February 18, Forty Days

Forty Days

Mark 1: 9-15

Forty days is the length of the season of Lent. Of course, it’s a symbolic number in the Bible; it represents a season, a time, long enough to take us from one reality to another: forty days until the flood waters recede, forty days on a mountain waiting for the commandments, forty years of wandering between Egypt and the Promised Land, forty days for Jesus to be tested and tempted in the wilderness.

It’s a symbolic number, but it’s also a real-life number. Forty days is actually a period of time that is long enough to shake a pattern or make a pattern. Forty days is a long enough period of time to finally wake up. It’s long enough to test your intentions and your endurance. It’s long enough to start a new behavior, or commit to better health, or give up a bad habit, or establish a new commitment.

Over a period of forty days’ time, you also can learn about your weaknesses, test your own self-awareness and honesty, and find out whether your old habits are stronger than your new commitments. Forty days will reveal to you how hard it is to stay on track, and whether or not you really want to move from one lifestyle or pattern or habit, to another. If in forty days from now, in the period of time between Ash Wednesday, the day of that mass shooting in Florida, and Easter, on April 1st, there’s not some legislative change around guns…there won’t be. Forty days is enough time to face the demons and make a decision.

And that’s just it: In the scripture for today, Jesus is sent into the wilderness for forty days. It says then that after the Spirit “drove” him into the wilderness (notice the language of being pushed) “he was tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.”

In the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Matthew and Luke give details about the temptations: what sort, what order, even what replies Jesus gives to the Tempter. But this version is the stripped-down version. All it says is this: He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

And this has what to do with us? (you might ask)

Come on now! You know the Brethren are all about doing the Jesus-thing! We aren’t biblical literalists, but we might as well be Jesus-literalists: taking seriously the call to follow him, hearing the beatitudes as instructions, seeking to follow Jesus’ example in baptism, engaging in feet washing, turning the other cheek, welcoming the sinner and the stranger. So why would we expect to get a pass on the wilderness thing, the forty-day thing?

Look, in this scripture, Jesus takes this time away from the regular patterns, time to go inside his own spirit, to face his strongest temptations, to consider his own choices, to set aside the normal, to seek a vision for the future. Granted, he gets a push from the Spirit in that direction, but it is also quite clear that he does in fact move in the direction in which he is pointed: that is, he steps out of his regular place and pattern and for forty days he does this wilderness thing. He goes to an uncomfortable, a testing, a wild place. He strips it all down and looks at who he is and what he is going to set out to do from now on.

And if he does it – if he does this wilderness thing – and we are Jesus-followers, Jesus-literalists, why wouldn’t we seek at least something similar? Facing the uncomfortable, stripping things down, looking at who we are and what we are going to set out to do from now on?

Writing in the Christian Century magazine, in the “Living by the Word,” column, Emily Heath, a Congregational Church pastor writes about this season we are entering: “For 40 days we are asked to go into a wilderness place (she writes) and to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. Lent asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff: to pray, to fast, to do something new. To face temptation and to choose to follow Christ anyway.”

She continues, “It’s not popular. Crowds will show up at church on Easter morning, but few will have spent the last 40 days getting ready. Everyone likes a party; not everyone likes setting up for it. But those of us who choose to make this 40-day wilderness journey may discover something meaningful along the way: (namely, that) Christ is there too. We’ve often been in the wilderness, but now we’ve found that we’re not alone.”

“That’s good news (she writes) because the reality of our lives is that we spend a lot of time lost. We spend a lot of time facing temptation and wrestling with God, a lot of time alone with our demons. Jesus knew what that was like. So, in Lent we have the opportunity to spend 40 days not alone but with the one who has been there before.” (Christian Century 1/31/18, p.20)

I like what she says for the most part – right up to the point where she talks about how few people really spend the time to get ready for Easter. But it’s the last bit I’m not so sure about: this matter of how we “spend a lot of time facing temptation and wrestling with God, a lot of time alone with our demons.”

I actually think the opposite is true: I think that many of us, maybe most of us, spend a lot of time and effort avoiding our demons, denying that we are tempted, pretending that we are not weak and vulnerable, acting as though we aren’t lost at all. We construct elaborate facades in that regard. We make pretending and denying into an art form almost. We are loath to be alone, and even if Christ is already in the wilderness, it is unlikely that we would follow him there: good company, or not.

No. Wilderness time – that is time with our aloneness, our weakness, our temptations, our demons – that’s the last thing we want. Let’s just pretend it’s all okay. Wait until the next shooting. Let’s slide past the hard stuff, the nakedly honest stuff, if there’s any way at all to do that. Because facing into that stuff is painful, and we don’t want any more pain than is absolutely necessary.

So, forty days of wilderness? Do we want forty days of doing the Jesus thing? Forty days with Satan whispering in our ear, with wild beasts ranging around us? Who would choose the struggle? Would we choose such a thing? I guess that depends on our priorities. Are we interested in becoming more honest with ourselves, testing ourselves, facing ourselves? I guess that depends on what interest we have in stripping away the extra layers in order to get back to the basic self, that human self “created in God’s image.”

When Jesus went into the wilderness he was getting ready to start his ministry – an intense ministry, a ministry that would require every bit of honesty and courage and compassion and clarity he could muster. He couldn’t be taking any baggage along. He needed to get things pared down to the naked truth – the truth about his vulnerabilities and about his resources, and most of all, about his trust and trustworthiness. All of that needed to be tested…and tuned up.

What about us? What stripping down do we need to do? What good hard look do we need to take at ourselves? What pattern or habit do we want to change? What’s the forty-day truth that needs to be told in our lives? And what’s the change that needs to happen?

