Wilderness Companions

Sunday, March 10, 2019
First Sunday in Lent Year C

Focus Theme:
Wilderness Companions

Focus 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?

by Kate Matthews

Lent, again. At the beginning of a new church season, we take stock of where we are in our biblical reflections. The lectionary, it seems, has provided a challenging path for us through the long season of Epiphany.

We’ve been led from the baptism of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel (no wilderness or testing time there, but a festive wedding where Jesus turns water into wine); back to Luke’s Gospel for Jesus’ inaugural address in his hometown synagogue, followed by the locals’ unpleasant reaction to his words; to the calling of the first disciples; and finally, to the Transfiguration, which occurs all the way “forward,” in chapter nine of Luke’s Gospel.

The season of light draws to an end

In all these readings, God shows Godself in the world: it’s no wonder then that Epiphany is the season of light. We’ve also been coming to understand who Jesus is during this Epiphany season, as the stage is set for his ministry.

The same thing could be said of Luke’s Gospel so far: Luke has been preparing us for what Jesus is going to do, and what he is going to teach, by making sure we have a clear sense of who he is.

We’re not in Epiphany anymore

Lent feels like a very different kind of season from Epiphany, one that begins on a somber note, in the desolate wilderness, with a story that reminds us of traditional Lenten practices like fasting, giving things up, and spending time deep in prayer.

The story 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 are supposed to do, or intend to do, that we lose track of what God is doing out there, in the wilderness.

Jesus’ way of ministry

Yes, this is one more opportunity for us 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 beloved 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 for his ministry and mission 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.

In training for ministry

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.”

What holy people do

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.)

Rachel Held Evans notes that the number “forty symbolizes a prolonged period of hardship, waiting, and wandering – a liminal space between the start of something and its fruition that often brings God’s people into the wilderness, into the wild unknown” (I recommend her book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again).

A difficult struggle

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. Scholars are in remarkable agreement in their interpretation of this passage about Jesus 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 (instead of the hated Romans) ruled the world, and how impressive would it be if Jesus flung himself off the temple roof and a thousand angels came to rescue him? (We can almost hear the tempting voice say, “That would be awesome!”)

Jesus didn’t do PR

If Jerusalem had 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.”

Indeed, how many times in his ministry would Jesus have to wonder if the crowds gathered because they wanted to see wonders rather than to hear the good news? (And wouldn’t we have done the same thing?)

Who is “the devil”?

Moderns and post-moderns alike will probably wonder about “the devil” Jesus encounters in the wilderness. Scholars describe him, of course, 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 instead a seductive voice offering very “good” things to Jesus, an attractive strategic plan for his ministry.

Where does the struggle come from?

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, who, we remember, was fully human as well as fully divine.

The Bible can be mis-used

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 consider naming for our Lenten reflection the 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 during his forty days remind us of the tests faced by Israel during their forty years 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 always go so well in that earlier test faced by Israel, and Jesus himself will be tested again throughout his ministry.

What really matters?

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 they’re a smokescreen, and sometimes they’re a thick, thick wall reinforced by our possessions, our place, our prestige–our security.

In a way (perhaps small, compared to forty days alone in the wilderness and a test by the devil himself), our ongoing economic troubles, especially income inequality, have provided 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, say, 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.

Sacrifice and spiritual growth

Speaking of giving up chocolate: we may actually find the very concept of Lent outdated and maybe even irrelevant or too “church-y.” (Is Lent “religious,” rather than “spiritual”?) We can get into the Christmas season much better 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.

A spiritual fitness program

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 (as in less burdened), more hopeful, more filled with joy, even here in Lent.

If, for example, we’re carrying a grudge, our load will be lighter 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 set our minds to other things: giving an extraordinarily generous gift to another, or seeing things from another’s perspective (which really takes willpower, and is a great spiritual practice).

Seeing more than one side

A particularly challenging Lenten practice this year might be to strive, through generosity of spirit, to see “the other side” in our political debate during this painfully polarized and endless election season, to find value in the views of those who disagree with us and even more, to respect them and grant them the benefit of the doubt before wondering about their intentions and vision.

And speaking of generous gifts and spiritual practices, 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?

Who is Jesus, really?

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.

Spiritually hungry

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, however, is not just “hungry” but “famished”: “Famished: you can feel it in the cave behind your ribs, in the midriff’s empty drum,” Gordon writes; Jesus was in a state of “depletion, an almost dangerous, desperate state.”

Hunger and vulnerability

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,” Gordon writes, the temptation to “try authority on for size, and on top of it, glory….Authority. Glory. What are they but the signs that the world recognizes our worth?”

This happens to all of us in one way or another. What really “proves” our value, our effectiveness, our belovedness?

Raising the bar of “faith”

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, the conflicts that ought to trouble our souls.

Filling the empty places

Her history is helpful, but then she challenges us to approach Lent as a time for “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, including 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.

God in the wilderness with us

Speaking of wilderness, perhaps the most moving words that also tie all this together with our theme, “Wilderness Companions,” come from John Stendahl, who evokes 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 now, filled with the Spirit, on the journey of Lent, toward the cross, and remembering always the empty tomb beyond.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Mary Oliver, Upstream, 21st century
“‘Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view,’ [Emerson] says, and suddenly that elite mystical practice seems clearer than ever before, and possible to each of us.”

N.T. Wright, 21st century
“Christian holiness consists not of trying as hard as we can to be good but of learning to live in the new world created by Easter, the new world we publicly entered in our baptism. There are many parts of the world we can’t do anything about except pray. But there is one part of the world, one part of physical reality, that we can do something about, and that is the creature each of us call ‘myself.'”

Dorothy Soelle, 20th century
“All true theology begins in pain.”

Edward Abbey, 20th century
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”

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

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 20th century
“Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out…”

Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
“The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin, but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest goods.”

Fulton J. Sheen, 20th century
“Why is it that any time we speak of temptation we always speak of temptation as something that inclines us to wrong. We have more temptations to become good than we do to become bad.”

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.”

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

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.”

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