Early in Luke’s gospel, he details the rise of John the Baptist’s public ministry. His third chapter begins by rooting John in time by surrounding him with the “vital statistics” of his day:
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Most of these names mean little to today’s reader; most of these places are unknown. But in John’s (and Jesus’) day, these were the high rollers in the power centers. These were the figures writing the rules and making the waves.
And fascinatingly, God uses them as the background music for the scene that He is unfolding.
Into this time and place, God’s word arrived.
His message would inaugurate His move. And that word was delivered to a no-man in the no-man’s land: John in the wilderness.
The wilderness of Scripture is the academy of the saints.
It was the scene of Moses’ leadership course in Midian, as Yahweh transformed an angry murderer into a surrendered deliverer. It was the venue for Israel’s forty-year shaping, which cost them an entire generation, on how to live as freed people in the Promised Land. It was also the setting for Jesus to be tested by the Adversary, ahead of his public ministry.
Luke depicts John the Baptist, also in the wilderness, seeking and listening. The human eye can quickly glaze over at the vastness and blankness of the wilderness, and one small man in its midst can seem like dust.
Yet Luke, having sketched all the people and places where logic might expect Divinity to deliver His message, is explicit that this word is addressed to the simple one in the silent place: “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Lent is a wilderness season.
It drives us into modes of reflection and recounting. We agree with God on the terms of full access that He might search us and freely reveal—even rebuke—whatever that He finds. The wilderness, by its nature, is a refining environment. It swallows those who ill-equipped to dwell there. It silently pushes people toward precipices, where survival is uncertain.
Lent, by its nature, is the seeking of such an environment. As did John, we place ourselves in a wilderness setting—via fasting or forgiving, reflecting or repenting—because we know that people who are at the ends of themselves, dwelling on the ends of the earth, are often those upon whom the life-giving word of God falls first.