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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/1

          The gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is always the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  In Mark’s version though, we get less about temptation and more about wilderness, not that we really get much of that either.  Mark doesn’t provide a lot of detail about anything in these early verses of the gospel, but curiously he includes the detail about the wild beasts which isn’t in any of the other gospels but which adds to the image of wilderness. 

          Wilderness is a Lenten image, largely from this story I suppose.  Wilderness is however an image that can be understood in different ways.  It can be a scary place, populated by those wild beasts as Mark says.  The wilderness can be a place of testing and trial as was the case for Jesus for 40 days, as was the case for Moses and the people of Israel for 40 years. 

It can also be a place to go to get away from it all, a place of retreat; for example the earliest monastics sought refuge in the wilderness to escape the corruption of the world and the corruption of the church and to find a degree of isolation; that’s was part of the reason my monk friends up in the Keweenaw located where they did which is also a reminder that what constitutes the wilderness can vary quite a bit ranging from desert, to deep woods to rocky lake shore, for some from places like the UP, wilderness might be a big city, urban setting; but in the Bible it was most likely a harsh, rocky, dry, desert kind of place.   

Wilderness as a place of testing and wilderness as a place of isolation both have Lenten applications.  Lent can be a time to be more aware of and to confront those things that tempt and test us.  It is a time when we are called to be honest with ourselves, honest about our failures to be who God would have us be, our failure to live as Jesus has taught us to live.  Times of isolation, times of quiet and solitude can be helpful in the process of reflection, a way to help to eliminate those things that distract us.  Biblically though, however wilderness is understood, it is not a place one wants to be forever.  While time in the wilderness can be beneficial, there is a desire and a need to leave it behind. 

          Many of the psalms find their author perhaps not in a literal wilderness but at least in a figurative one which I think makes the psalms a useful resource for us all the time but especially during Lent.  The book of Psalms starts with number 1 essentially describing the way we’d like to think things are, the good are blessed, the bad are punished.  The psalms end with number 150, a prayer of absolute, unabashed praise of God.  Between these bookends though lots of stuff happens as the psalmists find that things don’t always work according to that nice formula of the good are blessed and the bad are punished.  Many of the psalms are about those times of being lost in the wilderness and trying to find your way out in order to get to that Psalm 150 point of praising God, the understanding being that that’s where we want to be having been created to praise God, that understanding tempered though by the fact that we often don’t feel much like praise stuck as we are in the wilderness.   

To make things even more interesting, some of the psalmists recognize themselves as the reason for their location in the wilderness but many are not at all hesitant to point fingers of accusation at others they think have caused them to wind up there and quite a few are quite willing to point the finger at God.  Whatever the reason for being there though, it’s a wilderness that they want to get out of.

          Today’s Psalm, Psalm 25 is not really one of great despair or deep wilderness.  It’s more about the normal anxiety we might feel in our relationship with God and for that reason it is perhaps a good place to begin this Lenten reflection on the psalms. 

Psalm 25 starts with words of deep trust, more or less affirming that the claims of Psalm 1 are true; “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.  He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.”  The psalmist is trying to be faithful, he wants things to work the way they’re supposed to but he’s not so sure as right away there is hesitancy; “Do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies triumph over me.  Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.”  It’s like I want the world  to work Lord, I want it to be reliable, but sometimes it seems like bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  I want to trust, but a little evidence on the ground would sure be helpful.

          The psalmist then appeals to the word I talked to the children about.  He appeals to the hesed of God.  Hesed usually gets translated as steadfast love or loving kindness, but it is one of those Hebrew words that a simple one or even two word translation doesn’t do justice to.  Hesed includes steadfast love, it includes kindness and mercy, things like that, but maybe even more it refers to God’s covenantal loyalty, loyalty that he will be true to his nature and keep the promises that have been made…no matter what. 

For the author of Psalm 25, hesed is the key to getting out of the wilderness.  “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love (hesed), for they have been from of old.  Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love (hesed) remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.”

For people in church on the First Sunday in Lent this is a good psalm to hear.  There are other psalms that are much harsher and more accusatory toward God and those we good church people can sometimes be uncomfortable with even offended by.  But the one who prays Psalm 25 wants to believe, wants to be out of the wilderness with full confidence that things are OK, they’re going to work out, but there’s some hesitancy, some anxiety, because he’s not sure, and who among us hasn’t been there?

Personally though, I think the editors of the lectionary deprive us of one of the more interesting things about this psalm.  Verses 1-10 are appointed for today so that as we sang the psalm earlier we ended on a note of faith and hope and confidence “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love (hesed again) and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and decrees.”  It sounds like we’re out of the wilderness!  But there are 22 verses to this psalm, not 10.  If we read the rest of it, after going back and forth from trust to uncertainty to hope to confession the psalmist seems to land back in the wilderness wanting to believe, but he’s just not there. 

“Turn to me and be gracious to me for I am lonely and afflicted.  Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.  Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.  Consider how many are my foes and with what violent hatred they hate me.  O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.  May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.  Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles”

That’s life isn’t it?  We want to be there, but sometimes it takes awhile.  It’s life and it’s Lent.  We want to be out of the wilderness but maybe we have to be there for awhile, like Jesus.  With Jesus, with the psalmist, we wait.  We want to be out of the wilderness, we want full confidence in God’s hesed; but that will have to be another day and another psalm.                 


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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