksgiving
- Remembering where they’ve come from and what they’ve been through with God’s help
- Celebrating the blessings of the Land in community.
This strikes me as a wonderful template for the centripetal (’centre-seeking’) principle of the spiritual life. As much as we may learn and grow in the wilderness, we are not meant to be there forever. We need to come home and celebrate, share our experiences with others, be nurtured within community — and do all this with thanksgiving to God.
Thinking about these two movements seems very relevant for us right now. The past two years of pandemic life have been a wilderness experience for many of us. It’s been a time of struggle and of needing to fight against half-truths and twisted story-telling. And yet it’s also been a time when God has found us in our distress, fears, and uncertainty. As we prepare to re-enter the ‘Land’ of ‘normal life’, I think we would do well to follow the template set out for us in today’s reading from Deuteronomy: to take stock of the blessings before us, the opportunities that ‘normal’ provides that we had taken for granted before 2020; to offer these up to God in thanksgiving; to tell our stories; and to celebrate in community all that we’ve been through and the joys of coming home again.
At the same time, this script may be flipped for some of us; because, for many of us, the past two years have involved a lot of time at home, and the end of the more acute phase of the pandemic might look a bit like a call into the wilderness — to leave the safety of home and venture out into the world again, still filled with risks and the unknown, trusting that God will meet us there.
No matter which of these two movements feels more resonant for you right now at the start of Lent, may you enter it with faith, joy, and boldness. For the truth behind both is that God is with us, always, no matter whether we are being called into the desert, or back home again.