At the Beginning, Wilderness

a sermon for the First Sunday in Lent [Year C]

Luke 4:1-13

One of the stories that gets told in our household from time to time is of the difficulties we had weaning our middle child off her pacifier. She did not want to give that thing up and would refuse to sleep without it.  You could put it in her mouth even when she old enough to talk on her own and it would almost make her eyes roll back in her head. When the time came for us to start removing it, maybe when she was around 2 or so, we calmly explained that big kids didn’t need pacifiers anymore. We braced ourselves for a few nights of bad sleep and fussy behavior.

One of those first days Melinda went out to run errands and stayed home to put the girls to bed. When Melinda came back, I told her that Laura had been really fussy and restless and I had needed to go in a few times and get her back in bed. Then, I said, suddenly she just stopped crying. Melinda said, “I bet she has a pacifier.” We went up into her room, and sure enough, she was sleeping with a pacifier in her mouth and one in her hand. How had she gotten them? We had hidden them behind Melinda’s jewelry box on the top of our dresser. Maybe Laura had found some other ones? We went into our bedroom, and there in front of our dresser was an overturned laundry basket. Items on the top of the dresser were scooted about, including the jewelry box.

Little Laura was a sneaky one. And while we were kind of proud of her determination and resourcefulness, but we also came to understand that by taking her pacifier away we had turned her comfortable bed into a wilderness. Right at the beginning of her life she had had been suffering and wrestling with temptation.

The first thing Jesus does after he is announced as God’s beloved Son on the world stage is to suffer and wrestle with temptation. The Spirit of God leads him there. I can think of a lot of other things I would choose a Savior to do first other than go off into the wilderness and experience temptation. Enjoy the attention from adoring crowds, perhaps. Choose a group of followers. Go to DisneyWorld? But we instead we hear that the Spirit leads Jesus off to struggle with demons first, and do that in, of all places, the wilderness.

The wilderness is not always a terrible place. Lots of people in Scripture found themselves in the wilderness at some point and it turns out to be a place of new discovery and new beginnings. The people of God, when they were released from slavery in Egypt, spent forty years in the wilderness and although they had many rough times there, ultimately it made them into a better people. At the time of John the Baptist, people seeking religious experiences and purity would often go live for long periods of time in the wilderness.

And, not to make light of those experiences, people still like to go camping and backpacking in our day, leaving behind the humdrum of urban or suburban life to spend time in the woods in a tent or camper. Statistics on the camping industry, in fact, indicate that 10.1 million households in America camped for the first time in the summer of 2020, the first summer of the pandemic. Our congregation, in fact, has reserved campsites at Sherando Lake State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains this June in order to spend some community building time in a wilderness setting and I guarantee you people will have a blast. And so often people find the wilderness to be a place of growth and refreshment.

Growth, yes, but refreshment doesn’t appear to be the case for Jesus who goes there and ends up confronting the devil  and struggling with some very tricky questions. This may seem to us like a very strange way for the beloved Son of God to start his ministry, but it ends up being very helpful for us. That’s because we often fall into a trap that tells us being a faithful follower of God will lead to a life of ease and blessing. It’s a trap that tries to convince us things like…if we come to church enough then things in our life will start to fall in line, or that if we do enough good deeds then somehow God will reward us and our troubles will go away or that if we believe the right things God will notice and give us favor. What this essentially is, though, is a kind of faith that is built on how strong we are before God, or how pure we can prove ourselves to be, and right at the start Jesus blows a hole right through that way of thinking.

By going into the wilderness and willingly facing the devil, feeling hungry, enduring temptation, he shows us God’s willingness to live a human life. For if the very beloved Son of God is going to struggle in faith, if God’s anointed Messiah and Savior is going to have a rough go right from the start, then can’t we expect that we will too, somewhere along the way? Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us that feeling temptation, undergoing trials and hardships, struggling and suffering aren’t signs of a lack of faith or a sign that God isn’t with us. Trials are going to be, in fact, a natural part of a life with God.

Jesus walks, as we do, in a world broken by sin and suffering. Faith, therefore, is not about figuring out a way out of hard times. It is about trusting that Jesus will get us through, even when we fail even when the times of struggle overwhelm us. We see photos of Ukrainian Christians still continuing to gather for Ash Wednesday worship services this week in bomb shelters and among the rubble of war and it helps us put this in perspective. Their suffering seems to be driving them closer to God’s care.

