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Preacher: Isaiah Fish, Ministry Intern
March 5, 2017

First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4:1-11

 

“The timing for Lent is always a bit strange, isn’t it?

 

Today’s an outlier, but overall, it seems that spring is creeping up on us. The temperatures are getting warmer. The daylight is lasting a bit longer with each passing day. Signs of new life are starting to emerge, whether that be buds on trees or the fact that the city just seems to have a bit more vitality in it now. This past Wednesday, I walked outside with just a light jacket on, and the weather seemed absolutely perfect. There was the perfect spring drizzle that made way for sunshine, and all I wanted to do was take a nice walk in the park.

 

Yet I found myself here on that Wednesday imposing ashes and telling strangers and friends alike, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s hard to speak about our mortality when the weather outside is constantly reminding us of new life. And as the temperature gets warmer over the next month, the closer we get to the cross. It’s paradoxical really; the message that seems tailor made for autumn and winter, when everything is dying, is instead placed during the time that everything is reminding us of life.

 

Even still, we come to this, the First Sunday in Lent, at the beginning of a long journey towards the cross, when death and suffering is a bit more on the forefront of the church’s consciousness.  The altar has been stripped, Pastor Cathy and I are wearing slightly darker robes, and the “alleluias” have disappeared from our hymns and liturgy. We have entered the season that is a bit more introspective than the rest of the year. We more intentionally consider our own sin and the sin of the world around us; some of us have chosen to give up something in this process, while some of us have taken on a new practice that we have for too long neglected. Nevertheless, we in these forty days join the same journey as Jesus, from the depths of the wilderness to death on Calvary.

 

In our text this morning, we pick up on the story where we left off back in January. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan River, where the voice of God comes from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” [1] And as soon as he is baptized, the Spirit drives him into the depths of the wilderness. It’s a bit of a strange situation, as the author of the Gospel of John doesn’t even include it in his work, and whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark only dedicates two verses to what transpires throughout those forty days. It’s really only in our lesson today from Matthew and a portion in the Gospel of Luke that we have much of any kind of story about what actually happened in the wilderness.

 

And we’ve probably heard a few sermons based on what happens here. Last year, preaching on Luke’s version of the same story, Pastor Cathy said,

 

Jesus knew who he was.  His body, mind, and spirit were tired but he knew his Daddy loved him.  He knew that it was not necessary to succumb to the weakness and insecurity of another in order to prove who he was.  And so he does not fall for the temptations.  He does not get off course; rather he relies on what God has said, and he relies on the Spirit to give him strength. [2]
Elsewhere, we can read about how well even the Devil knows the scriptures and which verses will best tempt Jesus. Yet we also recognize that Jesus of course knows these scriptures but also knows how they’re applied. It’s not just that Jesus knows the material, for even the evil one can quote scripture; he knows how to use it and how to live it. We know this story and the messages with it pretty well. Some of us grew up hearing it in Sunday school, and we’ve heard it preached many, many times in our lives. And because we’ve heard that sermon so much, I really don’t want to give another one to add to your memory.

 

Besides, it’s not as though we will be given the same kind of test that Jesus was given. None of us have the power to turn rocks into bread, and please don’t try jumping off the top of the church so that angels can catch you on the way down. If, however, you are given all of the kingdoms of the world and all of their splendor, please see Pastor Cathy or myself after service so that we can update your stewardship pledge accordingly. But it’s unlikely that we’ll face this test of temptation, for as the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor notes,

 

When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test.  We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads. [3]

 

Instead, I want to turn our focus to just the first verse of our passage: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” [4] I think that we’ve all found ourselves in the wilderness. It may not necessarily be a literal wilderness, a desolate landscape surrounded by nothing other than rocks and dirt, but we’ve all been in some inhospitable, barren place.

 

When I think of finding myself in the wilderness, I don’t necessarily think of backpacking trips to a national park. Rather, I think of last December, when I was lying in a
hospital bed with the news that I had several unknown, painful masses in my lungs, the doctors scrambling just to figure out what was actually going on. For some of us, it’s knowing that we’re not going to make our rent payment for the third month in a row, eviction looming over our shoulder.  It might be estrangement from family and friends who have cut you out of their life for seemingly no reason at all. Or maybe it’s what many call “the dark night of the soul,” as Mother Teresa described to her spiritual director in 1957:

 

Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.  Love — the word — it brings nothing.  I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. [5]
For though we may not find ourselves in a literal wilderness with no food and with wild beasts surrounding us, as Jesus does in our passage today, we all at times find ourselves in a place that is nevertheless just as barren and desolate. And while we may search for justifications or reasons why we’re in such a grim situation, the absurdity of the situation is all that we find. All we can do is wander in the dark grasping for some kind of hope to hold onto, crying out for relief only to hear nothing in return.

We certainly don’t actively seek it out. Whether the depths of depression, of grief or sorrow, or just that spiritual malaise where nothing we do or pray seem to make any difference for ourselves or the world around us, it’s a place that we seek to escape. We spend quite a bit of money trying to get out of it, or at least trying to get a sense of where we even are. It may be just a few days or a season or two, while some of us seem to be perpetually trapped with no escape. But no matter how hard we try, we all have found ourselves there, and it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll end up there again. We know this story personally as we too have often been led into the wilderness.

