I intended to preach this sermon on the first Sunday of Lent (2/17). At 7:15, my moderator and I decided that, despite a little snow, we would have church. I mean, I live in New England. These people are hardy. They see a couple of inches of snow and think “Good. We’ll take the sled to church!” We were all set to go, when the town of Killingly implemented a town-wide parking ban. For us at Westfield, this is a problem. Mostly because our on-site parking consists of 8 or so spots in a small lot directly behind the “new part” of the building that was built in the 1920s. What’s now the parking lot was once the carriage house. Seriously.
Anyway, there was this town-wide parking ban which is pretty clumsy because Killingly includes an area of 50 square miles–and the ban covers the whole place! The problem, as I’m sure you can guess, is that snow issues in one part of Killingly aren’t necessarily snow issues in other parts.
All of that to say this sermon that was meant for the first Sunday in Lent was actually preached on the second Sunday of Lent (our first together in the season). I spent some time deciding whether or not to keep up with the lectionary on this one, but what finalized the decision was our need to be reminded just what Lent is about.
The scripture for the sermon are:
What are you giving up for Lent? It’s a question asked often to church-goers this time of year. What are you giving up for Lent? Some people think it’s a pointless tradition; others seem to confuse it New Year Resolutions. Still others, decide to add something to their lives. I had one friend say, “I think I’m gonna try to be nicer for 40 days.” One of my classmates in seminary joked “I think I’ll give up homework until Easter.”
Lent, however, is much more than giving up fried food or promising to do the dishes every night. Lent is a time of journeying, a pilgrimage of sorts. It is a journey from being lost to being a found, a journey from temptation to salvation, a journey from ashes to fire.
Pilgrimages aren’t easy journeys. They are treks with much to be lost and much to be gained. These can be lonesome journeys–journeys taken in solitude to the center of one’s being through the wilderness of the desert and the soul. St. Augustine once said “Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.” And so, we begin Lent with texts about doing just that–walking.
Lent is a intriguing season in the church year. Like Advent, it is a season of preparation, of waiting. In the early church, Lent was a time for the catechumens (those Christians-in-training) to make their final preparations to join the church at Easter. It was an intense period of fasting and prayer paralleling the time Jesus spent wandering the desert–a story which we heard this morning.
It’s a time of the already and the not yet; a time of looking back on the ways we have marred our lives with sin, and forward to the grace of Christ which rights all of those wrongs. It’s a time when we tune ourselves to God. It’s a time we (as the prophet Joel commanded us on Ash Wednesday) render our hearts to God.
Most importantly, Lent is a time of wandering in the wilderness. It’s a time when we examine our lives in the crucible of desert sand and heat, looking at the temptations that have charmed us away from the path of righteousness, and long to return our hearts to God.
Wilderness experiences aren’t particular to the season of Lent. I can think of a three year long excursion into the wilderness I was recently in called Seminary.
Throughout our lives, we have wilderness experiences–times we feel lost, times we are searching. This isn’t a unique experience. In fact it’s a common theme in the Bible–wandering in the wilderness.
The Old Testament lesson today instructs the Israelites of what they should do when they finally end their 40 years of searching the wilderness for the home God had promised them. Countless prophets found themselves drawn away from communities into desert wilderness where through fasting and praying they confronted their own challenges. And, as we heard today, even Jesus found himself spending 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying.
Before we get too far into this story, it is important for us to remind ourselves what’s been happening up until this point. A mere four chapters ago, we are drawn into a story of prophecies and births. We hear the birth of John the Baptizer and Jesus foretold, and see their births come to pass. You remember, shepherds and angels. Suddenly, Jesus is twelve and teaching the rabbi’s in the Temple in Jerusalem about their own faith.
And then, in the blink of the eye, our boys are all grown up. John comes out of the wilderness to proclaim the arrival of Jesus. Jesus is baptized, and then led into the wilderness by Spirit.
The synoptic gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke all share this story, but with some slight variations. Mark presents us with the bare bones of the story. We’re told that Jesus was in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. The Matthean account lines up more closely with the version in Luke. All the same elements are there, with a few revisions to the order of the tests.
So, Jesus has just come out of the waters of Baptism, and is full of the Holy Spirit when, we are told, he is led by that Spirit into the wilderness. Mark presents it another way: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
You see, sometimes, we don’t find ourselves in the wilderness of our own accord. Sometimes, we are driven into that wilderness by the Spirit.
We enter this new place, stripped of the things we thought were important to us to fast and pray. Soon, we begin to encounter the raw nature of temptation, and find that our reliance on God is our only salvation–a fact that remains true whether we are wandering the wilderness or the streets of Loganville. But you see, Luke tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit. Jesus wasn’t simply dropped off in the wilderness like some Divine carpool line in the desert. The Spirit led him and abided with him during his days wandering the wild lands.
After entering the desert, Jesus faces three tests. Now each version of this story suggests a different name for the tester. Matthew introduces him as the tempter (little “t”), and later refers to his as “the devil” (little d). Luke refers to him as “the devil” through out his version of the story. Mark is the only one to give this role a name–Satan.
