Sermon February 17, 2013

Sermon

“Wilderness Times”

 

Rev. Christine M. Delmar

First Sunday of Lent

February 17, 2013

 

Psalm 91:1-2; 9-16    

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.’


9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling-place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.


14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

 

Luke 4:1-13

4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God,   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil* took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,   to protect you”, 11and “On their hands they will bear you up,   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Let’s Pray:

Ever loving, ever present God, in our good times and in our wilderness times, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and redeemer.  Amen. 

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which officially began four days ago on Ash Wednesday.  Lent is not exactly a liturgical high point, and I confess that it is my least favorite time of the year, with the exception of Good Friday.  For me, Lent often feels like spiritual drudgery, and I always struggle to attend to it faithfully.  With its emphasis on repentance, Lent is a heavier season than Advent, Epiphany, or Easter, which are so full of hope and joy.  And though we are not required to keep Lenten practices, there is still a widespread expectation that we should give something up during Lent.  It’s almost a form of spiritual peer pressure—that if you don’t give something up, you will not be as spiritually fit as everyone else!

I was raised Catholic, and I have disliked the notion of giving up things for Lent, because I never really understood what difference it made in God’s grand scheme of things.   Does God really care whether we give up chocolate, or some other favorite indulgence, such as playing games on our smart phones?   “What are you giving up for Lent?” a few folks have asked me.  I know what I am not giving up.  Downton Abbey!  So relieved Season 3 ends tonight, because there is no way I could give up Downton for the remaining six weeks of Lent.

However, I am grateful for our lectionary texts this morning, because they bring us into the mindfulness of Lent in a more meaningful way, and they also bring us mindfully into God’s greater scheme, God’s vision for the world and for us.  In a spiritual group that I lead at The New Canaan Inn, we talked last week about what Lent means, and I shared that Lent is like spring cleaning for the soul.  And one of the women said that she understood Lent as a time for “learning about ourselves and thinking about things more carefully.” Sounds right on target!

So, what does God want us to learn from Luke’s Gospel and from Psalm 91 that the devil quotes in part to Jesus:  “He will command his angels concerning you to protect you.  On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”  These are some of my favorite verses from Psalm 91; I even had Debbie post them on our pastoral care bulletin board for awhile.

First, let’s think about why we begin Lent in the wilderness with Jesus.  Well, Jesus spent forty days there, which is traditionally marked by the forty days of Lent.  All of the Gospels, except the Gospel of John, have a version of Jesus’ struggle with the devil.  It’s Jesus’ own time of learning about himself and thinking about God’s things more carefully.  Mark’s version is the shortest:  the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, he was there for forty days, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.[i]  There is no verbal sparring between the devil and Jesus, as there is in Matthew and Luke, which are similar in all their detail, except Luke does not mention angels ministering to Jesus.[ii]  Now, whether we believe in the devil or not, I will leave to the theologians.  But, Jesus had to contend with something out there in the wilderness that caused him to struggle.  Some power of resistance, opposed to God’s rule.

Jesus’ wilderness experience is a time of testing— to help him grow in his understanding of himself as Son of God, and to grow in his faithfulness to God’s purposes.  And as we heard, Jesus passes his tests with flying colors, by saying “NO” to every thing the devil tempts him with:  “No” to using his power as Son of God to change a stone into bread to satisfy his own hunger.  “No” to worshiping the devil to gain power over the earthly kingdoms of the world.  “No” to testing whether God’s angels would rescue him if he threw himself off the pinnacle of the temple.[iii]  The devil is trying to get Jesus seriously off track.  To turn towards his own self interests, and away from God’s.  Note that the word translated as devil, from the Greek, diabolos, literally means the slanderer, a speaker of false words.  And the slanderer is very clever, even using verses 11-12 from Ps. 91 to beat Jesus at his Bible quoting game.

For Jesus’ main defense against all the temptations are God’s Words from the Book of Deuteronomy.  Words that God spoke to the Israelites, during their own time of testing in the wilderness, which helped them also understand who God was and what God wanted: total trust that God would care for them and faithful living in God’s ways.  During their forty year wanderings in the wilderness, God provided physical and spiritual nourishment—manna, water from a rock, and God’s Commandments—and guided them through until their descendants reached the Promised Land.

