First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

The first Sunday of Lent begins with Jesus being led out into the wilderness and tempted by the “devil.” This happens just as he has comes up out of the waters of baptism, is affirmed by his Father as being the beloved, and as he is about to get started on the most significant work of his entire life.

From Ash Wednesday and the mark of the cross, we remember that we have come from our Creator who has shaped us from dust of the ground, infused us with his very own breath and is forever inviting our return.

Luke tells us that Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and he is tempted. Tested.

My guess is that most of us know a thing or two about wilderness experiences and temptations. We know something about the highs and lows of life; feeling particularly good and triumphant one moment and then suddenly – almost without warning – feeling like the rug has been yanked right out under us.

Such experiences might manifest themselves through a failed relationship, some sort of illness, something that negatively impacts our child or grandchildren, the loss of a job or finances, death of a loved one, or a serious rejection of some sort.

The wilderness experience can be a desolate state, a place of outrage, brokenness, and disappointment; with anger so deep and despair so real that it feels like the sun might never rise; never shine again.

Jesus begins there in the wilderness, perhaps to remind us of what it is really like and so that we might understand that connection with ourselves and others who also find themselves there: tired, hungry, spent, empty.

A wilderness experience can be when we think we’re right about something, emphatically right about it, but we are still willing to wrestle with it and leave the door cracked open just in case God wants to do a new thing or teach us a new truth.

The wilderness is not a pretty place. We might feel alone and lonely, abandoned, unloved, unwanted, and desperate.

Some, though not all, might say that the United Methodist Church is going through a wilderness experience right now.

The way the gospel writers put it, the devil (aka Satan, Lucifer, the tempter, Adversary, etc.) is an entity knowledgeable and conversant with voice and tongue. We might laugh about it but certainly we know that the presence of evil is real in our world. Perhaps we even recognize how close we are to it ourselves.

I want to tell myself that I am far removed but I know better. That’s why we begin the Lenten season being marked with ash, dirt, and dust. A reminder of just how vulnerable we really are, just how close to being on the other side. It is a reminder of our commonality with other people, of where we come from, and where we are going.

We are tempted by things that we want. We often want them a lot but they may not be necessarily good for us. At best, we may be temporarily leaning toward short term pleasures that threaten long term goals or outcomes. We know something about that, don’t we? Free to choose but knowing full well that the choice is not the best in the long run. Still, it’s right there plopped down at our feet, convenient for our taking or choosing.

And those voices that keep saying “it’s ok.” “You deserve it.” “Go for it.” “Why not?” Jesus was tempted as we are. And suffered in ways that we suffer.

At times strong, confident, assured. At other times frail and weak, just a step away. It is our story, is it not? And so it was with our Lord Jesus. We align ourselves with him and he most assuredly aligns himself with us.

Just imagine if we could embrace this truth every day, really embrace the reality of it. All of us shaped from the same dust. All of us are returning to the ground one way or the other sooner or later. We are on our way. All of us are finite. And yet, we are stronger than we might imagine, even stronger than we often allow ourselves to embrace.

What does that evil look like for us in the day to day? We know that it is not some pointed head creature in a bright red cape with a long pointed tail? Although there have been those who wear capes and hoods and fear tactics. I hardly think so.

Kayla McClurg writes: “However or whatever or whomever we imagine Satan to be – whether physical incarnation or mental apparition – this adversary is anything and everything in our lives that rejoices in deception, seeks to destroy the good, craves ultimate control. The Satan factor is whatever comes to us as a mindset, a strategy, a system, a person or group disguised as desiring only our best while stubbornly conniving for private benefit.” [1]

This evil appears to Jesus [and to us] to distract, discredit and cast doubt; evil meets us in the places of our vulnerability and we all have them. We must be mindful of those things we long for the most and be clear about why: money, power, prestige, to be the top dog, the favored one, the only one. The biggest, the best, the most. Those deep places of the heart.

Jesus is out there in that wilderness all alone; had not eaten for 40 days and was starving. It was the temptation of food: Since you are God’s son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.

Jesus who had all power in his hands, now exhausted: if you will bow down and worship me I will give you dominion and glory over all these kingdoms

Since you are God’s son, throw yourself down … interpretation: that’s what you say but you probably aren’t – not really – so throw yourself down and let’s see if his angels protect you.

Is that not how it works? “If you are the Son of God … blah, blah, blah. If you are such a Christian … blah, blah, blah. If God really loves you, really loved me … blah, blah, blah. If you were a great parent … blah, blah, blah. If, If, If … Prove it, prove it, prove it.”

It might be difficult to imagine Jesus having a conversation with such a creature except I suspect we do it all the time ourselves. How easy it is to listen to those voices roaming around in our head that try to strip us of our confidence and make us feel vulnerable, unsure, like a failure. God’s affirmation to Jesus and to us is essential: “This is my Son [Daughter], the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

I think the heart of evil begins right here: right in those places where we are so unsure, amid our insecurities. When we lack confidence in who we are. When we feel threatened and have to compete, to prove ourselves and our worthiness over and over only to never quite be able to convince others of who we are.

And let’s face it; the insecure can never make someone else feel secure. The unloved can never fully love another. Those who do not see themselves as viable can never see you as viable regardless of what you do.

Sometimes, it’s so hard to think that we are enough just as we are. And there is a whole lot in our culture that affirms that. In our culture, in the church, at work, sometimes in our homes, there are a whole lot of voices that say more is required.

Jesus was clear about himself. His body, mind, and spirit were tired but he knew who he was, what he was intended to be and do. He always had a larger goal in mind. 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 presence of God to give him strength.

And we must do the same. As we go through these days it is worth paying attention to those voices, circumstances, and things that tempt us, tear us away, cause us to rely on ourselves [or others] rather than on God. It is an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and prepare ourselves no matter what.

Most importantly, it is worth being absolutely certain that when it comes to God and who God says we are, there are no “Ifs”, no “buts.” We are and even if the worse happens there is still certainty, there is life, healing, reconciliation, restoration on the other side.

For now, more than ever, we must remember that the hope of our faith is that even when we feel lost, there is still a way through.

Lord, give us all strength for we shall not pass this way again.

1 Inward Outward Seeking the Depths; Sunday, February 14, 2016 Temptation as Gift