Sunday, March 9, 2014

FIrst Sunday of Lent Year A, March 9, 2014

No Ifs, Ands or Buts.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Every year in the lectionary, the beginning of Lent is separated by just one punctuation point from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordon River. The same Spirit that just moments ago pronounced Jesus as God’s “beloved” proceeds to kick Jesus out into the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back. Before Jesus has even had a chance to dry his hair or catch his breath, we move from the water to wilderness.  And just a few weeks after Jesus had heard the words,  “This is my beloved Son” he is challenged to prove it: If you are the Son of God...” 

This is the familiar story of Jesus in the wilderness, which appears in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The order in which the story is presented changes a bit each year, but it’s the essentially the same story.  Jesus is baptized, pronounced God’s beloved Son, and sent out into god-forsaken territory to wander for a while and discover exactly what being God’s beloved Son means.  And, it seems like “awhile” according to God is almost always 40 days.  When God’s preparing someone for important work, the person often to undergoe God’s 40 day plan, something like a holy “time out” during which the person discovers what they are made of.  Noah. Moses.  Elijah.  Jesus.  All of them spend 40 days in a strange and wild place, and came out the other end trusting God’s promises.  Which, of course, is why the early church set the season of Lent for 40 days, so Christians can wander around for a while in the wilderness, fast and pray, in hopes that we might be remember again who we are and whose we are.   It helps to have this story about Jesus in front of us as we begin so we know he’s spent some hungry days in the wilderness too.

Before we are too tempted – ahem – to skip ahead in today’s story to Jesus’ conversation with you-know-who, I want us to take time to think about those 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness all by himself.  I think it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around Jesus’ experience.  I would venture to guess that none of us have ever had the experience of going without food for 40 days. I would also imagine that none of us have existed in complete isolation without some form of human communication for 40 days.  It is hard for us to imagine how those 40 days felt for Jesus.  The first few days were probably not so bad.  Jesus may even have welcomed the calm and quiet.  There was time for him to pray.  Time to for him to clear his head.  Time to reflect on what he had heard when he emerged from the Jordon River.  Perhaps Jesus even dared to dream of what lay ahead. 

But after a week or so in the wilderness, Jesus may have grown weary of nothing but lonely meditation and sick of centering prayer.  Maybe he was tired of sleeping on the cold, hard ground, and tired of living under a relentless sun.  No doubt, he was beginning to feel a gnawing hunger in his belly.  As one week stretched to two weeks, then three weeks, then four, then five -- Jesus no doubt felt a little lost, more fearful, and certainly a growing anxiety about how long the exile would last.  

This week in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote a piece about a reform movement in several states to significantly limit the time that prisoners can be required to spend in solitary confinement.  For decades, people who run the prisons in this country have assumed that the pain of being isolated from other people – social pain – is not the same as enduring physical pain.  Prisons cannot beat prisoners, but they can impose long periods of solitary confinement.  But, in fact, researchers have found that the brain doesn’t really make a distinction between social and physical pain.  The brain processes both in almost identical ways.  If anything, being isolated from other people for a long period of time is more traumatic, more long-lasting and more destabilizing than physical pain. Think about what happened to the babies that were found in orphanages years ago who had been left alone in cribs for hours on end, only receiving the bare minimum of social contact.   Brooks says that what prisons do by putting inmates into narrow cells by themselves for days, weeks or months at a time with only minimal contact is more inhumane than inflicting physical injury.[1] 

How hungry do you have to become to arrive at the point where you’d do just about anything for a piece of bread?   How lonely do you need to be that you’d sell your soul for  someone to talk to?  That’s the place to which the Spirit has led Jesus.  Hungry.  Famished for food, comfort, and simple human contact.  In no kind of shape to deal with temptation, but that is the shape in which temptation finds Jesus.  When he is weak, sick and vulnerable.

So vulnerable that the voice that finally does speak to Jesus probably doesn’t sound very much like evil.  Which is the problem about voices of temptation.  They almost always sound perfectly reasonable.  Perhaps the voice even sounds familiar to Jesus.  Maybe it sounds like his mother’s voice, gentle and kind.  Maybe it sounds like the voice of a childhood friend or a trusted rabbi.  Maybe it even sounds a little like the voice Jesus heard just a few weeks ago at the Jordan River.  When we are at our most vulnerable, it is so easy to hear what we need to hear.

