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Wilderness

John Leedy

February 17, 2013
Luke 4:1-13

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 Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 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, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Well friends, the season of Lent is upon us.  How do we know this?  Could it be the purple paraments in the church? No.  Is it the people that were walking around with ashes on their forehead last Wednesday? No.  Rather, we know the season of Lent is here because McDonald’s, Church’s Chicken, and Sonic have all begun advertizing their Lenten-combos.  Yes, it’s never been easier to get a good deal on a fish sandwich or a 12-piece bucket of fried cod for you and the family.  Thanks be to God.

The 40-day season of Lent is a tricky time for us modern Presbyterians.  We struggle with the idea of taking on spiritual practices or “giving something up” for God.  After all, we live busy and structured lives.  Why threaten our routine? How can we fast and pray and devote more money and energy when we already do so much?  I suppose the question the season of Lent poses to us sounds a little different.  The season of Lent asks us, “How can we not?”

Lent reminds us that we live not in prospering cities or quiet suburbs, but in the wilderness.  It is a jarring thought to imagine ourselves in a wilderness here in the heart of Austin, but we find ourselves in the wilderness nonetheless.

Our wilderness and the wilderness that Jesus walked through may look different, but the essence of the wilderness experience remains.

A wilderness is where our sense of self-reliance is threatened, our ability to manage the world around us is challenged, and we are constantly reminded of our mortality.  A wilderness is where we discover our brokenness and our need for God.

We abide in the wilderness of quiet desperation; living our lives on auto-pilot while the world happens around us.

We abide in the wilderness of addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs, to corporate success or consumption, to food or busyness.

We abide in the wilderness of spiritual shallowness, our faith depending on whether God opens up a parking space at the mall for us or helps us pass a test.

We abide in the wilderness of a diagnosis, the wilderness of cancer, of Alzheimer’s, of diabetes, or HIV/AIDS.

We abide in the wilderness that reminds us that at any moment, our security and comfort in life can be stripped away; the wilderness of unemployment, of underemployment, of mandatory retirement, or of student debt.  When we strip away the constructs of our world that deceive us into believing that we have of control over our lives, we see clearly that we all are wanderers in one wilderness or another.

But Jesus joins us in the wilderness.  Our Gospel text reminds us that after his baptism and before the start of his public ministry, Jesus went out into the wilderness filled with the Holy Spirit.  There, he met temptations that we too face in our wilderness.  Jesus encountered the temptation to turn rocks into bread to satisfy his hunger.  If we push that temptation a bit, we find ourselves surprised that Jesus doesn’t say the magic words and zap – fresh hot bread.  After all, if Jesus could turn rocks into bread, couldn’t he do the same for all the hungry people in the world?  Wouldn’t that alleviate global hunger if rocks could become bread?

We are equally surprised that Jesus doesn’t accept the offer to rule the kingdoms of the world.  After all, he is the son of God. Why not step in himself and fix things?

On top of all of that, Jesus shocks us again by not testing the limits of his mortality.  What if we knew that jumping off a tall building wouldn’t mean our certain death? Would we still worry about our security when speaking out against violence or injustice?

So why does Jesus not accept these opportunities?  If we were given the chance to never again experience hunger, to alleviate world suffering, and become an unstoppable force for justice and peace, why wouldn’t we take that offer?

The essence of the temptations that Christ encounters speak to our human desire to be in control of our world.  Isn’t that the American ideal?  To pull yourself up by your bootstraps, draw from your personal well of ingenuity and strength to make it on our own?  To be the rugged individual, the self-reliant hero.  For us to be dependent upon another is even seen as shameful in our society.  We don’t ask for help because we fear being a burden on someone.  We would never want to swallow our pride and admit we can’t make it on our own.  Jesus is offered the chance to end his suffering in the wilderness, and the suffering of a world in the wilderness, and he turns the opportunity down.

What is Jesus teaching us in the midst of the wilderness? What is Jesus showing us about following God in this world? Why is this the gospel story that leads us into Lent?

In the summer of 2010, I enrolled in a Wilderness Spirituality course through Austin Seminary.  The aim of the course was to explore different types of spirituality during an extended backpacking trip through Southern Colorado.  The first few days of the trip were wonderful. The beauty of the wilderness was alive all around me.

