May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Here we are again. As we live out our liturgical seasons we have come ‘round again to Lent, our holy time of penitence. As you look around, you see clues that things are different right now—our liturgical color is now purple, the color of penitence, we have no flowers at the altar, and we have put our alleluias aside for the season. It is a time of austerity, a time to make amends, a time to reflect on our growth and development as Christians, a time to eschew those things which keep us from being fully who God intends for us to be.
As we enter into this penitential season, I find myself reflecting on an experience I had years ago years ago that I occasionally think of, and when I do think of it, it has always been with the sense of helplessness and frustration; one of those times when I felt like I was supposed to do something, but I couldn’t even figure out how to do whatever might be the thing to do. So I watched from afar and went on my way leaving something undone. Let me tell you about it.
I spent the summer of 1969 in Israel, working for a couple months in the northern Galilee on kibbutz Chulata, then spending several weeks in Jerusalem. During the time that I was there, perhaps some of you will remember, Bishop Pike, who had been the controversial Episcopal bishop of California, was in Israel to do research on a book he was preparing to write on the desert experience. He was there with his third wife, a woman named Diane Kennedy Pike. Well, small world that it is, Diane was the oldest child of a family that lived in my neighborhood as I grew up. The family was literally our local Kennedy family—the family had lots of kids (really only five, but that was a big family in our neck of the woods.) They all had good looks, athleticism, and on top of it they were really smart and every one of them was a good, kind kid, well-respected by peers. One was fortunate to receive an invitation to birthday parties at the Kennedy’s, or share the table with them at school picnics. They were a lively and fun group. Jimmy Kennedy was the one who was my age, and we went through school together from kindergarten through high school graduation. Diane, who later became Bishop Pike’s wife, became a teacher at our high school. The youngest boy Scott ended up going to the same small college I went to, so my life continued to have an on-going, if very loosely tethered connection with our local Kennedys.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found myself in Jerusalem at the moment in 1969 when Bishop Pike and his wife Diane Kennedy Pike came to experience the Judean wilderness first-hand in preparation for a book they were writing. Some of you may recall this event. The couple got lost in the wilderness, and as they tried to right themselves their car became stuck in the dry, sandy soil. Diane left her husband, who did not feel strong enough to set out with her, and went to find help. She made a heroic walk out of the Judean wilderness, up and down wadis, canyons with impossibly sheer ravines and pinnacles. After climbing, walking, struggling, she stumbled out if the wilderness and found help. When the astonished Arab asked where she had come from, she motioned to the hills, and the astonished man said, “That’s impossible.” An intensive search was initiated, and my college friend Scott Kennedy flew in to help. During this time I was in Jerusalem, reading about these events in all the English language newspapers I could find, dumbfounded by the drama was unfolding before me. I kept thinking that I should do something, but I really didn’t know how to go about it or what I might do, so I sat by feeling helpless. Eventually Bishop Pike’s body was found. We all left Israel and carried on. As I have found in my life with Christ, time has worked it’s alchemy and here I am, writing a sermon about Jesus in the Judean desert. This is what I am supposed to do.
And so it is with that personal experience that I assure you that the Judean wilderness the Spirit led Jesus into is no joke. Even in the modern age it is a place of extremes in temperature and dangerous terrain; a place of disorientation, deprivation, a place where life and death are on the line. Those of us who are modern American Christians may underestimate the starkness, the harshness of Biblical wilderness, as the Pike’s did. Historically we Americans first conquered wilderness areas, and now we seek to preserve them. Although wilderness is acknowledged to be potentially dangerous, in our culture we are generally confident in our ability to foresee and consequently forestall the difficulties we may encounter when we enter into a desolate place. Nowadays our technological prowess gives us equipment and clothes that protect us from the many of the physical demands of wilderness. We value the wilderness as a place of refreshment and renewal, a place that allows us to retreat from the exponentially growing complexity of daily life. In our modern culture, wilderness experiences are among those experiences most valued as “spiritual, not religious.”
We here at Trinity join together to walk into the wilderness of Lent, our forty days of penitence, a religious practice with great spiritual potential. As we echo Christ’s time in the wilderness, which echoes the Israelites forty years in the wilderness, today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings can guide us on our journey. This time in the wilderness, our forty days of penitence, of fasting, of self-reflection, prepares us so that we may arrive at the end of our journey, ready to join in the life of the Risen Christ.
