Wilderness Companions

Sunday, February 17
First Sunday in Lent

Focus Theme
Wilderness Companions

Weekly Prayer
God of deliverance and freedom, you taught the people of Israel to acknowledge that all things come from your bountiful hand. Deepen our faith so that we may resist temptation and, in the midst of trial, proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, now and forever. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,
     ‘Worship the Lord your God,
         and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If 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,’
   ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
       so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

All Readings For This Sunday
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Focus Questions

1. What are “tests” that you have faced in your journey of faith?

2. What are the ways modern Christians “blend in”?

3. What really “proves” our value, our effectiveness, our belovedness?

4. Is there any contradiction between being a Christian and being comfortable?

5. What path will you take in the Lenten season ahead?

Reflection by Kate Huey

Lent, again: a very different kind of season from Epiphany, it begins on a somber note, in the deserted wilderness, with a story that reminds us of traditional Lenten practices like fasting, giving things up, and spending time deep in prayer. The story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness (and fasting all the while) seems to set the right tone for all those resolutions we’ve made for the next six weeks. However, we might be so distracted by what we’re supposed to do, or intend to do, that we lose track of what the story’s really about, and what God is doing out there, in the wilderness. We are provided yet another opportunity to deepen our understanding of who Jesus is, although we were told quite clearly on the first Sunday in Epiphany, by the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, that he is the Son of God. Today’s lesson is more about the way, and the why, Jesus is going to go about his ministry: we might say that the ground rules are set. The Son of God is not here to grab power for himself, or to show off how much he matters to God, or to work magic for the masses. That’s not how it’s going to work.

Luke never lets us forget that the Spirit of God is upon and in and with Jesus, not just at his baptism, and not just in the wilderness (although certainly at both of these times), but throughout the entire Gospel. After Jesus’ baptism, he goes out, led by the Spirit, to a long time of reflection and fasting in the wilderness, as Marcus Borg describes it, “beyond the domestication of reality provided by culture and human interchange.” In preparation for important sporting competitions like the Olympics or the Super Bowl, athletes face trials and tests in preparation for what they are about to do. Richard Swanson says, in an understated sort of way, that Jesus’ test prepares him, too, for what he is about to do, for “he will turn the world right-side-up again. This is a fairly large task.” In a sense, Jesus is following in the footsteps of “other Jewish holy men” like Moses and Elijah and John the Baptist, and the earliest hearers of the Gospel would have remembered them just as the “forty days” he spent there would have suggested to them that it was a long sojourn. (I remember when my dad used to say that he had told us something “four-teen times”; perhaps our ancestors in faith got the message about “forty” just as we knew Dad meant a lot of times.)

What happens next is witnessed by no one except Jesus, but Luke gives us a sense of the struggle that Jesus endures out there in the wilderness, facing an adversary who almost comes across as a “friend” who offers things that sound perfectly reasonable and good at first. After all, why shouldn’t Jesus satisfy his hunger with a little bread, and wouldn’t it be great if Jesus ruled the world (instead of the hated Romans), and how impressive would it be if Jesus flung himself off the temple roof and a thousand angels came to rescue him? If Jerusalem witnessed that one amazing thing, early on in Jesus’ ministry, perhaps there would be no need for the rest of the Gospel, right? Well, maybe not, Sharon Ringe writes: “Public relations stunts also contradict the gospel.”

A seductive voice, a personal struggle

Moderns and post-moderns alike will probably wonder about “the devil” Jesus encounters in the wilderness. Many scholars describe him as the personification of evil, although, as Richard Swanson writes, “Luke did not imagine pitchforks, horns, pointy tails, or the red long-johns that you see in cartoon devils.” No, it might be closer to imagine a seductive voice offering very “good” things to Jesus, an attractive strategic plan for his ministry. More than one writer even suggests that the tests come from deep within Jesus himself, hungry and alone and wondering: N.T. Wright suggests that “the devil’s voice appears as a string of natural ideas in his own head. They are plausible, attractive, and make, as we would say, a lot of sense.” This, Wright says, is a very “personal and intimate” struggle for Jesus; remember, he was fully human as well as fully divine. And the devil not only offers attractive things but backs them up by quoting Scripture, which just shows how easily the Bible can be, and has been, used for entirely wrong purposes. We might explore the possibility of voices in our “domesticated” culture that offer us seductively “good” things that lead us, alas, away from God.

There is more in this story to “ring the bells” of Luke’s audience. The tests Jesus faces remind us of the tests faced by Israel in the wilderness long ago, about trusting God to provide, and worshipping only God, and moving forward into a way of life under the rule of God of justice, mercy, and peace. Things didn’t go so well in that earlier test faced by Israel, and Jesus himself will be tested again throughout his ministry. His disciples, including us today, will have much to learn from that struggle, about priorities and power. We don’t often draw apart from the cacophony around us, or the incessant electronics of our lives, or the overload of messages and material objects, all of which seem to set up a smokescreen between us and God. Sometimes a smokescreen, and sometimes a thick, thick wall reinforced by our possessions, our place, our prestige–our security. In a small way (compared to forty days alone in the wilderness and a test by the devil himself), our recent economic crisis has been an opportunity to re-examine our priorities and reflect on where we place our trust, as well as what holds power in our lives. This Lent, even better than giving up chocolate, we might develop a daily spiritual practice of reflection on God’s provision, God’s abundance, and God’s power in our lives. We might learn to reframe our lives.