And that reasonable, lovely voice tells Jesus that it’s perfectly understandable if he’s had enough of this wilderness stuff.  Why not give in right now?  The voice assures Jesus that it’s okay to give in to the pain in his spirit and the emptiness in his belly.  The voice promises Jesus that if Jesus will just forget who is he for one minute – just one minute – all the pain, all the hunger, all the loneliness will be over.   Jesus can summon up all the power at his disposal and become be just the kind of machismo messiah that can smash the Romans and dazzle the crowds.    After all, if he is the Son of God, what’s he doing laying around half-dead in the desert?  If Jesus is the Son of God, doesn’t he deserve better than that?

But Jesus refuses the Bread and Circuses approach.  He won’t take power.  He won’t make the magic bread, he won’t call the angels in for a dramatic rescue.  Even as the voice promises Jesus that he can have it all, Jesus holds only to who he is.  Which is the beloved Son of God. No ifs, ands, or buts.

You don’t have to look very far or work very hard to find the same kinds of voices.  I hear them all the time, don’t you?  I hear those voices in the middle of the night when I am too wide awake to sleep and too tired to pray.  I just lay there, feeling those voices of anxiety crawl under my skin, torturing me with reminders of what I've done and left undone.

Which voice will you trust during Lent? The voice of shame and guilt?  The voice of fear and anxiety?  The voice that tells you there isn’t enough, that you’re not enough?  Or will you listen instead to the voice of love and forgiveness that rings loud and true above all others?  Will you trust the voice that called you “Beloved” at your baptism and still calls you now, even in the wilderness?

It’s the last place we want to be, but every year, when the season of Lent circles around, we arrive back in the wilderness, hungry again, lonely again, so disoriented by every other road we’ve taken over the course of the year that we’re no longer certain who we are following or whose voice we are hearing.  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Is it the Devil?  Or here’s another frightening possibility – maybe the voice we’ve been following all this time is the very sound of our own ego, our own insecurities, and our own fears. 

But Lent gives us the chance to hear the voice calling us what we truly are – beloved, and tune our hearts to the rhythmic melody of grace, given and received, loved and forgiven, again and again.  Lent invites us relearn the tune as if we’ve never heard this song before. 

Being able to separate truth from illusion is one of the great tasks of our lives.  To figure out what is fantasy and what is reality.  To discern what is dead and what is alive.  What is a narcotic and what is food.  What are stones and what is bread.  It is dangerous, hard work.  What Jesus faces in the wilderness is no mere temptation to have that second piece of chocolate or use a swear word.  Out there, Jesus was fighting for his life. And those 40 days free him from everything that would attempt to distract him from his true purpose.  Jesus learned to not only trust the voice that called him Beloved at the river, but also the Spirit that led him to the excruciating pain of the wilderness.

What saved Jesus in the wilderness was not strength or smarts or even the fact that he was Jesus.  All he had was scripture, the Word of God.  All that was left for him after 40 days was what he knew by heart, and the promise given him in his baptism --that he is somebody.  He is God’s beloved, no matter what.  All Jesus has is who he is. 

And so it is for us.  We are God’s beloved ones, no matter what.  All we have is who we are.  That’s all.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  It’s hard to believe on a good day.  In the wilderness, it’s almost impossible.  Which is why we need God’s word and need one another.

We cannot save ourselves.  I will say it again.  We CANNOT save ourselves.  What saved Jesus from the wilderness is the same power that saves us.  The grace of God.  That’s all there is. 

There are so very many ways to get lost.  And most of them include some kind of stumbling over love.  Even Jesus had to wrestle with what it meant to be loved, and he had to do it more than once.  In the wilderness.  On the journey to Jerusalem.  In the garden.  On the cross.  Jesus had to learn what our life feels like with no anesthesia, no buffer, no comfort but God alone.  He had to learn to trust the will of the One who sent him into the world.   Just as we do.   

Let us pray:
Loving Jesus, You show us the way into life. You resisted the temptations of the world to satisfy one’s own desires and instead looked to what God desired for you. You resisted the temptation to test God, to wait for God to act before acting in faithfulness; instead, you remained faithful to God. And you resisted the temptation for greed and power, instead living a life for others, serving the lost and the least, lifting up the poor and the oppressed, and welcoming the marginalized. May we look to you as the example for our lives. May we empty ourselves of the desires of the world and instead seek what our Creator desires for us. May we remember in you we are a new creation, and that your intent for us is love and life.  In Your name we pray. Amen.

[1] David Brooks, “The Archipelago of Pain.”  The New York Times, March 6, 2014.