Our Time In The Wilderness

We kicked off our Lenten season on Sunday in the wilderness with Jesus.  I’m back on the lectionary for the time being and we are going to preach through the Gospel thread during Lent.  I decided not to talk about temptations this year in looking at this narrative, but about being in the wilderness in general – because I think we all find ourselves there at some point in our lives!

I did preach at our Ash Wednesday service – I referenced it in this sermon.  I will post at least the text at some point this week if anyone is interested.

Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
March 1, 2020

Matthew 4:1-11

Our Time In The Wilderness

I used to think that, at some point, I would figure out the whole “life” thing; that I would magically arrive at a time and space in my life where suddenly everything would make sense and I would be able to wrap up my beliefs in a nice little bow and then just, kind of, coast.  From there on out, I assumed, life would be a little bit easier because I would have this framework and formula for how it was all supposed to work.

It was a really frustrating day in adulthood when I realized that was not actually going to happen.

Life would be so much easier if it happened in a linear and consistently upright motion.  You could learn lessons from the past, but build on them in a slow and steady way, knowing that the best days are always ahead of you.

But that is not how life works.

As it turns out, I probably should have paid closer attention to my bedtime stories when I was little.  Because I was reading Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss to Harrison this week and I was really struck by the profound life lessons disguised in anapestic tetrameter.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.[1]

Doesn’t this describe life perfectly, though?  We can be going along and be in a good rhythm – we can think we are doing pretty well and that we might even have answers to some of our questions.  Then all of a sudden something knocks us over or stops us in our tracks or brings us into a dark and lonely place and we are left wondering what in the world just happened.  We can find ourselves in a lurch – in a slump – in the wilderness, not really sure how to get out.

This morning we are in the wilderness with Jesus.

I think, for people that observe Lent, even on a passive or marginal level, this passage of scripture is actually pretty well-known because of the correlation between Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness with the 40 days of Lent.  The narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the dessert is recorded in three out of the four Gospel (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and is very often the scripture that is used to kick off the Lenten season every year – to kick off the 40 days of Lent.

That being said, the piece, I think, we forget sometimes is where this story is actually located within the narrative of the Gospel.  Despite its connection to the Lenten season, it is not close to the Easter story; it is, in fact, much closer to the beginning.  It immediately follows Jesus’ baptism.

And so think of it this way:  Jesus goes from this pivotally high moment where he is baptized by John in the Jordan River and emerges from the water to hear God’s voice through the clouds, claiming him as God’s own.  God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” and then almost immediately Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil.

Talk about life not happening in a linear and consistently upright motion.

But at the end of his time in the wilderness those promises of baptism are immediately fulfilled for Jesus.

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.[2]

Angels came and waited on him.

Jesus was not alone in the wilderness.

Baptism does not promise us an easy life, but it does welcome us into the Body of Christ and invites us into this sacred and holy narrative where resurrection is real and God is with us and we are not alone.

Do you ever feel like you are out there in the wilderness, kind of wandering around, not really sure how long you are going to be stuck there or even how you are going to get yourself out?

Last week we were on the mountaintop with Jesus as we heard the story of the transfiguration.  And while it would be wonderful if, as Christians, we could always stay on that mountaintop and experience the wonderful highs of life, the truth is, sometimes we find ourselves in the wilderness.

We are tempted by things in this world that want to pull us away from God.

We have a hard time seeing and believing that God’s love is stronger than the struggles we are facing.

We do not know how to get out, how to “un-slump” ourselves.

And yet, this passage of scripture promises us two things:  1) that it is okay if we are in the wilderness, because Jesus, himself, was there and 2) there are angels with us when we are there.

If you ever find yourself in the wilderness, first and foremost, do not beat yourself up for being there.  Jesus could not escape it – what makes us think that we can?  Life is hard and it does not always make sense.  And in dealing with it, we are imperfect and sometimes fall apart and fall short, but that does not make us less faithful, that just makes us human.

And so we do the best we can.  We stay in the wilderness, knowing that it is okay for us to be there, knowing that we are not alone in our struggles and, perhaps most importantly, knowing that God is with us.

And then, slowly but surely, we take a step forward and begin the journey out.

Lent began on Wednesday; about 40 of us gathered here, in the sanctuary, for our Ash Wednesday service.

Even though we mark the 40 days of Lent by Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Lent is not really about putting ourselves into the wilderness, but about acknowledging its existence.  It is about being honest about the fact that as humans, sometimes we end up in the wilderness.

Lent is about looking at ourselves in the mirror and recognizing, not only that we are not perfect, but also that it is okay if we are not perfect.  It is about seeing the wilderness as a part of our journey through life and faith and not a place where we go when we have done something wrong.  Lent is about understanding the coming resurrection as a promise of redemption and second chances in our lives.  Lent is about existing in a world that is broken, but also believing that there is hope in that brokenness.

I actually think this one of the reasons a lot of us actually come to church.

I talked about this in my sermon on Ash Wednesday.  I said that we do not come to church to escape life, but as a way to help us deal with it; to acknowledge our brokenness, but also to be assured of our wholeness in God.

And this is what the Lenten journey is all about.  It is about taking an intentional amount of time – 40 days, to honor this scriptural record of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – to reflect on life, faith and what it means to believe in the promise of resurrection.

It is about believing that every experience in the wilderness will have angels waiting on us.

It is about trusting that we are not alone.

Life is not always easy.  And I want you to know that, if you are in the wilderness right now, that it is okay that you are there, that it does not make you any less faithful and that you are not alone.  This is a journey – life, faith, being part of the Body of Christ – it does not happen in a linear and consistently upright motion, it happens in a very real and messy and human motion.

But that is why we are here – to believe that we are not alone in the wilderness and also to see tangible signs of that witness through our church community.

Because the other thing is that if you are not in the wilderness right now, the work that you are doing matters to the people that are.  The love that you are giving them is changing their lives.  You are their light shining in the darkness.  You are God’s voice reminding them that they are not alone.  You are their earth angels waiting for them, cheering them on, championing the, walking alongside them on their journey.

As we begin to journey through this Lenten season together, I would encourage us all to think about what the wilderness means to us.  Because whether we are there now, we finally are out of it or we have jumped back in to help pull someone out, the hope of the cross that we are walking towards is that the wilderness is not the end of our story.

Resurrection is.

Light is.

Love is.

Blessings on your Lenten journey.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Oh! That Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss
[2] Matthew 4:11, NRSV

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