The Blessing of the Wilderness

Sermon preached at Warrenton Presbyterian Church on the first Sunday of Lent. 

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

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.


I don’t know about you, but I love Lent.

Now, admittedly, Christmas Eve may be my favorite worship service of the year, but Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday are in a tight competition for second place. I don’t know if you remember the weather from this time last year, but we had a huge ice storm on Ash Wednesday. Over at Henderson, we cancelled our evening service, but I needed my annual ashes fix. I needed that reminder of my mortality and God’s strength, that reminder even in my fragility I am held and shaped by God into something powerful, just as the ashes are shaped into a cross on our foreheads. I needed it like a starving person needs food, and so I scraped off my PT Cruiser and went down for the noon service at the Episcopalian church, because Episcopalians are hardcore when it comes to the important liturgical holidays, and they were open for business. And so I slipped and slid over the icy sidewalks like Bambi on the frozen pond, and I’m sure I looked a little ridiculous but there are some things I’m willing to look ridiculous for and one of them is Lent. And I got my ashes. And I prayed.

I love Lent. I know not everybody does. I know some folks find it gloomy and depressing. But I find it honest. Even as a kid, I think I knew that sometimes there was a disconnect between what I heard in church and what I saw outside its walls. I’d go into church and hear “it’s all good! it’s all good!” and I’d go outside and no, it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. And the bright white sanctuary walls and the cheery red carpets and the shiny brass organ pipes couldn’t convince me otherwise. The world was gloomy, and people were mean and people were sick and people were scared, and it seemed like Lent was the only time the church looked all that squarely in the eye and said, okay. We’ll meet you there. We’ll meet you in the dark. We’ll meet you in the fear. We’ll meet you in the wilderness. And we’ll walk home together.

While I have always known and celebrated and loved Lent, it’s a latecomer to Presbyterian practice. Historically, Lent was huge in the Catholic church, and so when the Protestant Reformers split from the Catholic church they rejected it, lock, stock, and barrel. Which was a shame, really, and continued to be a shame, because Protestant distrust and even hatred of Catholics was so strong for centuries that Lent was something “those Catholics did” and good Protestants weren’t going to touch it with a ten foot pole. I asked some of the older folks at Henderson last year what Ash Wednesday meant to them growing up; they told me it was the day they found out who the Catholics in town were.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, honestly, that Protestant theologians began to recognize the gift of the liturgical calendar, Lent included. And of course, that was cutting edge progressive stuff—and so it took years, decades, to trickle down into your average church. I’m making an assumption here, but I bet many of you can remember a time when you didn’t practice Lent here at Warrenton Presbyterian. Is that true?

I’m telling you this history because it explains a little bit why Lent is still kind of a theological mess in Protestant circles. When most people talk about Lent, they ask one question: what are you giving up? Now, I did this as a teenager. I tried giving up chocolate once—that lasted about three days—but I had some success with giving up soda, success you can be sure I shared with my youth group at length. I can still remember guzzling a Fanta right after the Easter service—I think I had brought a can with me to put in the church refrigerator, and I thought about that first fizzy gulp all service long. Clearly, a deeply pious and spiritual practice in my life.

I was told that we give up something for Lent so that we would be more like Jesus, so that we would understand the sacrifice of the crucifixion. I’ll let you make your own judgment, but I’m not sure my forty days of choosing lemonade over Coca-Cola really gave me a sense of the agonizingly brutal death Jesus suffered.

There’s a great scene in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, where Ariel, the mermaid, tries to figure out what all the human stuff she’s rescued from sunken ships is actually for, and ends up combing her hair with a fork. That’s kind of what happens in a lot of Protestant churches when we talk about Lent. We picked it up from our Catholic brothers and sisters and let it filter down into our churches and somewhere along the way the context got lost and we sort of had to guess what Lent was for. Ariel wasn’t necessarily wrong—you can, in fact, comb your hair with a fork, and it’s not a bad guess if you don’t really know what it’s for. And in the same way what we’ve usually done with Lent works well enough; it’s close to the idea, that we’re supposed to get closer to Jesus by our sacrifice. But giving up chocolate or beer or even gossip is nothing compared to what Christ suffered, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think forty days without junk food is comparable to crucifixion, and like I said, Lent is about honesty.

That’s not to say that giving up something for Lent is bad. It’s just that it’s not going to make you fully understand what Jesus did for us. Because Lent is not about becoming Christ. It’s not about becoming God. It’s not about setting ourselves up as the sacrificial lamb to be pitied and glorified in turn. It’s about getting to know God. It’s about having a relationship with Christ. It’s about learning that at the end of the day, we are ash, not God. It’s about learning that we are ash, and that God has chosen us, us, with our fragile bodies and splintered egos, for salvation, not because we earned it or understood it, but because God loves us.