Ukrainians gather for prayer in a Kyiv church basement Feb. 26, 2022, as the Russian invasion of their country endures. (CNS photo/courtesy Polish Bishops’ Conference)

The devil, who is the entity in the wilderness who comes to tempt Jesus, is a mysterious figure in and of himself. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all share this story about Jesus, but they all have different names for Jesus’ competitor. Mark calls him Satan. Matthew calls him the devil but at one point substitutes it with the word “tempter.” Luke uses the word devil, or diabolos in Greek, which literally means “slanderer,” someone who deliberately tells lies. Another trap of faith is to give this being too much attention. An embodied evil being doesn’t appear anywhere else in the gospels, even when Jesus is struggling with fear and trial on the night of his arrest and betrayal.

Whether this thing or this presence is called a devil or Satan or something else the point is the same: it is an attempt for people of faith to describe the force in the world and inside us that works against the good, who wants to spread lies about whose we are and what God is like. And whether or not we find it easy to believe in the existence of an actual, physical devil, I think most of us encounter or at least observe some opposition to love and peace every day. And we really can’t overcome that opposition on our own. Martin Luther says, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected.” But this brokenness is what Jesus comes to face head-on right from the start.

Put together, these three specific temptations that Jesus endures encompass all the things that would chip away at our trust in God alone. Turning stones into bread, or turning stones into pacifiers, would take away Jesus’ pain from hunger. This is about physical, bodily needs. But one does not live by bread alone because in the end God is our one true desire. God does not want anyone to be hungry, but on the other hand when we make life only about bread and not about the soul we end up having a distorted relationship with things that nourish our bodies and others’.

The second temptation, when the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, is about putting trust in power and fame, two other things that look terribly attractive to us. Again, in the wilderness, Jesus proves where his trust really lies. His response this time, also taken from the Jewish Scriptures, reminds us that we can all too often be drawn to worship and show devotion to our own status and institutions.

The third temptation might be the most difficult to withstand. The devil asks him to throw himself from the temple wall. It shouldn’t be a big deal because God will surely swoop down and save him from dying. But that is not about trusting God. It often looks like trusting God. It looks like we’re saying, “See, I can push the envelope a little bit here because God will keep me safe.” But really it is manipulation of God. In reality it is testing God to see if God will be there like some kind of divine bungy cord.

Jesus knows that kind of relationship is not a quality relationship with God. When we truly love people we don’t try things just to see how far we can push it because we think they will love us anyway. We give ourselves to them in obedience and faith. This is what Jesus models in the presence of the devil. Jesus trusts his Father and loves his Father, and so he wants to be true to that relationship. He doesn’t throw himself off the temple wall to see how far he can push it.

He also doesn’t tear himself down from the cross. When the devil leaves at the end of these temptations, Luke says he departs until “an opportune time.” The cross in the opportune time to get Jesus to turn away from his love for us, if you know what I mean. It is the supreme temptation, the ultimate time of trial, but Jesus has already proven that he is unwavering in his mission to save. He will not think of his bodily needs first. He will not think of his fame or his reputation or power first. He will not use God’s get out of jail card free. He comes to release us from all of these trials and claim us for God.

Several years ago we noticed that there were cars often parked in our parking lot at strange hours of the day. Sometimes it was right after worship was over on Sunday. Then we noticed there were people sitting in those cars. After we approached some of these people we learned from them that Epiphany is a gym in the online game known as Pokemon Go! A gym in Pokemon Go! is a place where players can battle the players of rival teams. Players from an opposing gym will go against each other in order to gain control of it. So there was this whole warfare going on out there in our parking lot in the cybersphere unbeknownst to us, a fight for control and domination.

Well and good.  And here, inside, each week, at the table, in his word, Christ reminds us he has dominated the forces of darkness and temptation and has already claimed us for his kingdom.  In fact, each and every day that we remember our baptism, and call to mind his cross Jesus is there, reminding us he did not back down or give in. For us, he did not back down and he won. And this Conqueror goes with us—Jesus Go!—now and forevermore!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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