Welcome the wilderness. Welcome Lent!

(Homily given by Deacon Vincent Hansen on First Sunday of Lent, February 26, 2012)

by Deacon Vincent Hansen, Sacred Heart Parish, Haines, Alaska

God has made and kept his covenants with us throughout Bible history: through Adam, Noah, Abram, Moses, David, and finally and permanently, Jesus. God remains faithful even though we don’t. Adam’s failure lets sin into the world, and things get so bad that only eight people of Noah’s family are spared in the flood. But the sign of God’s faithfulness still appears to us regularly today — the beauty of the rainbow. The rainbow continued to appear over Noah’s family, even though his offspring almost immediately let evil back into this fresh new world. The rainbow appeared over the tribes under Abraham, in spite of all the deceit, trickery and evil. It continued to appear over the people fleeing slavery in Egypt, after God parted the Sea for them, even after they began to worship other gods. It still appeared over the kingdom established by David, in spite of the continuing evil in the world, and even David’s scandalous sins. And now, it continues to appear over us, to remind us of God’s persistent faithfulness. He never gives up, and in spite of everything, has granted us eternal life with him through his Son, Jesus Christ. Every time I see a rainbow, I can’t help but think of God’s faithfulness.

And what about us? Are we holding up our side of the covenant? Are we willing to take up the challenge of lent, and to “Repent…and believe in the Gospel.”
What does it take for us to repent? One of the biggest steps in repentance is to acknowledge our faults. We move through life and as long as things are going along ok, we may not take much time to think about the people that we may have hurt by our words and our actions – or our lack of action. Things that may seem trivial to us may not be as trivial to those we have hurt, and we have to take time to really think about the things we’ve done that are diverting us from a closer relationship with our Lord and his people. We have to admit that we can be wrong and be willing to take it to God, especially through the priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

And we must also remember that our repentance cannot be complete unless we also are willing to forgive one another. Jesus clearly says in Mathew 6:15, that if we do not forgive others, he will not forgive us. And he is talking about things like the grudges that we hold. These feelings of bitterness we hold toward others in hopes of depriving them of something. Our former Bishop Michael Warfel described grudges well when he compared a grudge to “taking poison ourself and waiting for the other person to die.”

So we need to repent, and we need to believe in the Gospel. And, if we believe, how is our belief reflected in our lives? Lent is a time for us to take the time, to go out into the desert or wilderness (like Jesus in today’s Gospel); to rediscover our identity as God’s children. To determine how we can best live out our faith and strengthen our covenant relationship with God. Our “wilderness” can be wherever that process can best occur. I recently had a kind of wilderness experience of my own that helped me to assess my current status as a Christian.

Last month, due to extremely windy weather here and no flights from Seattle due to weather there, I had to make an unexpected round trip by road from Haines to get my daughter Christine to her international flight connection in Anchorage. I had just finished working all night, but figured that I could get her there in time for her flight early the next morning, turn around and get back in time for a night shift I had to cover the next night, then make Mass, the following morning. We packed the survival gear and drove through the 50 below and colder temperatures without incident (other than zig-zagging through a few moose on the Glenn Highway). She caught her flight and is now safely in South Africa. On the long drive back, I was tired, but awake. I had lots of time to think and was approaching kind of a trance state. Perhaps we could call it “wilderness” status, as my mind was empty of most things.

Although I am reluctant to admit it, one way for me to stay more awake is to drive a little faster. I was zipping right along about half way home when I suddenly noticed the flagging for a big frost heave. It was too late to slow down much, so I tried to angle across it. I didn’t quite go airborne, but when the bump was over, the wheels broke loose and I started to slide sideways on the icy road at over 70 miles per hour. I’ve done quite a bit of sliding, especially racing with friends on the miles of remote dirt roads where I grew up. So, I calmly corrected into the skid and the vehicle changed directions, but began sliding in the opposite direction. I went through this cycle 3 times before finally realizing with great fear, that instead of the skids getting smaller, they were getting wider with each cycle, and I was really cranking the wheel in each direction.

At the moment I realized I was going to loose control and crash, I literally hollered out, “Jesus,”… and the car instantly regained traction and proceeded straight ahead, as if I had never been in a skid at all.

As incredulous as though I am, I had to admit that I had just witnessed a miracle.
The rest of my trip was spectacular, and although I did not make it over the pass that night due to the drifting snow, I could see God clearly in all of his beautiful creation, and I had an overwhelming sense that he had made it the way it was at that moment, just for me. Later I realized how much I had grown in my spirituality. As bad as things may have gotten at times in my life, I had never seriously given up and turned something completely over to God. That day, on that frost heave, I actually did. When I realized it, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was so hard for me to have that kind of faith in my every day living.

I think it is because we have to get away from all the noise and distractions to be able to truly listen and hear. The wilderness was where Jesus came to distinguish between the voice of God, which he would follow, and the voice of Satan, which is temptation.
How many voices do we hear from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep at night? The countless voices in the daily paper, the soliciting and opinionated voices on the radio and the television, the voices of those who live and work with us, not to mention our own unceasing inner voices.

In the wilderness we can leave most of these voices behind to focus on distinguishing between the guiding voice of God and the tempting voice of Satan. In the wilderness we can come to know ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and our divine calling. In the silence of the wilderness we can come to terms with ourselves as we really are, we can reconcile with the beasts and the angels in our lives and then with God’s grace, begin to experience peace again.

Lent is the time to strive for the wilderness experience. We can’t all afford to take the time to take long back packing trips. But with some effort we can create a wilderness space in our overcrowded lives. We can set aside a place and time to be alone daily with God, (to come and sit at the masters feet as Father Perry so often emphasizes). A time to distance ourselves from the many noises and distractions that bombard our lives every day, a time to truly hear God’s word, a time to rediscover who we are before God, a time to say yes to God and no to Satan as Jesus did.

As a result, we will be better able to live our lives in a way that gives Glory to God and that reflects our belief in the Gospel.

We should welcome the wilderness! Welcome to Lent!