Saturday, March 4, 2017
Tomorrow I will be preaching on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent, which includes the gospel story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert.
The following is a homily I delivered in 2015 on the same gospel reading:
After studying today’s readings in the context of the Lenten season, two ideas emerged for me: the significance of the number forty and the concept of a desert experience.
Before I focused on something like desert experience, I wanted to get a sense of whether or not people had a common understanding of what a desert experience was, and if they had perhaps endured one of their own. Via e-mail, I asked 25 people, a mix of high school students and adults, those very questions.
I received several great responses, but my favorite came from a young man who described a desert experience as the “exclamation point to a great meal.” He went on to say that he had a desert experience on his last birthday, when he ordered the Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake at The Cheesecake Factory.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that what he was describing was a dessert experience.
The first reading from Genesis details the covenant established between God and Noah after the great flood. The flood was the result of “forty days and forty nights” of heavy rain pouring down on the earth.
In Mark’s Gospel, we heard the familiar story of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, being tempted by Satan.
In addition to these two readings for today, the number forty is mentioned 130 other times in Scripture, including the story of Moses and the Israelites forty years in the desert, told in the forty chapters of the Book of Exodus.
The number forty generally symbolizes a time of testing or trial. Noah and his family were being tested, taking a leap of faith to build the ark and then enduring forty days and nights of torrential rain. It was a desert experience, without the desert. They withstood the trial, maintained faith, and emerged from the ark able to enjoy a new relationship with God, a fresh start.
Jesus was tested in the desert for forty days. Strengthened by His own resolve and ministered to by angels, He withstood Satan’s efforts to tempt Him. He emerged from the desert stronger, and ready to begin His public ministry.
Moses and the Israelites endured forty years in the desert, emerging stronger and experiencing the joy of arriving at their new home.
In our own lives, many of us go through desert experiences, periods of trial and testing. Here are some of the ways a desert experience was described by others:
- “a period of darkness”
- “on a journey, thirsting to be satisfied in some way”
- “a time when I find myself wandering aimlessly”
- “being all dried up inside, not being whole, being all alone”
- “a feeling of isolation”
- “feeling like you’re the only one in the world struggling with whatever it is you are struggling with”
Summary: In the midst of a desert experience, we feel empty.
Why does God abandon us when we are enduring a desert experience?
I would argue that the opposite is true. We abandon Him. As is our human nature, when we need God the most, we turn to Him the least.
When the going gets tough, we tend to go it alone. We wander in the desert instead of resting in God, trusting Him and letting Him guide us. This triggers a vicious cycle that makes us feel even more isolated and alone. It adds to our emptiness.
What sends us into the desert? Some personal examples that were shared with me include:
- A troubled marriage
- Mounting debt
- A rebellious child
- A terminal illness
- Mental illness and depression
Clearly not all desert experiences look the same, but they can feel the same.
Here is what it felt like for a 16-year-old high school student:
I felt like I was being bombarded from all directions: school, friends, parents, church, and society in general. On top of everything else going on in my life, my mom was diagnosed with cancer and a blood clot in one of the chambers of her heart. It took a toll on me and on my beliefs. This is what led me to my desert experience last year.
I “left” God for a while. I turned away from Him.
It wasn’t until I had an emotional encounter with a friend a few months later that I let God come back into my life. I allowed Him to fill me with faith and love. Doing this enabled me to see things differently, to see things in a more positive and understanding way.
I’ve come to accept that obstacles are going to come along that will test my faith; but I know now that I will overcome them.
Through my desert experience I learned that, with God, I am stronger than the influences around me. And I know He is with me now and always.
This young lady emerged from her desert experience stronger and more aware of God’s presence.
A desert experience is humbling. What we discover is that while we may feel alone during our times of struggle, we are in fact never alone.
When teen suicides rocked several high schools earlier this year, many young people found themselves wandering in the desert, feeling alone and abandoned by God.
They asked, as I’m sure many of us have asked ourselves at one time or another, “Where is God in this?”
Quite simply, He is wherever we need him to be. If we need to be angry at Him – He is there; we can let Him have it. If we need comfort, He will wrap His loving arms around us. If we just need to talk, no one is a better listener. If we simply need to sit in silence and reflect, we can be assured that He is sitting right beside us.
Involving God in our lives is what Lent is about. It is time set aside to reconcile ourselves with God, to humbly acknowledge that we cannot do it without Him. We pray, fast, and give alms in an attempt to set things right with God. Lent is our 40 days of testing and trial.
Whether we are in the midst of a desert experience, or acknowledging that we have endured one in the past, Lent calls us to renew our relationship with God and seek forgiveness for the times we have abandoned Him.
If we do that, we will emerge from our 40 days stronger and more aware of God’s presence. We will be prepared to experience the joy of the Resurrection.