They wandered forty years in the desert, those Israelites who failed the test of belief in the God who raised up Moses, delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh, made bitter water sweet, fed them with manna, gave them the Law and instructions for a Tabernacle so they would know precisely where they could find the glory of the Lord.
They came through the desert and to the edge of the Promised Land. Their spies checked out the land for forty days. The spies returned from this land of milk and honey, having never encountered enemies that made them feel like grasshoppers before. While God had given them the land, but most of them did not believe they could overcome it. And so the people wandered around the desert. for another forty years, one year for every day the spies had walked through the fertile land that was God’s inheritance to them a9Numbers 13, 14).
God was gracious: they never went hungry, and their shoes did not wear out. When forty years were completed they had become a nation and Joshua led them into the land.
When Israel had left her God, Elijah, King Ahab’s “troubler of Israel” had his face-off with the prophets of Baal. At the end of God’s mighty conflagration, the prophets were gone…and so was Elijah. He ran for a day into the desert, with the threats of Queen Jezebel echoing in his head. Exhausted by victory and by dread, he fell down under a broom tree, asking to die and being met, instead by an angel. He ate, drank, and slept, and then, on the strength of that food, went forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.
Elijah met God at Horeb, his questions were answered, his fears exposed, his direction made clear. On the strength of that meeting, Elijah lived out the rest of his life.
Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets knew well the significance of forty days in the desert. They were tested, they were comforted, they were strengthened, they were commissioned for the next steps. During the last Sunday of Epiphany, they meet with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. But not before he, too, had spent forty days in the wilderness.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. “ (Mark 1:12, 13) All of the accounts of Jesus’ temptation offer different lenses, but this most terse of the Gospel accounts reads like the stories of Moses and Elijah. We are simply told how he got there, the nature of the trial and who his companions were. I wonder if there is an angel specifically commissioned to care for God’s people in the desert.
The church, in her wisdom, set apart 40 days right before Jesus’ passion as a time to visit the desert, to enter, for a season, the wilderness. Why? Is there a place more transformative than one with no distractions except those that come from within? In the desert, we come present to the temp tations that push for our attention. In the wilderness we face the depth of our own unbelief. In arid land we are confronted with our fears as founded or unfounded as they may be.
In the season of Lent we remember our baptismal vows, and renounce, again, the world, the flesh, and devil. Let the journey begin.