Traditionally, the Church has observed Lent by proclaiming a Fast lasting forty days, even if it has not always kept it. The custom may have originated in the prescribed fast of candidates for Baptism in the early Church, and the number ‘forty’ was evidently suggested by the forty days’ fasts of Moses, Elijah, and above all, Jesus himself. However, the number ‘forty’ is commonly used in most Semitic languages - Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and so on - rather as we use the word ‘dozens’ to signify ‘many’. Thus, for instance, Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves may not have consisted of a band of forty-one robbers, but simply a large number of brigands; and Jesus may not have spent forty calendar days in the wilderness but simply a large number of days. But that does not matter. What matters is the fact that he did indeed spend time in the wilderness, as had not only Moses, Elijah, and other great men of the past, but also the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, after their delivery from bondage in Egypt. Why? What has time spent in wildernesses got to recommend it?
You could answer that question by saying that it has nothing to recommend it at all. The reason it is mentioned so often in the Bible is that the Jews were a Bedouin people, who spent much of their time in the deserts of the Middle East, whether they liked it or not; and, in fact, they did not like it at all, but longed to leave it behind in order to enjoy the comfort, abundance, and richness of the promised land; and there would be much truth in that reply. But it still would not explain why their great men - their prophets and poets and religious leaders - looked back so often with nostalgia upon their times in the wildernesses of the area as having been valuable, formative, and in some way religiously purer and nobler than the times which they had spent in lands of economic and agricultural plenty; though I suppose such an attitude could be understood as being a version of what might be called ‘the good old days’ syndrome. But even if this were true - and I don’t believe that it is - it still would not explain why Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, spent some time in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Why resort to the desert in order to cope with the various temptations which flesh is heir to? What is so special about deserts?
I think that part of the answer to that question is that it is very difficult to ignore God in a desert - much more difficult than it is in Mayfair or Manhatten. I spent over a year in the North Afrian desert - the Egyptian/Libyan desert - during the war, and the combination of its desolation and my own manifest vulnerability as a tiny island of consciousness in its vastness and emptiness was awe-inspiring. Of course, during a war one is also conscious that one might die at any moment; but I think that even when there is no war, you can’t live for long in the desolation of a desert without being very much aware of your fragility, your littleness, and your mortality; and that makes even the least imaginative of minds think of ultimate things. ‘What is man that though art mindful of him,’ cried the author of Psalm 8, ‘or the son of man that thou visitest him?’ Is he a child of God or a transient package of dust? And there is another aspect of deserts, which is religiously provocative in a s slightly different way. They, bring you face to face with your self in a way that other environments do not. In a desert there is little chance of avoiding meeting that complex, schizoid individual, half angel and half devil, known to others as you, or of avoiding looking more or less honestly at the silent struggle going on within yourself between you and the spirit of him who made you in his own image. There are no distractions in the desert to enable you to ignore that battle. It was for this reason, I believe, that throughout the early centuries of the Christian Church so many men and women repaired to the deserts of the Middle East, there to live lives of extraordinary austerity and privation, in order to engage in that inner struggle. Indeed, the Egyptian desert was so full of them during the early centuries that it became known as ‘the desert of the saints’.
So what? We have no geographical deserts in which to hide ourselves, and if we had, I don’t suppose that many of us would wish to set up house there or emulate the old desert fathers in their heroic battles of spiritual life; but - dull as it sounds - maybe setting aside a bit of time to spend in silence during the coming weeks of Lent would be the next best thing to spending time in a desert and more profitable than giving up sugar in our tea, while feeling proud of our asceticism. “Lord, I am not as other men are, I have given up sugar in my tea.” And if I may suggest it, as good a way as any of spending that time of silence could to make a reconnaissance of the battlefield within yourself. How’s the devil getting on? He’s astonishingly conventional - old fashioned, square, and deeply conservative in his methods - and I wouldn’t mind betting that he tempts each of us in much the same way as he tempted Christ in the wilderness. His temptations were part of his usual stock-in-trade. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” When that failed, he took Jesus to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the Temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge over you.'” But that was an equal failure, so he took him to the top of a very high mountain, and offered him the kingship of all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, if only Jesus would worship him. “Begone, Satan,” Jesus said, “for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall, you serve.'”
You see what binds these temptations together - what is common to all of them? They all tempt Jesus as the Son of God; each begins with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God…..’ In each case, Jesus is tempted to use his God-given powers in the wrong way - that is to say, for himself; first, to find his fulfilment in material abundance and physical plenty; next to save himself miraculously from injury and death, rather than being obedient even unto death; and last to use his power as the Son of God to achieve what the world calls power - kingship, hegemony, instant supremacy - without treading the road, which was destined to lead him up the hill to Calvary, death, and the descent into hell, before God raised him to full and eternal power.
Now, I think that I should stop there. I know that preachers are supposed to tell people just what they ought to do in whatever circumstances they may find themselves; but I’m afraid that I can claim no such omniscience. All I can do is remind you that we are all sons of God - children of the Father - and subject to the same temptations to use our God-given gifts in our own service rather than God’s, and suggest once again that prayer and silence practised in the artificial, but none the less salutary, desolation of Lent are seldom a waste of time: at least, not when looked at retrospectively, though they may seem so at the time. And if any of you react to that by thinking to yourself that you are no good at prayer, I can only assure you that nor am I. But even so - even after years and years of being no good at prayer - I am still convinced that, as a result of the times I have tried to spend in silence, in the desolation of my inner self, in emptying my mind of trivia, and in what I have hoped was awareness of the coming of God, I have got to know myself and to know God a bit better than I would have done, had I never tried to pray or keep silence or wait on his coming. Just before he ws to die, Jesus found his disciples asleep, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” It is good advice.