First Sunday in Lent
Temptation. It’s well-known part of living and there’s no way to escape it. Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde famously suggested that the only way to get rid of a temptation is to give into it. Take a certain rector, for example. His doctor told him that he had to shed some pounds. He took his new diet very seriously even changing his route from his home to the church to avoid going past the bakery shop. One morning, however, the rector appeared at the weekly staff meeting with a gigantic chocolate cake. The staff was stunned. “This is a special chocolate cake,” he explained. “What makes it special,” the organist asked him. “Is it someone’s birthday today?” “No,” the rector answered. I made a wrong turn this morning and found myself driving right past the bakery. I thought to myself, “God must have wanted me to do that,” so I said, “Dear God, if you want me to go inside to see if they made my favorite chocolate cake today, let there be a parking spot right in front. “So, your prayer must have been answered,” said the parish secretary. “It certainly was,” said the rector, “on my sixth time around the block.” I’m sure we’ve all heard our share of sermons about temptation, so I wanted to start off with some humor. We’ve just heard about the temptation of Jesus by the devil. None of us is likely to have to past that kind of test. We’re more likely to get the chocolate cake kind of test. The passage from Deuteronomy in our first reading describes a liturgical act recognizing the faithfulness of God to the Hebrew people. It is the climax of the exodus story. After almost 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land. They are exhausted from feeling lost and unsure, roaming through the wilderness, being chastised for bad behavior, being perplexed and hungry, wondering why they left Egypt in the first place. Finally, they sit overlooking the Promised Land which is in sight. I think there is good reason why we hear these two stories at the very start of Lent. Places of wilderness come in all sizes and configurations. The wilderness suggests uncultivated, scary, lonesome places such as the uncomfortable, unwanted, anxious times in one’s life. I’ll bet it’s a place with which we’re all familiar. It could be the doctor’s examination room awaiting a test result or sitting in a parking lot after losing a job or on a bar stool ruminating about a relationship that just ended. Places of wilderness come in all sizes and configurations. Sometimes the only way we become aware that we’re there is that we look around to see who can help us find our way out and we come up empty. We may think that this Gospel narrative about the devil and Jesus is bad news for us. Knowing the loneliness and anxiety that our own wilderness experiences have involved, we probably don’t want to hear a sermon about all this. But I don’t think that our wilderness places are about testing our faith. The truth is that there is nothing we can do to be deserving of God’s love. There is no contest we must win. Grace is a free gift given without condition. I don’t think the wilderness is designed to make us more penitent so that God will draw nearer to us. God is already as close to us as our heartbeat. I think the wilderness is a place for growth and clarity where we discover how to live fully by the grace of God alone and not by what we think we can supply or achieve on our own. In our wilderness, we may be tempted to doubt God’s dream for us, to compromise our integrity, forgetting that we are God’s own beloved and to question God’s enormous, unfailing love for us just as we are—warts and all. Distasteful as it is when we are smack in the middle of it, the wilderness is one of the most reality-based, life-changing places one can be. Some years ago, I read a post on Facebook from a friend with whom I worked years ago in my capacity as a therapist. When we met, he had just buried his partner who died of AIDS. It was a time of dark, barren, lonely wilderness for him. His post included a photo of his deceased partner and him, smiling and obviously enjoying a wonderful evening out. Here’s what he said about it: “The day after the photo was taken I flew Dean to Bermuda, his favorite place on earth. We sat on the pink sand beach. He dreamed of retirement there and I let him. We knew his life was coming to a close, but still looked forward and held on to those whimsical moments when perhaps, if God was good, a miracle would happen. “But it did not. Three months later, at the age of 33, Dean would die. My life would be changed for eternity, momentarily for the worst but in the end, oddly, for the better. Not because I lost someone I cherished, but because through his death a new “me” rose from the ashes. A new story began for one who had always been protected and slightly misguided in the value placed on truly important things. A stronger, more resilient person was born.” You and I know the wilderness when we are in the midst of it. It’s uncomfortable—even painful at times. Maybe you’re there right now or are emerging from it. Maybe my preaching has raised memories of another time when you were there. Maybe you fear that one may be looming on the horizon.
So, we are together walking through this thing called Lent. Listen to the way author Joan Chittister describes it: “Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve what we should have done and did not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.” Remember that God’s Spirit not only led Jesus to the desert; the Spirit remained with him and also led him out of it. God does not lead us to the wilderness just to abandon us.
Perhaps the greatest temptation in life is not being willing to believe that.