What is most instructive for us is that Jesus’ testing is in the wilderness—a mostly barren desert-like area, outside the settled areas of Palestine.  Wild beasts lurked there, and sustenance was hard to come by.  So life in the desert was difficult and dangerous.  Author Anne Lamott writes that the desert may be inviting to some, but most people can only stand the desert “for short periods of time, from inside a car, with the windows rolled up, and the doors locked!”[iv]   We don’t want to go there.

But the wilderness is a metaphor for life’s deepest struggles, and it is something that every one of us, sooner or later, is driven into, whether by our own choices, or by circumstances beyond our control.  Perhaps for you it has been receiving a serious diagnosis, or losing a loved one to death or dementia or uncontrolled mental illness, or losing your job, thanks to the financial wilderness we all got thrown into, or finding your marriage now feels like a desert, or you are grappling with addiction, or being too afraid to reach out for help, because no one would understand, or you are in an insecure between time, or lost in a wilderness of resentment or hatred.  Or, as Barbara Taylor Brown writes, perhaps your wilderness is “a kind of desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own breath.”[v]   There are all sorts of wildernesses, and they can be so very hard, not only because of the pain they cause us, but also because they can feel like forty years when we are in them, and they can lead us to doubt God and that we will get through.

Friends, I think this is the real danger and temptation of the wilderness.  That we listen to false words whispering in our ears and our hearts that God is no longer with us and no longer cares.  Or that God’s promises through Jesus Christ of new and eternal life are not true.  Or that we cannot ask for help, or let anyone know we are in a wilderness, because what would people think of us if they knew what we were dealing with.  But, dearly beloved, the good news is that God IS with us in the wilderness. Jesus was not dropped off in the desert by the Holy Spirit to fend for himself.  Luke tells us Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, and he was also led by the Spirit through the wilderness,   just as God sustained and led the Israelites in and through their wilderness time.  And this is what we need to hold onto in our own deserts, whatever they are.

John Stendahl writes, “We who witness Jesus vanquish his tempter may likewise dare imagine the fearful landscapes of our own lives transfigured.  Even the exhausted and weak among us may be brave enough to take his example, to resist evil and choose right, to speak our no and our yes.  For the desert is not God-forsaken nor does it belong to the devil.  It is God’s home.  The Holy Spirit is there, within us and beside us.  And if we cannot feel that Spirit inside us or at our side, perhaps we can at least imagine Jesus there, not too far away, with enough in him to sustain us, enough to make us brave.”[vi]   Enough to make us brave.  And enough to help us trust that no matter what temptation or devastation we might be facing, God is faithfully present and seeking to guide us through.

One way to bolster our trust that God is indeed with us, is to follow Jesus’ example of relying on God’s Words while in the wilderness.  Which brings me to Ps. 91, that the devil quoted in part to tempt Jesus into testing God’s faithfulness.  Even if we wrest those verses back from the devil’s grip, as one commentator put it, aren’t these words about God commanding angels to protect and bear us up absurdly unrealistic?[vii]

Psalm 91 does not literally mean that God would keep Jesus, or any human being, safe from all earthly danger, like some magical charm or shield.  Although Jesus was God’s Son, he was also fully human, and had he done as the devil urged—throw himself down from the temple, like throwing himself from our meeting house steeple—he would have been seriously injured or killed.  If I had walked outside in my high heels on the way to worship this morning, I likely would have slipped and fallen.  God does not step in to prevent all harm in this world, just as God did not stop that meteorite on Friday from injuring hundreds of people, nor countless other senseless tragedies.  Psalm 91 is not promising that kind of divine protection.

Nan Merrill reframes Psalm 91 as the assurance of God, who seeks the ultimate wholeness of all the world, and that we abide in God’s wings of eternal Loving Companion Presence, who provides us strength for living.   So in times of trouble, sickness, sadness, loneliness, and death—all those feelings of the wilderness—God walks with us, cries with us, and loves us with a continuing, deep, and abiding love.[viii]  And God’s angels guarding and bearing up represent further assurance that this is so.   It’s like what St. Paul says, that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love.[ix]

Another way to reinforce trust in God is through prayer.  Although we do not witness Jesus praying in his time with the devil, during his ministry, Jesus frequently retreated to a lonely desert place to pray—to open himself to God’s presence and guidance, and to be restored by God’s Spirit.

