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In the wilderness

In the wilderness
March 1, 2020
Passage: Matthew 4:1-11, Romans 5:12-19; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
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Here we are, once again, in the wilderness. Yours, mine, and ours. Every year the Church calendar provides an opportunity to join Jesus in the desert and to reflect, in whatever way suits each of us, on the turning and returning that is our Lenten fast.

I say “Yours, mine, and ours” because I am being led in this season of Lent to prepare, both spiritually and practically, to take on a new challenge in Easter, in a different parish in a different city. In some ways, I am entering familiar territory and in other ways, all is very much unknown. There is much to give up and let go as I prepare to leave all of you, your wonderful irreplaceable selves and your lovely worship which I know will never be the same anywhere else I serve.

Transition is always a wilderness time, and I expect many of you are feeling that about the prospect of an interim period and another new rector search. Some of you are, I know, worried. Long ago someone suggested to me something which I’ve tried to live by and am sure I’ve passed on to some of you: instead of saying to yourself or others “I’m worried,” try saying “I’m curious.” Aren’t you? Aren’t you curious what’s next for St. Paul’s? I know am!

The wilderness is that place where we must rely whole-heartedly upon God. The wilderness is that place—any place—where temptations to rely on that which is not of God are all around us.

The temptations offered to Jesus in this morning’s gospel are temptations offered to us, over and over again, as individuals and as a community. There are things that happen for Jesus in the desert that are important lessons for us, not just about Lent but about our whole Christian lives. This is especially true when we are navigating a time of discernment mand change.

The devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, to throw himself off a tower and live, and to have control over all the kingdoms of the earth. The French writer and teacher Henri Nouwen wrote about these as the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful. Think about it: don’t we all have moments, deep down, when that’s what we want?

The call to spend time in the desert, in the wilderness, is the call to trust God in the unknown. The temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to be relevant, is not unlike the temptation to hold on to what is comforting and familiar. Sometimes that feels like bread, like relevance. I’ve heard a few times in the past few weeks: “You can’t leave! It’s so disruptive! I hope we get someone who knows us as interim!” Pay attention: this might be the temptation to seek after comfort rather than to seek after God.

Henri Nouwen calls the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple “the temptation to be spectacular.” Wouldn’t it be spectacular? To dive off a tall pillar and get scooped up by angels at the last minute? Don’t you want to be, if not spectacular, at least special? This is why I have such mixed feelings about social media—I do see the social value—sometimes—and yet I find myself really vulnerable to wanting that attention. To seek after all those likes, instead of trusting God!

As a community embarking on a time of self-discovery, a time of curiosity about what’s next, it’s probably especially important to look, as a community (maybe even particularly as St. Paul’s), at this temptation to be special and spectacular. It is God who will do a crazy new thing with you and
with me, not any of us. Not my new parish; not your new rector.

The final temptation in this gospel is the temptation to worldly power. This takes so many forms, and we live in a world where we are taught that power is good, and more power is better. Natalie preached about this on Ash Wednesday. Our lust for power, influence, and control may be what we need to fast from.

Satan’s seductive power in the world is everywhere, not just in the desert. In his time in the desert Jesus shows us what it looks like to be exposed to these temptations and to resist. Lent is about paying attention to our ability to resist Satan’s seductive power.

I don’t want to mess up anyone’s plans for Lent, because anything that makes us pay attention to our need for God in our lives is a good thing. But our wilderness time is not about us being tempted by chocolate. It is about being tempted away from our innate goodness, kindness, generosity, humility, and our trust in God‘s abundant provision.

One of the ways we see God’s provision is that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Other versions of this gospel say that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and so are we. The fact that the Spirit is right there with him suggests even more deeply a divine purpose to the time in the wilderness—Jesus’, yours, mine, and ours—a purpose from which we have much to learn, if we let this desert time shape our journey. As we enter, in some ways separately, and in other ways together, this time in the wilderness, may each one of us sense the Spirit’s presence.