Yet as the trip continued, other sensations began vying for my attention.  I began to notice how very dirty I was.  The higher we climbed into the mountains, the less I was able to catch a full breath. Mornings were getting colder and my gear was getting wetter.  I soon found that falling asleep that was torturous.  Whether it was the cold, the wet, the fear of wild animals eating you in the night, the smell of your body, the rocky ground underneath you, or any combination thereof, I dreaded trying to fall asleep – and many nights, I barely slept at all.

This trouble came to a head for me when we arrived at a campsite known as Lower Three Mile Lake.  As I lay there, trying to sleep, wave after wave of fear, frustration, anxiety, cold, hunger, soreness, and absolute discomfort rolled over me.  That is when I broke. I don’t really know what happened, but the tears started running, I dug my nails into my palms in protest and clenched my muscles in anguish.

I felt completely at the mercy of the wilderness – dead or alive, it wasn’t up to me.  Every comfort or security had been stripped away and I had nothing to hang on to other than the hope that the sun might rise again – but at that point I had my doubts.  Any well of personal strength or ability had run completely dry.  It is hard for me to fully describe the intensity of the emotion that night, but the word that seems to be a pretty good fit is “broken.”

After many hours of “breaking,” I must have fallen asleep.  The next morning I woke up, got dressed as usual, went outside to greet the other bedraggled campers, and sat on a log with a cup of coffee and looked out at the sun rising over the mountains.  It was only after I had been broken that I really began to experience the wilderness on its own terms, and not by some romantic comparison to my normal life back home.  Being broken changed me, and I found myself more in tune with the world around me.  I realized that before this, I had been steeling myself, fighting to survive against the wilderness.  It was man versus wild.  I was relying on my own ability, my own strength, my own will to survive.

But after being broken, I found myself more connected to the wilderness, more aware of the wilderness.  I was no longer fighting against it, but had become part of it.  No longer man verses wild, but man with wild; fully dependent on something greater than myself.

It was in the wilderness that I discovered the depth of my brokenness.  It is in the wilderness that we all discover the depth of our brokenness.

In the season of Lent, we take time to open our eyes fully to the wilderness we find ourselves in.  Lent allows us to experience the depth of our inadequacy, our finitude, and to expose the culturally accepted myth of self-reliance.  Yes, Christ joins us here in the wilderness, but the good news is that Christ does more than that.  Jesus shows us that the way through the wilderness is not through our own strength or desires, but by depending on the love and grace of God.

The classic Lenten phrase “return to God” reminds us that in the brokenness of the wilderness we discover how profound depending on God can be.  One way the church seeks to understand this is through our spiritual practices.  Only when we are broken do the spiritual disciplines of Lent make sense.  We often ask, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  Instead, we could ask, “what are we willing to take on to deepen our dependency on God?”  One of these practices is fasting.  When we realize that we depend on God to sustain our life, our reliance on the power of food diminishes.  There are several options for fasting and we have some helpful resources if you want to learn more.

Likewise with prayer. When you realize that you can give up 10 minutes a day to be with God, the power of busyness diminishes and you are free in knowing that you can take time for your spiritual life without the world ending.  And when you intentionally give a little more of your time or money to those in need, you place yourself in a position of personal risk. You will find yourself more at peace in God’s grace than in your own safety bubble.  But none of these practices is meaningful unless we first accept our own brokenness and need for God in the wilderness.

So as we enter into this season of preparation, we journey boldly into this wilderness of life.  We face the brokenness, knowing that Christ joins us where we are.  We prepare our hearts during Lent because we know Good Friday is coming.  We prepare ourselves to answer the question, “Am I willing to relinquish all that I am to follow Christ to the cross – to fully depend upon God.”

It’s only when we are fully prepared to depend on God with our very lives that the glory of Easter makes sense.  Those who never go without, never feel broken in the wilderness, and those who rely only on themselves never realize the need for God and the need for salvation.  But those who hunger and thirst, who have experienced the depth of brokenness, and who place their life in the hands of God understand how profound, how radical, how life-changing the resurrection is.  On Easter, we look back at the wilderness through resurrected eyes, eyes that see light in the darkness, hope in the brokenness, and life in the ashes of death.

But for now, let us embrace this broken wilderness we find ourselves in.  Let us experience the temptation to live life on our own terms. Let us find the grace to relinquish the powers that control our lives.  Let us journey with Christ to the cross, trusting God with our very lives.  And may we await the coming of Christ in glory, truly and deeply amazed by our good and faithful God.  Amen.