So, my fellow Lenten travelers, for this season of Lent, rather than simply giving up some of our favorite things, let’s instead take on of Jesus’ wilderness spiritual practices, to help open our hearts to God’s abiding love, presence and guidance.   Read God’s Words in Scripture daily, either from the Bible or from a devotional book.  If you don’t have one, there are many good ones in the church library that you can borrow.  And as you read, visualize yourself with Jesus in the desert.  Imagine him helping you with whatever you are battling, or need to let go of from your life.  Start and end your day with prayer and tell God honestly what you are feeling in your wilderness.  Ask God to open your mind and heart to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and to also guide you to “angels” who can bear you up, whether one of the pastors, or a Stephen Minister, or someone else in the church.  And if you are blissfully not in a wilderness at this time, pray for and reach out to those who are.

Jesus also said that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, he is there also, meaning he is here with us, in this gathered community of faith.[x]  And sisters and brothers, God gave us this community through which we can receive God’s presence and grace, and so we can give grace to each other, by bearing each other’s burdens.[xi]  While I was preparing this sermon, one of our Stephen Leaders, Jim Cole, sent me an article by a Christian psychologist, who writes that the community of God’s people is meant to be the place where our “deepest healing takes place,” and that “real community happens when the energy of Christ within believers pours out into another person with the wisdom that the Bible provides, with the wisdom that only the suffering can teach, and with the wisdom of the Spirit working through the resources He has given us…” [xii]

Though we tend to zealously guard our privacy here in New England and New Canaan, I have witnessed numerous examples of folks in this church bearing others up through their faith and

from the wisdom gained from their own wilderness struggles.  And I encourage you to do the same for others who are hurting.

I would like to share with you a poem by Walter Brueggemann, “Sustained by Angels,”[xiii]  that spoke to me several Lents ago, when the financial wilderness was at its worst, and there was so much fear and doubt all around.  I find it still relevant for wilderness times today:

Maybe we have not thought much about Satan,

either in glib self regard,

or in rejection of such silly speculation,

or in a way more urbane and benign

than to imagine such a character.

 

Except that as we begin our strenuous Lenten trek

we are aware

that the power of resistance is at work in our midst,

that the force of negation is alive and well,

that our best will is contradicted

by stuff that surges against our best selves,

that we, even we, are prone to our

several addictions that render us helpless.

 

So we pray in the Lenten season,

give us primitive freedom to

take full stock of Satan and the power of

evil still among us in our prosperity and

wealth and sophistication,

and give us primitive openness

to your ministering angels

who are present with care and gentleness

and great nourishment.

 

In the Lenten season, give us freedom

to reconfigure our lives

as a testing field between the force of Satan

and the food of your angels.

Enter our lives with power for newness,

deliver us from a sense of naïve mastery,

and give us honest contact with our vulnerability.

 

Enter the deep places of our lives and claim us for your purposes.

We would be more free than we are,

more bold than we dare,

more obedient than we choose.

 

We wait for the gift of your large gift of life

that will wrench us away from death

to the miracle of Easter joy.

 

Amen.


[i] Mk. 1:12-13

[ii] Mt. 4:1-11

[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Wilderness Exam,” p. 1.

[iv] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2005), p. 3-6.

[v] Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 1.

[vi] John Stendahl, “First Sunday in Lent,” New Proclamation, Year C (Augsburg Press, 2000), p. 166.

[vii] Stendhal, p. 161.

[viii] Nan C. Merrill, Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness (Continuum, 2005), p. 190-91.

[ix] Rom.  8:39

[x] Mt. 18:20

[xi] Gal. 6:2

[xii] Larry Crabb, “Sovereign Stumbling: My Life Journey to Date,” New Way Ministries.

[xiii] Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People (Abingdon Press, 2008), p. 29-30.

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