Lent I: Deserts of Life

“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Thus says St. Paul in the epistle for this Sunday, the first in Lent; in this same melange of texts we’ve also read about Jesus’ temptation by the Accuser in the midst of his desert time, and we’ve been reminded of the magnificent promises made to our Hebrew ancestors. How interesting it is that our Lord’s sojourn in the desert is placed right next to the reminder to the Hebrew people that their own sojourn in the desert was for a purpose: the salvation of a people, and what more, the salvation of the whole world.

But the epistle–what do we do with this? In the southern United States this is an oft-emblazoned slogan on billboards and automobiles, needlework and banners, tracts and tattoos. There’s something curious about this message that St. Paul gives us, that those who simply confess belief in the Lord and in his resurrection will be saved. It’s simple to draw a reduced message of salvation from this passage, like a wine sauce with all of the alcohol cooked off. That’s what gives shape to the evangelistic programs of so many of the ecclesial communities here: professions of faith leading to believer’s baptisms with no follow-up discipleship. You get your card punched, and you’re in the kingdom, no sweat.

Of course the gospel of easy-believism has been rightly criticized on all sides by Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, and on. We acknowledge that salvation is not simply a free pass to heaven. We affirm that salvation entails a radical change, something that fundamentally reorients us in the direction of the Kingdom. It’s easy enough to say what salvation isn’t. But how can we understand salvation in light of the desert time of Jesus and the sojourn of Israel? I think understanding these texts rightly is key to understanding what salvation is over against the false American gospel.

Let’s turn our attention first to the Israelites. Nigh five centuries of bondage, without a place to call home, they are suddenly delivered from captivity through a bizarre and historically improbable series of events whose veracity is attested to by the very existence of the Jewish people today. They are brought home, but home is not the promised land. Indeed, the climax of the Exodus is not at all the entrance of the Hebrews into Canaan; the climax of Exodus is an undoing of the alienation from God wrought in the first chapters of Genesis. The Exodus is a story about God taking up residence among God’s people. God doesn’t leave them in the lurch until they enter Canaan; indeed, God has traveled with them throughout their desert sojourn, being led onward by the pillars of flame and cloud. And in one glorious moment after years of journeying towards a home that no one knew, the glory of YHWH fills the tabernacle and they are brought home, right there in the desert. The text from Deuteronomy this week is shaped by the presence of God dwelling among his people, and the desert shapes them for this.

What then, of our Lord’s desert time? Of course, God is with him there as well. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness, and the communion of his Father sustains him through that desert time. He is never abandoned. He is never left to wander without a sense of belonging. No, indeed for Jesus the desert time is a time of preparation, a time of sharpening, a time of dogged focus on the task at hand.

I believe that when we as Christians come into faith (whether we have been baptized as infants or not), we begin walking in the desert of salvation. God takes up residence in our hearts and fills us with the glory of God-presence: we receive a new name, a new identity, a new mark on our souls as part of the people of God. And then God’s Spirit drives us into the wilderness to shape us, to give us cause to work out our salvation, to give us an opportunity to grow into an identity of a people marked to bring about the inversion of the world in love and life. In a sense at our salvation we cross over into the Promised Land and are bade to conquer it–not with sword or bloodshed, but with words of life and acts of love as the avant garde of the Kingdom of Heaven, to “shed abroad the love of God” among all peoples and nations, as Wesley would say.

And as we walk through the wilderness, as we travel in our sojourn on earth, God prepares us for our home in the kingdom that we are helping him to establish, where every soul may at last find home in a land flowing with milk and honey.

So, salvation is freedom from bondage to sin and death. Salvation is the embracing of the promise: “you are my people, and I am your God.” Salvation is the hope of a future. Salvation is the overabundant, teeming, writhing life-giving love that makes us hale and whole in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Salvation is the new heart of flesh that beats and bleeds for a broken people. And salvation is for all people: may God’s will be done.

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