Whatever the name, we know we are dealing with evil. It’s easy for us to think of evil as being personified as Satan–horns, pitchfork, tail–stroking an evil, pointy goatee. But somehow, I doubt that is what Jesus is facing here. Don’t misunderstand me, Jesus is facing evil. But, I think it might be more productive to think of this evil in terms of that which draws us away from God-which is exactly what the “devil” is attempting to make Jesus do here.
The tests (or temptations) Jesus faces are not inherently bad. According to Luke, the first test is one of basic human need. Jesus has been fasting, which means, like any human, he’s hungry. The devil places a stone in front of him and tells him to turn it to bread–a quick fix for sure. Imagine all the hunger in the world and all the rocks in a desert–bread could abound. This could be it! This could end world hunger! All those images of malnourished children, gone. All those tear stained faces of mothers grieving their lost babies because there was no food–non-existent! But to do this, to turn rocks to bread undermines Jesus’ true mission and message–to trust God in all things. Jesus replies with a simple line “One does not live by bread alone.”
Now, if we look at the passage this line of Scripture came from, we find this words of explanation: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” This temptation isn’t at all what the evil one presented it as. It’s not about food or hunger, it’s about pureness of heart and willingness to rely solely on God.
The second test, one of world domination, offers Jesus power which, again, could be used for good. Jesus could rule the world and bring justice. But to do so would again undermine God’s work in the world as the creator and ruler of all things.
To this test, Jesus responds from another line from scripture: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” By taking this power, Jesus would be honoring the power of the devil and so, serving him, not God. Just before this quotation from Deuteronomy, we are reminded to “take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Soon, we are once more implored not to “follow other gods, any of the gods who are all around you.”
This test is about who and what we worship other than the God who created, redeems and sustains us.
Finally, the devil demands Jesus prove his own goodness as the Son of God, by testing the word of God concerning the righteous. This test begins with the devil saying “If you are the son of God.” Often, we interpret this to mean, “if you are the son of God, you need to prove it!” But the greek can be translated another way. Another reading it is “Since you are the son of God.” Since you are the son of God “throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Christ’s baptism has already answered the question of who Jesus was. There is no “if.” The Spirit has already proclaimed him as the son of God. The question now is what kind of son will he be. This is a trick question! If Jesus tests this scripture (which we heard in the psalm today), then his righteousness is lost–for we are called not to test God, but to trust him.
Jesus responds yet again with scripture from Deuteronomy, saying “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Jesus responds to all three tests by quoting scripture from Deuteronomy, the book which follows the Israelites through their wanderings and sees them finally reach the promised land. The text we heard earlier today reminds us that while the Spirit leads us into the wilderness, it also leads us out of it. And when it does, we are obligated to continue embodying the lessons we learned during our wandering–namely to trust God.
This is our purpose, to trust in God despite the temptation to put our trust in other things. It is easier for us to trust ourselves or our jobs or our army than it is for us to trust God. But our days in the wilderness teach us that no matter how much we want to trust ourselves or our jobs or our armies or our money or our power or our control, we have no hope in any of that. Our only hope is in God. Around every corner, we are tempted by false idols, desperate for our praise and thanksgiving. But friends, hear it again–our only hope is in God.
I’ve always loved the symphony. It amazes me that so many separate people can play totally different parts and have it all come together so beautifully.
One of my favorite parts of the concert is the ritual at its beginning. As the audience is gathering, instrumentalists are getting a few minutes of practice in before the performance begins. Soon, more performers gather, and more audience members find their seats. The concert is about to start, and all the musicians have arrived on stage. But there is one seat empty, a seat to the conductor’s left. This seat is for the concertmaster.
The concertmaster finally appears and is greeted by applause. He acknowledges the audience, then turns toward the orchestra. A hush falls over the audience, and the concertmaster begins to play a lone note. From this one note comes an explosion of sound–every instrument matching that pitch and checking to make sure it is in tune.
This is Lent, my friends, a time to tune our hearts to God. In the words of the beloved hymn: “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” We spend these 40 days in the wilderness, brought here by the Spirit and the church to tune our hearts to the grace of God. We acknowledge our shortcomings, repent of our sins, renounce the work of evil in this world, and tune ourselves to trust in God.
As Jesus walked, so we walk in the clutch of temptation and the light of grace, hopeful that we can resist the test of evil, and confident that God’s salvation can overcome it.
And so, let’s walk with one another through these days of penitence. Let’s walk with one another to the cross. And indeed, let’s walk with one another to the empty tomb.
And when we finally come out of the wilderness, we will continue to praise God and we will continue the celebrations of the Israelites for all that God has given us!
So, perhaps for this Lent, we give up trying to trust ourselves alone. Perhaps we give up trying to place our value in bank accounts or cars or trips. Maybe this Lent we allow ourselves to be led into the wilderness that we might once again tune our hearts to sing of the love that will lead us home again.