St. John's, Centreville
March 10, 2019
Lent 1 C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey."
When I was in seminary, we had to memorize this verse for our Old Testament class. At that time, I wondered, "why this passage?" What was so important about this passage from the Book of Deuteronomy? Because it's a confession of faith as the Israelites recite their people's history. Their ancestors were wandering Arameans who settled in Egypt. They became a mighty nation there, but then they were overpowered and became slaves. God heard their cry of oppression and brought them out of Egypt and settled them in a land flowing with milk and honey. The Israelites remember the faith of those who went before them. God released them from their bondage under the rule of the Egyptians. They had wandered for forty years in the wilderness and now they see their homeland, the place where God has brought them. It was as important for them as it is for us to remember the faith of those who have gone before us, from those who told us the stories of our ancestors to those who risked everything to be sure our faith continued.
During their wandering in the wilderness, which is really a rocky desert, Israel began to understand their call as God's people. Their time in the wilderness was also a place of self-discovery, transformation and revelation, just as it is for us today.
In our gospel lesson, we hear of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Those who have been to the Holy Land will know that the wilderness is really a very rocky, desolate desert, with very little shade or water. There is no place to get out of the hot sun, except for some caves scattered here and there. What is referred to as the wilderness where Jesus was tempted is not a place filled with trees and cool shade, what most of us would think if when we hear the world wilderness.
This desert where Jesus spent forty days and was tempted by Satan was a harsh environment, one not easy to live in. Jesus goes from the "high" of being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and hearing God's voice saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased", to the low of wandering alone in the desert and being tempted by Satan.
Why does Jesus have to be tempted? He is hungry and Satan tempts him to turn stones into bread. He is feeling alone and vulnerable and Satan tempts him with glory and authority. Jesus is feeling abandoned and Satan tempts him with God's power. He is tempted in the ways that we are tempted - fear of not have our physical needs met, fear of being alone or abandoned, fear that God is not with us.
Jesus is tempted in ways that we are tempted and he overcomes them all. Jesus goes into the wilderness to be a part of humanity, to be tempted as we are tempted, to be alone and hungry and afraid as we are at times. We have all spent time in the wilderness - those times when we feel so alone that we think that God has abandoned us, times when we are sick, or unemployed, or anxious, or uncertain which path we should take. Maybe our wilderness is a hospital waiting room, or a cheap hotel after you have lost your home, or in the parking lot when you are heading home after losing your job. Our wilderness can take many shapes and forms, but we all know that desperate, empty feeling.
Jesus not only endures the wilderness but he comes out stronger, ready to do the work that God has given him to so. Oftentimes our wilderness experiences are necessary for our growth in the Christian faith. They can be the times when we connect with God at a deeper level. When we have exhausted all our resources and done everything we can do, when we don't know where else to turn for help, sometimes it is only then that we turn to God. We are exhausted, we are hungry with a need we cannot fill, we can no longer rely on ourselves or our friends - then we are in the wilderness. Emptied of ourselves, we turn to God with a longing for peace and a desire to have the hole in our lives filled with the presence of the living Christ. Without all the noise and clatter and commotion around us, we can hear the still, small voice of God, talking to us, being with us, strengthening us, leading us forward. Our wilderness times are not fun, but they can make us stronger in our faith and closer to God.
It is not easy being in the wilderness. It is uncomfortable, it pulls at our emotions, it is a place of uncertainty. But at times in our lives, it is necessary for our spiritual growth to come face to face with the temptations that want to lead us away from God. It is important for our spiritual maturity to deny the temptations and reaffirm ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. It is important for us to express our dependence on God alone.
We would much rather be on the mountaintop where we feel great and life is good. But we know we cannot stay on the mountaintop. In last Sunday's lessons, both Moses and Jesus had to come down from the mountaintop to be with the people in their everyday lives, because that is where life happens, that is where we need to be to minister to those in need, that is where we can be in the midst of those who are in the wilderness.
It takes courage and faith to willingly go into the wilderness, led by the Spirit. It takes courage and faith to make changes in our lives, even when we know that they are necessary. It takes courage and faith to face the uncertainly of the future. And it takes a lot of prayer by all of us to discern God's will for our lives.
During this 40 day season of Lent, as we commit ourselves to a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal, may we also commit ourselves to prayerfully lay before God ourselves, our loved ones, this church family, to lead us and guide to the fulfilling of God's purpose. Amen.