Wilderness Wanderings

+ A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (Year A) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on March 1, 2020 +

Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

Audio: LINK

“Panorama of the Judean Wilderness” by Ian Scott (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ian-w-scott/5767799868/). Shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The Judean wilderness is desolate.
It’s hot.
It’s inhospitable.
It’s barren.
It’s beautiful, to be sure, but in a foreboding way.
But the wilderness plays a big role in scripture.
It’s a place of trial.
It’s a place of discernment.
It’s a place where the presence of God can be experienced in profound ways.
It’s in the wilderness that Hagar and her son Ishmael find protection and provisions from God as they travel into the unknown.
It’s in the wilderness that Joseph is saved after his brothers conspired to kill him.
It’s in the wilderness that Moses first heard the voice of God and in the wilderness that the Israelites journeyed from slavery to freedom as God taught them the law.
It’s in the wilderness that Elijah heard the still small voice and is commissioned again as God’s prophet.
And now, immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus also journeys into the wilderness.

In those waters, the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and Jesus heard that voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And then the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness where he fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights.
And at the end of his fast, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil.

Now, I have to admit, I’m not always sure what to do with the devil.
The devil doesn’t show up very often in the Bible and in those instances we do hear of him, I am often left a little puzzled.
We have this idea of what the devil looks like, don’t we?
A red demon with horns and a pitchfork, maybe.
Perhaps cloven hooves or a forked tongue.
But those descriptions are not biblical, they’re cultural.
We’ve created this idea of a great force of evil that stands in opposition to God, who prepares a hell for those who are bad, who exists to torment humanity.
I just don’t know how to deal with that, I guess.
I’m not sure I can believe in a personification of evil that battles God by bringing evil into the world—at least not in the same way I believe and trust in God.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that there’s evil in the world, I know that there is torment and suffering, but to blame it on some malevolent being seems…too simplistic.

Jesus is tempted - Matthew 4:1-11
JESUS MAFA. Jesus is tempted – Matthew 4:1-11, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48312

So rather than rely on our cultural understandings of the devil, listen to how the gospel describes this temptation Jesus experienced:
We hear about the devil—the slanderer, the Greek says.
We hear about the tempter.
We hear about Satan—the accuser or the adversary.
We hear about the temptations that seep into Jesus’ mind when he’s at his weakest—when he’s famished and exhausted and feeling utterly alone.
The temptations that seek to sow seeds of doubt in the very human mind of Jesus.
Just a few verses before, Jesus’ identity is affirmed in the clearest way possible.
God literally announces it to him and to us.
And yet, here stands the accuser who calls that identity into question.
“If you are the Son of God,” he whispers, why are you so hungry?
If you are the Son of God, why are you so weak?
If you are the Son of God, why don’t you already rule the world?
Here stands the devil, trying his hardest to drive a wedge between Jesus and God.

adam-and-eve-apple-painting-6It’s an old trick of this tempter, isn’t it?
According to our scriptures, it’s nearly as old as humanity itself.
We hear today about the story of our ancestors, Adam and Eve, who hear the same sinister voice.
These first two humans who had been formed by God, who were created in God’s image, who regularly talked with God and were commissioned by God to till and keep that garden, they too encounter the voice of the tempter in the form of a snake who tries to separate them from God.
Who whispers in their ears, “Did God really say that?” fomenting distrust between the humans and their creator.
Who incites them to rebel against God so they can be like God.

Now that’s a devil I can understand.
That’s a devil I have experienced in my life.
Not a demonic angel bringing torment into my life, but that insidious voice that tries to separate me from God.
That creeping doubt that tries to get me to question my God-given identity.
That is a temptation I’ve known all too well.
That is a wilderness I have known all too well.
And while we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation every year on the first Sunday in Lent, this is a temptation that is far deeper than the temptation to sneak a cheeseburger or secretly log on to Facebook or whatever Lenten discipline we may or may not have taken on.
This is something deeper, something more sinister, something that is craftily trying to separate me from my loving creator.

“Follow me, Satan (Temptation of Jesus Christ)” by Ilya Repin. https://www.wikiart.org/en/ilya-repin/follow-me-satan-temptation-of-jesus-christ-1903

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this—I imagine that most of us have had these wilderness wanderings in our lives.
Maybe it’s the voices in our heads or from some pulpits that tell us that our sexuality is incompatible with God’s love.
Maybe it’s the false promise that the escape from our problems is at the bottom of that bottle.
Maybe it’s the shame or insecurities or loneliness that isolate us from our friends and families.
Maybe it’s the ever-present lie that we are not enough, that we’re not good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, thin enough to be loved.

