Message by Rev Jenny Carter
March 10, 2019
(Based on Luke 4:1-13)
So here we are, first Sunday in Lent – and we’re back in the wilderness. When we encounter a bible story that takes place in the wilderness, the writer is reminding us that faith is more than quoting scripture and attending worship. You see, in the bible, the wilderness is a place where all the niceties of society and social convention have been stripped away, so that the way of faith might be made clear.
The wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. Not just in this story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, but in all instances where God’s people are found wandering through a wild place. Moses and his people wandered forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days. The forty is significant. According to Jewish numerology the number 40 denotes a time of completion. That sometimes, when it comes to matters of faith, it takes time to do the spiritual and community building work.
So here we are with Jesus, in the wilderness, and we are contemplating the forty days of Lent that now stretch out in front of us. Some things take time, and Lent gives us the time to think. We are in this wild place, this waiting place, and this place of preparation. So just like it connected for Jesus, it connects us now to a very basic spirituality. This wilderness place and time is a place in time where we grapple with God. A place where we learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, a place where wild things live, and where there is nothing but a bunch of sand. Out in this barren place there is just God and us. There is no better place to grapple with our faith than in this barren place.
Poised as we are at the start of our forty days, we have the story of how Jesus spent his forty days in the wilderness. He spent time in prayer and in deep thought. He fasted. Having been led by the Spirit out into the wilderness right after his baptism (where a heavenly voice proclaimed his son-ship), he needed time to figure this whole thing out. The noise and busyness of everyday life – the customs and conventions of his day – too much of a distraction. Jesus needed to set those things aside, so he could figure out who he was, who God was, and what direction his life should take from that moment on.
It is also in the wilderness that Jesus faces real temptation. It is important to note that the temptations didn’t come at the beginning of his forty days, but at the end of them. At this point, after forty days of fasting and praying and thinking, Jesus is tired. He would have been physically depleted. He is vulnerable, as all tired and depleted people are. This is where he is tempted. Amid his vulnerability, he is tempted to leave all of what he has just spent the last forty days figuring out. He is tempted to forget who he is, so that he might walk an easier path through this world.
We are pretty familiar with the three temptations. Jesus is being tempted to use his God given abilities to meet his own needs – in this case turning stones to bread in order to appease his hunger. Then the tempter takes him to a high place like a mountain top, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world – and says if Jesus will worship the tempter – if he will use his God given power in the pursuit of worldly power and riches, the world can be his to own and to control. The final temptation, comes in the form of placing Jesus on top of the highest point on the Temple in Jerusalem and inviting him to throw himself off, trusting that God will save him because he is the son – the special and the called – son.
We know that Jesus did not give in to any of those temptations. He didn’t give in to the temptation to spend his gifts and time on meeting his own needs; nor on gaining worldly power, nor on relying on his special nature as a beloved child of God. He remembered who he was, and he held fast to that, even amid his vulnerability and the very real temptations that faced him.
As we embark upon our own 40 day wilderness sojourn, it is important, I think, to remember this story about Jesus’ temptation. So often we think of temptation as a spiritual, mental or physical, move toward something. That there is some shiny and inviting thing in front of us, and we struggle saying no to that thing. Yet this story reminds us that isn’t the direction of temptation at all. Temptation is that drive, or pull, that takes us away from something.
In this case, it takes us away from who we know ourselves to be, and what we hold to be of great value. For people of faith, like us, we know ourselves to be beloved children of God – we are blessed, forgiven our mistakes, and loved into wholeness. We do not exist in isolation from other people, but are a part of the fellowship and body of all humanity. We are not separate from God’s creation, but are integral parts of it. That is who we are.
Yet almost every day we are faced with very real temptations to forget that. In very real ways we are being tempted away from viewing ourselves as beautiful and loved humans – tempted away from understanding that all humanity and all of creation are an integrated system of life – and tempted away from knowing that there is no part of the natural world, and no human on this planet, that is not a part of the holy and divine creation.
The tempter in Jesus’ story is the exact same tempter in our own. While the name given the tempter is “Satan” we need to be clear that this character in the story is not the personification of evil that Hollywood and bad theology have made it out to be. Biblically, the tempter is that voice that comes unbidden, especially when we are tired, or feeling all alone, or are struggling, or are left to our own devices in the wilderness places in our own lives. The tempter comes when we are most vulnerable. And when we are most vulnerable, it is far more difficult to remember who you are and what values you hold most sacred.
Temptation, when we are feeling vulnerable, comes in many guises. Sometimes it comes in the guise of financial insecurity, and so the choices we make can move us away from the person who knows that we need to honour the environment, or welcome the refugee, because we worry that if we don’t go along with how the world currently operates, we might lose our place in that world. That is our vulnerability talking, and that is the temptation that encourages us to move away from what we know to be the faithful way to live in relation to the divine creation of which we are a part.
Another guise that temptation comes in involves how we view ourselves. There are times, don’t you think, where we are living someone else’s life instead of our own? Social conventions, family and religious expectations, can weigh heavy on our spirits. So much so that we are worn out trying to live up to all of them – and when we become worn out, we become vulnerable, and so it is easy to be tempted away from being the persons we were created to be, so that we might have “peace” with the people closest to us.
So, in this life giving season called Lent, I would invite all of us to spend some time thinking things through. Thinking about who God is, and who we are, and where it is we go from here. To spend some of the next forty days getting away from the busyness and commotion, the social and religious conventions that clamour for our allegiance – and simply be. To simply be, and to simply trust, that at the end of our time in the wilderness, we will emerge like Jesus, better able to stay true to who we are.