And we also know that this journey into the wilderness is more often than not a journey inwards. It’s those aspects of our life that we don’t want to acknowledge as being there. It’s the sin, the dreadful parts of our psyche and our being that we would rather just stay latent. Bringing those up is hard work; acknowledging our privilege and how we contribute to the fear and death of others is soul wrenching. Recognizing where it is that we try to rely on our own strength rather than God’s strength is humbling. It tears at our emotional state and challenges so many of our long held beliefs and understandings. Changing them requires nothing less than reorienting our whole lives, leaving nothing critiqued and leaving no stone unturned. We know the wilderness far too well, yet we do everything we can to get back to the land what we know.

Yet for some reason we read this text today as gospel, as good news. “The Word of the Lord,” Pastor Cathy said at the conclusion of the reading. Thanks be to God. But being lost in the wilderness does not seem like good news when you’re fighting just to survive, to keep faith for just one more day. It doesn’t seem like good news when all that you know is being torn away from you, leaving you with what seems like nothing.

We find Jesus today in the wilderness, a place to which the Spirit has led him. And while he may have been full of the Holy Spirit, he surely was not full of anything else. Imagine, if you will, how parched his mouth must have been. Try to feel your stomach that has not eaten for forty days. Envision looking around and seeing nothing but rocks and dirt; no soul in sight, no voices or singing to help you carry through, and not even a soft place to rest.

And what does all of this time suffering in the wilderness do for him?

 

It frees him.

 

It frees him from those attempts that sought to distract him from his own purpose, from the hunger for those things that do not bring about life, and from the illusion that anyone but his own self was responsible for his actions. In those forty days, he managed to control his own appetite; he learned that trusting the Spirit that led him in would lead him out, with a kind of clarity and focus that could not come from anywhere but God. It’s this temptation that can only happen in the wilderness that prepares Jesus for what will come at the end of Lent, the temptations to forsake his own purpose and to bring himself down from the cross as another criminal taunts him to do. For it is only in the wilderness that Jesus clarifies what he truly needs and who he truly is; once he knows that, he is able to live the life to which he has been called.

 

I think in some ways we’ve come to sentimentalize Lent, cheapening its meaning and power. We get so caught up in thinking that it’s merely a time of reflection without recognizing that there’s indeed work to be done. It becomes a time period in which we watch less television or drink a little less alcohol, or it’s a time in which we pick up a spiritual practice because we think that it might make us a bit more holy. Sometimes it becomes a competition too, I think, of who is really suffering the most. But it’s always surface level; Lent becomes just another part of the year where we go without or pick up something new, not the time where we grapple with the existential and spiritual questions that plague us.

Yet we forget that Lent finds its fulfillment in Holy Week and on Easter Sunday just as often as we forget that Holy Week and Easter Sunday can only happen after we get lost in the wilderness for a bit. For the way through Holy Week to the power and awe of Easter starts in the middle of the wilderness.

“Lent” etymologically comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word that literally means spring. But this isn’t just the spring that sees new life popping up in the soil of Central Park. It’s also the spring of the “greening of the human soul–pruned with repentance, fertilized with fasting, spritzed with
self-appraisal, mulched with prayer.” [6] It’s the time in which we are actually preparing ourselves for what can come on Easter Sunday; and if we’re finding that Easter has lost some of its emphasis, perhaps what we need is to go through the wilderness to make a little more room.

And it’s in the wilderness where we find what we actually need and what needs to go, who we are called to be and who we actually are.

 

As I look back on those wildernesses of my own life, even the ones that I’m still in, I find that I come out on the other side a little bit lighter. Perhaps some of the baggage of my old perceptions of God have been let loose so that I can make room for a little bit more mystery. I’ve found what it is that is really important in my life, and I can identify the extra nonsense that I can let go of. I’m not saying that I would wish it on anyone; these were my own experiences, and no one else would encounter them the same way.

 

We all have a bit of wilderness that we still need to go through. We all have some baggage that we need to carry no longer. We all have perceptions and beliefs that need to be stripped away a little bit.

 

And when we prune some of that baggage that weighs us down, and when we cultivate those seeds that need more space to grow —  when we finally make it to the other side of the wilderness crossing, we’ll be better equipped to let the Kingdom take root in our midst. We’ll find what we really need.

 

So, my friends, let us wander into the wilderness, for spring is coming whether we see it or not. Let’s stop hiding from what we’ve been avoiding for so long and do the work of getting our hands dirty in the filth and in the dirt. Let’s let ourselves get a little bit hungry so that we can identify what it is that really keeps us alive. Let us get lost so we find what it is that finds us.

May we remember that we do not go in alone. As the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, so too does the Spirit lead us into this Lenten season. And when we get into the very depths, we will find Christ still there, waiting to bring us through to Holy Week and the resurrection on Easter
Sunday.

May the Spirit draw us into our wilderness over these next forty days of Lent, for on the other side is life.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 3:17

[2] http://paumcnyc.org/strength-to-endure/

[3] http://day1.org/1756-the_wilderness_exam

[4] Matthew 4:1

[5] Found in: David Scott, The Love that Made Mother
Teresa (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2016), 107-8.

[6] http://day1.org/1756-the_wilderness_exam