There’s something in each of us – and maybe collectively there’s something for all of us together. Don’t pretend that everything is 100% as it should be, that everything is as you hoped it would be. Maybe there’s something that’s been festering for a while, something that feels like a splinter under your skin. Maybe it’s a slow slide we’ve been on: fooling ourselves, but not really fooling ourselves – or maybe anybody else. Maybe it’s a bias or a prejudice we keep clinging too: using the blame we want to cast on others in order to justify ourselves as judge over our neighbors. Maybe there’s something you are not very happy about that has been layering itself onto your life, and you know pretty clearly that doing the “everyday thing” never allows you to stop long enough to take a good look at who or what you are becoming.

Look, when we talk about wilderness and testing and following Jesus into those places, it doesn’t have to be a “temptation” that comes to you or me to do something horrible; it might just be that we’ve given in to the temptation to walk around with our eyes closed, or we’ve let a resistance build up in us – a resistance to doing anything dangerously good.

40 days? The time between now and Easter? What could you do with these forty days (and maybe moved along with a shove in the back from the Spirit of God)? What wild beasts might you face down? What angels might you see?

40 days. Why don’t we do something – something spiritual, something physical, something relational, something confessional, something transformational? Why don’t we do something with these forty days?

This probably isn’t the most compelling example, because it’s so boring, so mundane, so predictable, but I’m going to give it anyway, because we have to somehow get inside what it means to change, to stick with it, to do something we don’t necessarily want to do, but something that’s overdue. We need to think about discipline and transformation even if we start simple.

So, here’s my example: I started my diet on Wednesday, January 17th with breakfast: a square piece of home-made baked oatmeal microwaved for a minute, some milk, and about a dozen blueberries from a bag in the freezer. So that means that as of today, I have been on my diet 33 days – only a week away from that 40-day mark. (If I was a better planner, a more forward-thinking person, I would have started on January 10th, so that today I’d be at forty days, right now – it would be a better match for the sermon – but, alas, I didn’t start on my diet with Lent in mind; I just started with change in mind.

Anyway, every day, several times in the day, I open up my diet app on my phone, and I log in the meals I’ve eaten, item by item – trying to get it as accurate as possible in terms of the ingredients and portions, so that my calorie count is accurate. And I log in my exercise – the type of activity and minutes.

Since I started, I’ve been trying to keep some variety – in terms of food and activity – because the same thing over and over, while in a way makes the tracking process easier, is also much more boring. And for me, boring is deadly, and I know that, because after 33 days, I can testify that I find that the whole diet and exercise thing enormously tedious: entering every calorie into the record; marking down every meal, every minute of exercise. Nothing off the books; everything on the record. It’s kind of a grind.

Yes, I’m losing weight and my blood pressure is down a bit, but I really, really don’t enjoy it. This kind of day by day effort tests my patience, even as it demands my discipline. And it’s starting to seem like I’ve been doing this forever, even though as I said, in another week, it will only be forty days.

And so, as I come closer to that mark, here’s what I want to know about the forty day thing, about the temptation thing, about the boring, testing, demanding wilderness thing:

Okay, so I understand that I have to discipline myself in order to set my feet on the right path; to affect this kind of change in my life. I do have realistic goals: I want to add more variety and regularity to my exercising and I want to drop twenty pounds (at least) and at the rate I’m going, I understand that I am not projected to reach that goal until after Easter, which is another forty days from now. But I am pretty determined (or maybe it’s that I’m pretty stubborn), so sure, I can probably get from here to there. I can probably reach a goal like that. But (and here finally is the question) then what?

That’s what I really want to know: How does discipline or determination (for forty days, for example) turn itself into something more than a goal or a task for a season? Anyone can stick it out for forty days, right? But how does forty days of anything become something beyond a constant continuing effort in the face of constant continuing test or temptation?

Or we could put it this way: How does discipline bring about change? That is, how are we actually transformed, so that what began with a push, somehow becomes our peace?

Because that’s really the point, right? We want changed lives. Sure, I want to lose twenty or twenty-five pounds and bring my blood pressure numbers down and feel better physically, as well as all the other good things that happen when one attends to one’s health…but I don’t want to turn my life into a countdown.

I want to live better, but I want to also live well. I don’t want to always feel the push; I want the peace. I want to live in a way that is sustainable. I want to have body and spirit in tune. I want to do less wrestling with demons. I want to be less lost in the world in long run (even if I have to be a little more lost in the wilderness right now.) I want to have more faith and less despair.

Forty days in the wilderness, with the wild beasts, so to speak? Fine. If that’s what it takes. But then I want to come home to a more settled and sustainable place.

I don’t want to count calories the rest of my life, so to speak – or whatever it is we are counting these days. For forty days, fine. And then maybe for another forty days after that. We all have to wrestle with whatever needs wrestling. We all need a jumpstart to change. It may take forty days to turn the corner – whatever that corner might be. But then I want to be changed from the inside out. I want something sustaining, I want some momentum that keeps on going.

So, I pray: God, will you give us that too? Not just forty days’ worth of angels, but enough power, enough determination, enough courage, enough discipline, enough joy…to keep going, to make real change, lasting change, humanizing change? God knows, we need to keep going in that direction; not going along in the sense of grinding it out, but going along in the sense of walking lightly in the world.

I wonder about all of that; I wish for all of that. But first – first I’ve got to step out of the normal, out of the comfortable. First, I need to do my forty days in the company of wild beasts and angels. First, I need the example of Christ and the courage of Christ. First, I need these forty days that come before Easter. And if I need these forty days, then maybe you need them too.




Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

February 18, 2018