So, we have reached the season of Lent.
We might see this time as a kind of spiritual detox, where we give up chocolate and pray a lot instead.
Or we might see it as a drudge, or a duty, or just as irrelevant.
Or we might think it’s all a bit too depressing and downbeat, with all its talk about temptation, struggle, sin, suffering and death.
These aren’t subjects we like to dwell on.
Who, given a choice, wouldn’t prefer a life full of comfort and ease, with no problems to worry about, to a life with sorrow, hardship and pain?
But sometimes we need the wilderness.
WILDERNESS AND TEMPTATION
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is out in a physical wilderness alone, single-handedly fighting off the devil.
If this was a film, we’d get scary music, gloomy lighting and ominous rumbles of thunder.
Now, I haven’t been to the Judean wilderness but I’m told it’s a place in which the sun shines relentlessly, nothing much grows for most of the year, and there’s no shade to protect you from the temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius.
It’s a place where the only things that really matter are life and death.
And Jesus comes here, away from all distractions, for a time of testing and preparation.
A time in which he must decide who he is, whose voice he will listen to, how he will live his life, and how he will carry out his ministry.
In short: what kind of Messiah he will be.
Will he be God’s Messiah: someone who heals, forgives, restores, loves, suffers and dies?
Or will he take Satan’s option: a life of self-gratification, worldly power and spectacle?
Jesus is facing the biggest, most significant questions of his life and ministry, and his answers will shape his future – and ours.
He’s being offered the most tempting, delicious, irresistible alternatives to a life of obedient service, suffering and sorrow.
But Jesus dismisses the possibilities that the devil offers him.
Instead, he chooses the difficult road that leads to the Cross.
The road that leads to our salvation.
And there may come a time for us when we need to face our own wilderness and make our own life and death decisions.
I don’t believe God visits bad things on us to make a point, or to teach us something, but I do believe he constantly works to bring good out of the bad things we encounter through living in a fallen and broken world.
And so in times of suffering we may be brought face to face with issues which we would normally avoid.
Times of hardship may force us to make choices about what is really important in our lives.
And our own decisions to follow Jesus can mean much more when following him is costly.
In ordinary human friendships, it’s not surprising that people who enjoy each other’s company spend time together.
But the real test of a relationship is what happens when things are difficult.
When people are in trouble, and need help, rather than just being fun to be with… that’s when they learn who their real friends are.
And the decision to spend time with someone even when that’s a difficult thing rather than a fun thing… that’s a decision to be a true friend.
That’s what makes a real, deep friendship possible.
The same is true of our relationship with God.
Will we seek to be friends with God only when he’s fun to be with?
Or will we persevere through difficult times?
Will we obey God and do the right thing, even when it hurts?
Do we love God, and long for God, or just for the good things he gives us?
Will we live for God only when he makes us feel happy, or will we follow him even when there’s no obvious reward?
Or even when being a Christian makes life difficult?
Our responses can determine whether we lead half-hearted lives of lukewarm Christianity, or adventurous lives in which we discover more and more about God.
But even when there’s not a crisis, sometimes we actually have to deliberately set time and space aside to face important questions.
These might be questions like:
Who am I?
What is my purpose?
Who could I become?
Am I moving towards greater wholeness, hope, love, joy, peace and faith in my relationships with God and others?
And this is why Lent is not a detox, a drudge, a duty or irrelevant.
Neither is it just a depressing time of going round feeling bad about ourselves.
Rather, Lent is, above all, an opportunity.
It’s an opportunity to take time out to reflect on what’s important and make sure we’re on the right path.
It’s an opportunity to be honest with God about our sins and weaknesses so that they can be dealt with and moved on from.
It’s an opportunity to renew our commitment to God, to spend time listening to him and loving him, and to confront the things that keep us from putting him first.
It’s an opportunity to think about the big questions that so often get pushed out by the day to day ones.
Above all, it’s an opportunity to encounter the God who walked in his own wilderness and still accompanies us when we walk through ours.