“Wilderness”

~ A Sermon by Rev. Keenan Kelsey ~

“Jesus’ Forty Days in the Wilderness, and Ours”

Matthew 4:1-11 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written ,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

My Dad was famous for his Vermont stories. One of them has a tourist driving out on a county road. He comes to an unexpected fork in the road, and sees a Vermonter sitting out on his porch. “Say,” he asks, “does it matter which road I take to Burlington?” The answer came:  “Not to me it don’t.”

It may not matter to the old Vermonter on the front porch, but to God, it certainly does matter which road you take. That is the core of today’s lesson.

At the beginning of every Lenten season, we follow Jesus into the wilderness. That’s where the 40 days of Lent comes from: Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus’ 40 days of making life-defining choices, Jesus’ 40 days of deciding what road to take.

Every year we watch as the One whom God has just baptized, the One whom God has called “Beloved,” The One whom God acknowledges as fully divine, now confronts the fully human aspect of his being. This is not arbitrary for Jesus. He doesn’t meander into the wilderness on his own.  He doesn’t schedule a National Geographic expedition, or a marathon to rack up Fitbit steps. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, and at least for Matthew, specifically “to be tempted by the devil.” The Holy Spirit says, “Start here.”

For me, this is a bold reminder that the biblical journey is not really our journey toward God.  It is God’s journey towards us. God doesn’t wait for us to be spiritually or moralistically ready. God does not ask permission to lead us forward or worry about whether we are ready for a life of righteousness. Like the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness, God takes us where we need to go. God commandeers us. So for us, as for Jesus, a journey of discipleship begins in the wilderness. It begins with temptation.

Temptation — the desire to indulge immediate urges for enjoyment, or convenience; urges that threatens long-term goals; the seduction of doing something solely for your own willfulness or gain. A short-cut that undercuts our best instincts temptation, I think it is the nucleus of our human experience.

Does this sound like idle exaggeration? I don’t think so.

When my daughter was about four years old, we were visiting her grandparents in New Jersey.  I took her outside with me while I cut some roses for the house. Holding her hand, I knelt down so that we could look at each other face to face. Slowly and carefully I said, “Megan you can play here in the front yard by the steps. You can ride your new Big Wheel up and down the driveway. You can come into the side yard and help me cut roses. But you can NOT go out into the street. It is very dangerous there. This is a new neighborhood. You cannot play in the street. Do you understand?” And Megan solemnly nodded her head. I let go of her hand and she ran straight to the curb, put one foot in the street, and then turned her head toward me and smiled, as if to say, “Foolish mortal!” Right then and there, I knew something of the way God must have felt in the Garden of Eden.

There is something in our genetic makeup that seems to be drawn to the forbidden, that’s preoccupied with whatever is denied to us, that ignores the tremendous amount of freedom we enjoy and instead focuses on the limitations of our lives and inevitably, almost instinctively, rebels against them. We certainly don’t get that from studying the life of Jesus, do we? Does the devil make us do it, as we so often claim?

I don’t think my rambunctious daughter was responding to the devil, either within or without; but I do think she exhibited that side of each of us that is self-assertive, ego-centric, rebellious, even arrogant.  It’s the human tendency to push limits.    It is also the side of us that gets us in trouble, that takes the easy way out, that trades what we really want for what we want in the moment. When we indulge in immediate reactive behavior, we narrow our vision and our opportunity, we cut ourselves off from community and from God, from authentic joy and from outreach and service.

For me, the human experience is a constant battle of temptations. Just yesterday I was wondering if I could deliver to you a sermon written by someone else! No seriously, Jeannie Tate had sent me an enormously compelling sermon by someone else. If Jeannie were not going to be here today, I might have just given Debie’s sermon, verbatim, as though it were mine. I didn’t, but for the record, I freely acknowledge her influence on today’s message.

Temptation comes daily in the form of food or small white lies or Word with Friends when I have a task I am avoiding. It comes in the form of alcohol or rock solid resentments or judgmental superiority. It targets my fear of failure. It is where I look to my own self-engineered human successes. It is where I Play God. It is in my weakness, my vulnerability, that the Tempter comes to undermine my faith.

