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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The First Sunday in Lent

His hair is still wet from his baptism in the Jordan river, but today we find Jesus in the desert where he encounters the devil. Mark’s account doesn’t provide much detail about Jesus’ experience there, but Matthew’s Gospel is very specific about just how the devil tempted him.

The desert is a barren wide expanse of sand, little vegetation and extreme temperatures, a veritable wasteland. That’s the kind of place in which Jesus did his forty-day fasting retreat: the wilderness. For Jesus and for us the wilderness in our life is a desolate, scary place and one with which we may be very familiar, those quiet, lonely, vulnerable times.

Maybe it’s the doctor’s examination room where someone is awaiting a test result or the parking lot where someone sits in a fog after losing a job or a bar where a broken-hearted guy ruminates about what went wrong in a relationship that just ended.

Maybe it’s where anyone of us lands when we are too tired, too weak, too sad from whatever is going on in our life that has crushed our spirit and sapped our energy. Desert places can suck all the self-confidence right out of you. We may even feel like the demons are ripping us apart.

Places of wilderness come in all sizes and configurations. Sometimes the only way you become aware that you’ve landed there is that you look around to see who can help you find your way out and you realize how alone you are. Nobody likes those wilderness places and, in fact, people spend a lot of time, energy, and maybe even money to escape them.

The wilderness, the barren, wasteland we may find ourselves in life—as it was for Jesus—is a place that can breed temptation. Temptation. A well-known commodity. It’s part of living and there’s no way to escape it. The 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, whose doctor told him that he had to lose weight. He took his new diet very seriously, even changing the route he took from his home to the church just to avoid going past the bakery.

One morning, however, the rector appeared at the weekly staff meeting with a gigantic chocolate cake. The staff was aghast but the rector just smiled.  “This is a special chocolate cake,” he explained. “What makes it special,” one of his staff 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 that 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 choir director. (tongue in cheek). “It certainly was,” said the rector, “on my sixth time around the block.”

We are all tempted all the time. Why shouldn’t I have that second or third brownie? Can’t I skip the gym this morning? That little white lie won’t hurt anyone. They are all pretty benign and perfectly normal urges.

Personally, when it comes to Oscar Wilde’s suggestion, I’m good at giving in! If you bake brownies for a coffee hour, I’m a dead duck.

There is one kind of temptation, however, that is lethal to the soul. Those lonely, vulnerable places in life will often make one feel like the devil is nipping at our heels and the voice in our head may well have us wondering where God is when it feels like we’ve been stranded there. Why doesn’t God send me a rescue team? Why doesn’t God give me the power to stand up and roar? Don’t I deserve it? Am I not worthy of God’s love and care? Am I that bad a person?

The truth is that there is nothing we can do to be deserving of God’s love. There is no contest to win. God’s grace is a free gift given without condition. God is already as close to us as our heartbeat. I think the wilderness is a place for growth and clarity. I think it is 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, forgetting that we are God’s own beloved and to question, God’s enormous, unfailing love for us just as we are, just who we are, faults and temptations and failings, and doubts. Distasteful as it is when we are smack in the middle of it, the wilderness can be one of the most reality-based, life-changing places.

Maybe you’re there right now—in a wilderness time of life. Maybe this sermon has raised memories of another time when you were. Maybe you fear that one may be looming on the horizon. Remember that God’s Spirit led Jesus to the desert, but God also led him out of it.

So, the next time you find yourself in the wilderness and that nasty devilish voice in your head casts doubt about God’s love for you, that you are not really God’s beloved, that you are not good enough, that God doesn’t’ give a darn about how you get out of that desert, you know what to do? Rise up and claim your power as a child of God and say, “Satan, why don’t you go to hell!”

And angels may just come and wait on you.

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