And these doubts are capitalized on all the time.
Like the illusion that we all have equal access to some dream of riches and if we work hard enough we can be self-sufficient.
Or the fearmongering about viruses and markets and foreigners that purportedly threaten our way of live.
Or the constant bombardment of advertising that tries to tell us that if we buy the newest product or the right brand or whatever it may be, we will finally be happy and fulfilled.

But the truth is, my friends, these are lies.
These are the demonic voices that have constantly pursued humanity from our first parents to Jesus to today.
These are truly evil attempts to undermine our identities, to separate us from our God and our neighbors.
To trick us into thinking we are by ourselves, left to our own devices, abandoned by anyone who cares for us.

But as relentlessly as these devilish voices pursue us, we can trust that God is pursuing us even more.
And the truth is, no matter the lies we are told, God has never left us in the first place.
Just as God protected Hagar and Ishmael, just as God watched over Joseph, just as God spoke to Moses and guided the Israelites and called Elijah, just as the Spirit was with Jesus, God is here, God is with us always whether we are in the wilderness or not.
Jesus demonstrates how to overcome the lies when our first parents couldn’t.
Jesus shows us how to resist that accuser: to trust and rely fully on God.
To abide in our God-given identity.
To cling to our Creator and source of life.
And as we heard today, as soon as Jesus rejected the lies the devil tempted him with, he experienced the angels all around him; he experienced the connection he had with God.
In the same way, when we look beyond the devil’s lies, when we move past the crafty attempts to isolate us from God and our neighbors, we can experience the beauty of community and communion with God.
While we may not see literal angels, but we may see the helpers in our lives, the family that loves us, the friends in communities like this one who sign up to bring meals and give rides and do whatever they can to support you.
When we allow ourselves to see how loved and connected we are we can experience God.
A God who is pursuing us in love.
A God who is connecting us with Godself and each other.
A God who has personally experienced wilderness wanderings and temptation and doubts and knows the way forward.
A God who stands with us even when we feel alone.

When we started our Lenten pilgrimage together on Wednesday evening, I mentioned how this is a season of preparation for baptism and baptismal renewal.
That’s why our font has moved from the back of the sanctuary to the front for this season.
And even though the sanctuary decorations are a little sparser during Lent, the waters of the font will never run dry.
Especially in this season, we are invited to root our identities in this font, my friends, and remember the promises that are made to us there.
We are invited to wash in the waters each day, to draw deeply from their depths, to cling to the proclamation that we are God’s beloved children.
We are invited to renew and remember our commitment that we made in baptism to renounce the devil and all his empty promises so we can more fully rely on God, the source of our life and all love.

“The Temptation in the Wilderness” by Briton Rivière

Now perhaps in these 40 days of Lenten wilderness wanderings, we have found ourselves in our own wilderness being tempted by the devil.
Perhaps our wilderness doesn’t neatly conform to a liturgical calendar.
No matter when it happens, I know that we have and are and will continue to confront the accuser in any multitude of wildernesses in our lives.
But the truth is that the devil can never win against God.
No matter how hard he may try, no matter the lies he may whisper, no matter the temptations he may taunt us with, God’s love will always triumph.
Because the devil can never rob us of our God-given identity, the one that was proclaimed and sealed in those waters, the waters that have irrevocably connected us with our God with bonds that can never be broken.

Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, 1860

So maybe we can hear a message today that tells us that we do not need to fear the wilderness times because we know we never go there alone.
Maybe we are in fact called to follow Jesus, follow where the Spirit leads us, into the places that are wild, that are unknown to us as we learn more about ourselves and the God who has lead us there.
In fact, perhaps today’s gospel reminds us that the wilderness is a part of the baptismal life, perhaps even a consequence of our baptisms as we boldly fulfill the commitment we make in those waters.

So as we go to those wild places that need a dose of good news, we go led by the Spirit.
As we go to the barren places, we can walk confidently following in the footsteps of Jesus.
As we experience the lies of the tempter in our lives, we can stand firm in our identity as we stare evil in the face and defiantly proclaim the love of the God who has never left us and ever holds us as God’s beloved child.

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