Our reading from Deuteronomy takes us into the wilderness with Moses and the Israelites as the nation that has wandered in the Sinai desert for forty years is about to enter into the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. The hapless group that has escaped slavery in Egypt only to complain and worship false gods has been formed into God’s people after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The once fractious nation has is transformed into a group ready be God’s people, to enter into the Promised Land and carry out the work God gives them to do. God has fed them with manna, quenched their thirst with water from the rock; God has provided for their every need, slowly transforming the Israelites into a nation of people who have learned to trust, rely, and to obey God’s will for them. Our forty days of lent invite us each into the wilderness, to wander with all who would be God’s people, so that we might more fully live as God would have us, to declare as today’s Psalmist does,
“You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
Jesus’ foray into the harsh Judean desert is led by the Spirit, the Spirit that has just descended upon Christ Jesus at his baptism. While in the wilderness he is tempted three times by the devil. I think that we Episcopalians, who tend to shy away from Satan and the devil, need to sit up and take note that today’s collect and Gospel do not beat around the bush with these words. Satan is crafty, finding fertile ground in our own egos. The devil even quotes scripture—he uses words from today’s Psalm to tempt Jesus, and addresses Jesus as God’s son. He tempts us to trust ourselves or the ways of the world rather than trust in God. We who would be God’s people need to take heed. American author Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the Little House books, says it this way; “We had no choice. Sadness was a dangerous as panthers and bears. The wilderness needs your whole attention.” Lenten journeys, wilderness journeys are not to be underestimated or taken lightly. They require our full attention.
The temptations Jesus experiences in the wilderness guide us in our Lenten journeys. If we are to be people of faith who follow God’s will for us, our Lenten journeys will stretch us, bend us, tempt us, led us where we’ve never been and strengthen our understanding of God’s call to us. Christ’s first temptation, to change stones into bread, is, in the words of Alec Gilmore, “an invitation to use his authority as the Son of God to meet his personal needs and desires. While this was no doubt a temptation for Jesus throughout his ministry, it is especially during his crucifixion that this would come to the fore again, as he is tempted by the onlookers to save himself from the cross. Jesus’ ministry is always focused on others, never on himself.” If we look to Jesus for guidance in our own wilderness journeys, we must understand that Christ’s leadership is not of our very material world. How tempting it is to look for quick fixes, temporary relief from our own wilderness experiences, responses that get us through but do not bring us closer to God. Addictions, compulsions, distractions of one sort or another can soothe us temporarily, but serving others is what makes us whole and satisfies our souls. Although Christ Jesus might attract many followers solely by satisfying physical needs and bettering material conditions, that is not the nature of his ministry. Just think how many followers Jesus might have here in our culture today if he gave people all the material things advertising has convinced us that we need. If you watch any television at all you know that there are a great many people in our world who would do just about anything for money. We Christians do not live by bread alone.
Satan also tempts Jesus with worldly political power. The Jewish nation was looking for a messiah who would lead them to military victory over the Roman occupiers, who would restore their once mighty nation. But again, this is not the nature of the ministry Jesus will embark upon when he leaves the Judean wilderness. This particular expectation seems again and again to blind contemporaries of Jesus to the nature of his kingship. They are stuck in the temporal order things, blinded to Christ’s true nature.
There is something about the devil’s third temptation that seems particularly relevant to the current age. It’s like advice from an agent in today’s world. “Let’s see. You want to make it big, you want your name out there, everywhere. You gotta do something dramatic to get the publicity you want. I got it. Jump off the temple, and at the last moment, just before you hit the ground, since you are God’s son, God will scoop you up and save you. People will eat it up, you’ll be the trending topic, and boy, people will be putty in your hands. They’ll see the power you have and listen to what you have to say.’ Or perhaps it’s the sad inner dialogue of those who seek public recognition through outrageous acts, “Now they’ll pay attention.” However one sees it, Jesus does not tempt God, does not use his power to save himself, thus foreshadowing his obedience to God’s will unto death upon the cross. Jesus did not come among us in order to impress us with daring deeds of power, but to be one of us, helping us trust in the the true power of God, love.
Lent is more than overcoming bad habits or making new resolutions. Lent is a time to put ourselves to the fire, a time to burn off the dross, so that we may be formed into who God wants us to be, to see more clearly the work he has before us both personally and communally. It is a religious discipline that facilitates spiritual growth so that we, like the Israelites entering the Promised Land, are molded as God’s people. We have all had our own forays into the wilderness, times when we are lost, in need, unsure, faltering. I’m sure most of us have wandered into the wilderness when it isn’t Lent, when we didn’t intend to tackle tough terrain, but find ourselves in deep valleys with steep mountains to climb. Our Lenten journeys prepare us for our personal times of wilderness, times when we, like the Israelites, learn to truly be God’s people, to put our trust in God, to rely on God, not ourselves. Paul’s letter to the Romans assures us that “Everyone who calls on the Lord shall be saved.”
And what does God ask in return for sustaining us, nurturing us, saving us, loving us as his people in our walk through the wilderness? As Moses instructs the Israelites in preparation to entering into the Promised Land, we are to worship our God, to give him our first fruits, the best we have, in thanksgiving. As we discern and follow God’s will for us, may our Lenten journeys prod us, poke us, form us, ultimately preparing us to offer our first fruits, the best of ourselves, to our loving and gracious God.