Our gospel reading this morning is Luke’s version of the story of Jesus in the wilderness, which we hear every year and which gets easy to tune out, but what struck me this time is how crazily chill Jesus is through the whole thing. Now, you’d think Son of Man vs. the Devil would be the battle royale of the century, and that there would be screaming and name calling and brawling and it would make our presidential debates seem like an English afternoon tea. But Jesus doesn’t really seem to get to het up. You can read this a couple of different ways, and maybe you could think of Jesus as stern here, but really that’s about as harsh as it gets. Jesus tosses off scriptural one-liners like it’s no sweat off his back, and remember, this isn’t their first go-round—Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days, fasting and dealing with the devil. Forty days without any food at all, and he seems cool as a cucumber—which is both scientifically and emotionally improbable. I don’t know about you, but I can’t go more than about four hours without a snack without getting a little cranky. I once fasted for thirty hours as part of a fundraising effort and I tell you, I was ready to take folks out to get to the fried chicken afterward. And so the forty days without food tells us something right away—that Jesus’ fully human body is getting some fully divine help here; that he is relying on God’s power, on the power of the Spirit which drove him into this wilderness to begin with, to get him through his time of trial. He is leaning back into God’s arms, into God’s strength, trusting that God is forming him for some powerful ministry down the road.

Luke gives us those famous three tests—that Jesus turn stones to bread, worship the devil in exchange for all worldly authority, and jump off the temple to see if God will catch him—and they aren’t really three distinct tests, but one big question: is Jesus going to trust God enough? Is Jesus going to keep leaning back into God, or is he going to get tense and anxious and jump the gun? Because we’ll see that Jesus has power too, and he could absolutely turn that stone into bread, but instead he keeps trusting God—trusting that the God who kept him alive for forty days without food will extend the streak to forty-one. The whole experiment leads up to this proclamation: Do not put the Lord your God to the test, which is another way of saying trust God.

In the wilderness Jesus was formed and shaped and taught to trust God, to lean back into God’s power rather than flex his own. It was a trust that carried him all the way onto the cross, where he trusted that even death would not destroy the thing that God was doing.

It’s not suffering that Lent is supposed to teach us. It’s trust.

I don’t know about you, but trust doesn’t always come easy to me. I will tell you plainly that my least favorite thing in the world is doing trust falls, that group-building game where you stand on a table and fall backwards into the waiting arms of your comrades who (ideally) are prepared to catch you. I don’t ever really trust them to catch me, and so even when I’m forced to participate I sort of buckle my knees at the last moment so I can go down a little more slowly and with a little more control.

I do the same thing with God. I say I trust God. I’ve seen God fulfill God’s promises in my life. But when it comes to the little stuff, the everyday stuff, I tend to buckle my knees. I let my anxiety take over. I coddle my fears and worries and stresses and soon I get into a pattern of thinking that I have got to do it all. I have got to be perfect. I have to save the church. I have to fix the world. I have to keep the peace in my family. I have got to scrimp and sacrifice and suffer because who else is going to do it?

Oh yeah. Somebody already did.

Trusting God is about coming to terms with who we are—sinful, imperfect, finite people who simply cannot do it all—but more importantly, it’s about coming to terms with who God is—powerful, present, loving, gracious. It is coming to terms with the fact that this story—this Lenten story of crucifixion and resurrection, this Lenten story of suffering and salvation—it doesn’t rest on our shoulders. It’s not reliant on our actions. It happened and happens and will happen just because God loves the world so.

Back in January we had a few snow days at the seminary, and as cabin fever began to set in some of us started to play a new board game that one of my friends had gotten as a Christmas gift. There are two important things to know about this story: one, that the game involves little plastic figurines of people that you move around the board; and two, that my friend had stashed the game next to her radiator. We figure it was the heat that did it, because one of the little figurines, a woman in a blue dress, seems to have melted a bit, and her ankles sort of bent backwards, and now she strolls around the board leaning way back. I like to play with her as my character because she just looks so ridiculous, in a game in which speed has some importance, wandering around like nothing’s the matter at all. But I also like to play with her because I’d like to be more like her; I’d like to lean back more often, back into God’s arms, back into God’s grace, trusting that God will have my back, trusting that God will shore me up, trusting that God will be there if ever I fall.

Like I said, there’s some things I’m willing to look ridiculous for. Trusting God is one of them.

This Lent, I invite you to lean back into God’s grace, into God’s love, God’s strength. And I encourage you to do whatever it is that helps you do that—which very well may be giving something up, if it’s something that keeps you tense and anxious and focused on yourself. I’m thrilled to say that I truly believe chocolate is not the problem in my relationship with God, but I’ll admit there are times that television can be, when it keeps me glued to fictional problems while God keeps calling me to the real world. Or maybe there’s nothing getting in the way, but nothing really helping either, so maybe this Lent it’s time to try something new, to try reading the gospel of Mark all the way through or spending ten minutes a day in silence or working alongside God in some volunteer work. And both these things—the giving up and the taking on—may require some sacrifice. They may cause some suffering. But that’s not the goal. Learning to trust God is the goal, to take an honest look at yourself and an honest look at God and come to know that God is with you all the way.

Lent is not a season to barrel through, shoulders hunched, fists clenched. Lent is a season to linger in, learning about yourself, learning about God, learning that through Christ we have a relationship with the One whose arms are wrapped around us tight, whether we feel them or not.

Here we stand, in the wilderness with Christ. We may be hungry. We may be tired. We may be tempted. We may be lonely.

But we are trusting that God will hold us, in the wilderness, on the cross, in the tomb, and carry us all the way into the light.




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