I think it was so for Jesus as well. The devil doesn’t come to make Jesus do something “bad.” He comes to make Jesus do what seems entirely reasonable and good — but for all the wrong reasons.  The test is a test of Jesus’s motivations.  A test of his willingness to experience being fully human, even as he is fully God.

Jesus is being tempted to trust the Devil rather than trust God.

Let’s look at the story

After baptism, we find Jesus “famished” after forty days of fasting. Physically, he’s at the end of his strength. Socially, he’s alone and friendless. Spiritually, he is struggling to hang onto his identity as the glow of his baptism recedes into a hazy, pre-wilderness past.

As Matthew tells the story, the devil comes to Jesus in the guise of a brilliant interrogator. “Can you be like God?” is the savvy question he posed to Adam and Eve in the lushness of the first garden. “Can you take hold of a higher wisdom, a keener knowledge, a more divine humanity?”

Now he comes to the exhausted Son of God with a shrewd inversion of those primordial questions: “Can you be fully human?  Can you abdicate power? Exercise restraint? Work in obscurity? Can you bear the vulnerability of what it means to be weak and mortal and human?”

The first temptation targets Jesus’s hunger. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

In the devil’s economy, unmet desire is an aberration, not an integral part of what it means to be human. In inviting Jesus to magically sate his hunger, the devil invites Jesus to deny the reality of the incarnation. To “cheat” his way to satisfaction, instead of waiting, paying attention to his hunger, and leaning into God for lasting fulfillment.

The devil says, never be hungry. The gospel says, sit with our hungers, our wants, our desires — and learn what they have to teach us. What is the hunger beneath the hunger? Can we Desire and still flourish? Can we experience Lack and still live generously, without exploiting the beauty and abundance all around us?  Who and where is God when we are famished for whatever it is we long for?  Friendship, meaning, intimacy, purpose? A home, a savings account, a child, a family?

The second temptation targets human fear, fear of failure, fear of physical hurt. “[God] will command angels concerning you,” the devil promises Jesus. “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

The implication is that if we are beloved of God, then God will keep us safe. Safe from physical and emotional harm, safe from frailty and disease, safe from accidents, safe from death.

It’s such an enticing lie, because it targets our deepest fears about what it means to be human in a broken, dangerous world. We want so much — so much — to believe that we can leverage our belovedness into an impenetrable shield. That we can get God to guarantee us swift and perfect rescues if we just believe hard enough. But no. If the cross teaches us anything, it teaches us that God’s precious children still bleed, still ache, still die. We are loved in our vulnerability. Not out of it.

The third temptation targets Jesus’s ego. After showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” the devil promises him glory and authority. “It will all be yours,” the devil says.   Fame.  Visibility. Recognition. Clout. A kingdom to end all kingdoms, here and now. The implication is that God’s beloved need not labor in obscurity. To be God’s child is to be center stage: visible, applauded, admired, and envied. A God who really loves us will never “abandon” us to a modest life, lived in what the world considers insignificance.

That Christians tend to have an uneasy relationship with power is an understatement. Church history is littered with the ugly fallout of “Christian” ambition, power, fame, and authority gone awry.

So the question for us is whether we can embrace Jesus’s version of significance, a significance borne of humility and surrender. How important is it to us that we’re noticed? Praised? Liked?  Is our belief in God’s love contingent on a definition of success that doesn’t come from God at all? Can our lives as God’s beloved ones thrive in quiet places? Secret places? Humble places?

The uncomfortable truth about authentic Christian power is that it resides in weakness.  Jesus is lifted up — but he’s lifted up on a cross.

Lent is the time to take the time. Three temptations.  Three invitations.  What will we do with them?

 

BENEDICTION CHARGE

“Exploring”  by Wendell Berry

Always in the (wilderness) when you leave familiar ground

And step off alone into a new place,

There will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement,

A little nagging of dread.

It is the ancient fear of the Unknown,

And it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.

What you are doing is exploring.

You are undertaking the first experience,

Not of the place, but of you in that place.

It is an experience of our essential loneliness;

For nobody can discover the world for anybody else.

It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves

That it becomes a common ground and a common bond,

And we cease to be alone.

Lent starts here, in the wilderness of temptation, for each of us

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