What we do, or what God is doing?

Perhaps we find the very concept of Lent outdated and maybe even a little irrelevant, or too “church-y.” (Is Lent “religious” rather than “spiritual”?) We can get into the Christmas season much more easily than we can enter into Lenten reflections and discipline. Isn’t it old-fashioned to “give something up” for Lent? Isn’t it more positive to do good works, and to rest, and to grow spiritually, for example, rather than thinking in negative terms, like sacrifice and giving things up? Yes and no. Certainly, we’re not pursuing salvation through works, but I do wonder if it’s not unlike getting in shape physically, which usually entails letting go of the things that pack on weight just as much as it requires doing positive things that will lead us toward better health, like adding exercise to our daily routine. One way to think of Lent, then, might be as a spiritual fitness program. No single dimension is enough, for what is required is a whole-life effort to be more loving, more trusting, more courageous, more humble, yes, but also lighter, more hopeful, more filled with joy, even here in Lent. If we’re carrying a grudge, our load will be lighter, for example, if we let it go–a very different kind of thing to give up. If we are preoccupied with material things–food, our car, our house, for example, including worry about all three–we could see just how much we can let our minds turn to other things: seeing things from another’s perspective (which really takes willlpower, and is a great spiritual practice), or freely offering an extraordinarily generous gift to another. What if we tithed for the six weeks of Lent? At the end of the Lenten season, would we be able to look back and see God’s hand at work in the world, through our faithful giving? Would we see something of great wonder, even in the quiet wilderness of our own humble efforts?

On the one hand, the story of Jesus being tested by the devil in the wilderness, and passing that test, is about Jesus being the Son of God, and not about setting an example for us. Just in case we had any doubts at this point in the story, Luke makes that perfectly clear. On the other hand, many writers do find in this story a word for us in our own struggle to be faithful and to grow deeper in our trust in our God. I would like to highlight the writing of two women in this regard. Mary Gordon has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, in which she reflects on this story, evoking the hunger Jesus felt, that most human of experiences, and one that involves both body and soul. The word is not just “hungry,” Gordon writes, but “famished”: “Famished: you can feel it in the cave behind your ribs, in the midriff’s empty drum,” she writes; Jesus was in a state of “depletion, an almost dangerous, desperate state.” Hunger could have made Jesus “vulnerable” to the test he faced of putting the devil in his place, with just one word, one call to God. “One of the rare human achievements,” Gordon writes, “is to be so sure of oneself that one resists the temptation to prove one’s own worth to someone else.” Maybe, in your own way, you face the temptation to “prove you are effective, prove you are beloved, try authority on for size, and on top of it, glory.” Indeed, what the devil offers Jesus is something we humans all seem to crave, Gordon observes: “Authority. Glory. What are they but the signs that the world recognizes our worth?”

Filling the empty place that belongs to God alone

No matter how far away that ancient wilderness is, or how far above us Jesus is, Barbara Brown Taylor brings the story home to us in our own spiritual lives. She begins her sermon, “Lenten Discipline,” with a short history of the way Lent developed, after Jesus’ followers had grown a little too comfortable and had lowered their expectations of both God and themselves (we might say that they had “lowered the bar” of the life of faith). Taylor’s description of our ancestors fits us painfully well today, as we too have found ways to accommodate the culture around us, completely (or at least uneasily) at ease with those conflicts between faith and that world that ought to trouble our souls. Her history is helpful, but then she challenges us  to approach Lent as a time for a kind of spring housecleaning for our souls, finding out what the “pacifiers” are that cushion our existence, making us feel safe and comfortable, making us think we can get along without God. (This is true even when these pacifiers are merely distractions from the pain and the struggles of faith.) Taylor then  takes us on a Lenten journey of examination and trust, but it doesn’t sound easy, and she doesn’t give us any free passes, either. And that’s a good thing, I believe. She challenges us to name our particular addictions, the things “we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone”; she exhorts us to avoid them for forty days, and then to be attentive to how preoccupied we are by what we have given up. Yes, “how” we practice our Lenten disciplines matters, even in regard to the spirit in which we fast. But so does the decision to practice a discipline in the first place, and to let God work through that practice to shape our faith into one that endures and grows and thrives, no matter what is going on around us, no matter what happens in our lives, no matter what we encounter out there, in the wilderness.

Speaking of wilderness, perhaps the most moving words (and the best at tying all this together with our theme, Wilderness Companions) come from John Stendahl, who speaks beautifully of the wilderness–not only the wilderness in which Jesus was tested, but every wilderness in which we wander, at one time or another: “For the desert is not God-forsaken nor does it belong to the devil. It is God’s home. The Holy Spirit is there, within us and beside us. And if we cannot feel that spirit inside of us or at our side, perhaps we can at least imagine Jesus there, not too far away, with enough in him to sustain us, enough to make us brave.” And so, let us set out on the journey of Lent, toward the cross, and remembering the empty tomb beyond.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/february-17-2013.html

For further reflection

T.S. Eliot, 20th century
“The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.”

Mother Teresa, 20th century
“I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish [God] didn’t trust me so much.”

Henri Nouwen, 20th century
“Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions….Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, 21st century
“People couldn’t become truly holy, he said, unless they also had the opportunity to be definitely wicked.”

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