Are you prepared?
Are you prepared?
So, as I’ve mentioned over the last weeks, I’m doing something different this year: I’m following the lectionary from Epiphany all the way to Easter. What this means is that instead of choosing a text each week for worship, I’m following a list of already selected texts. The lectionary runs through a three year cycle. Some pastors follow that cycle all the time. Other “control freaks” like me like to make our own choices. Often, making those choices allows me to create a multi-week set of sermons along a theme that seems relevant to the congregation. On the downside, not preaching the lectionary means that I may tend to cover my favorite texts more that the one’s with which I struggle.
Last week, I preached a text that I’ve never preached in 24 years here: the transfiguration. (Right now, my Dad—an avid lectionary preacher—is reading this statement in disbelief!) We took a look at the text, wrestled with it a bit, and no one was harmed in the process. It’s a good thing to be forced to go to new places!
Then comes this week’s text: Jesus in the wilderness. Hold it…Jesus was half way through his ministry and on his way to Jerusalem and now we are going to go backwards in time? I know the lectionary was established by a committee but even for a committee this seems at first glance to be a bit weird. I was tempted (ironically, if you listened to our text) to just toss the lectionary aside. Then, I took another look.
Last week, in that transfiguration story, we were on the very edge of mystery. Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain. He starts praying. When he does, his appearance changes. The disciples fall asleep (as they are won’t to do.) As they awaken, they see the strangest thing: Jesus is now accompanied by Moses and Elijah. And what they are discussing is Jesus’ upcoming journey to Jerusalem. We know that this journey will involve suffering and death and resurrection. Jesus knows this, too. Elijah and Moses, the greatest of the prophets and the standard-bearer for the law, both suffered for God and faith, too. We don’t learn the details of what they are saying to one another but it’s fair to think that it was something in the sense of, “You know, Jesus, none of this is going to be easy…”
That’s where we are led back to Jesus’ wilderness days. If you remember Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit in his baptism. Then, almost immediately things get brutally difficult. Luke goes out of his way to tell us that it is not an accident that Jesus ends up in the desert. Rather, it is the Spirit which drives him into the wild. He is there for forty days and forty nights and has nothing to eat. Worst of all, the Tempter, himself, shows up to make life even more miserable.
Now, I want to point out a couple of things from the start. It is not God who tests Jesus. I’ve heard people suggest such a thing about their own lives: “God is testing me. God wouldn’t give me more than I can handle.” I always end up cringing. No…what’s happening here is that temptation is arising not from a God-filled place but from the darkness that is inside of us all. It is the voice that arises from deep within us when we are hungry or in pain or afraid or brokenhearted or we feel that things are profoundly unjust. It is the voice that arises when things are just plain difficult and doubt and despair are in the room.
Having spent a lot of time thinking about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t think of any variety of human suffering with which he was not personally familiar. People would ignore him and his teachings. People would hate him for caring for the wrong people. People with power would despise him for speaking the truth to them. His friends would betray him and deny ever having known him and abandon him. If his mission was to embody and share the good news that there is a God who loves us and that there is a way of living in this world that reflects that love then the world seemed, for the most part, to do everything in its power to reject him and his way of being in the world and his loving God. Jesus did the right thing and paid a terrible price all along the way.
As Lent begins and we meet Jesus of Nazareth again, I feel duty bound to tell you the truth. Jesus’ did not come to show us how to be a “winner,” how to be rich, how to win friends and influence people, or how to live a pain free life. You cannot look at what happened to him and argue such a case. What he did come to show us was how to live in a world of pain and hurt and not lose our souls, how to live an authentic life—a life of integrity. He came to show us that the world does not have the power to make us less than the person whom God created us to be.
That dark voice that is inside each one of us that arises in moments of fear and frustration and violation—the one that tempts us to be less that who we would be if we were being our best selves—that voice is real. If that other person is being mean, I can choose to be mean back—and make the world that much meaner of a place to be. If that other person mistreated me or someone I love, I can choose to act out of vengeance and guarantee that hate will live on. If I was betrayed and hurt by someone else then by all means I am perfectly free to hurt them as deeply as I can and trust that they will pass that hurt on, too.
Or, I can choose differently and pass that test. I can be forty-days hungry for food or for any number of other things in life and justify to myself that I deserve to do whatever it takes to meet those unmet needs. Or, I can learn that I can still be who I am and live with hunger. I can wait. I can be patient. The Devil literally says to Jesus, “Speak this stone into bread!” which recalls the first creation story when God calls the world into being. Jesus essentially says that life is about more than just meeting my own needs. (Later, on Palm Sunday, the Pharisees will tell Jesus to order his followers to be quiet. And what does Jesus say? He says that if the followers piped down then the stones would cry out! At the outset, Jesus won’t turn stones in to bread but by the end Jesus is pretty sure that God might turn the stones into believers.)
Then, the Devil tempts Jesus by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and promising that the whole thing can be his if he will just worship him—if he will just worship something less than God. Again, we’ve all worshiped some goal or other in our lives as our singular focus, right? If I could only get that degree, or that job, or that person to love me… Everything else becomes secondary. Sadly, that goal—which might have had real value—ends up crushed when it bears the full weight of our undivided worship. We stand there in the ruins and all we feel is empty. Jesus says, essentially, the only thing worth worshiping in this life is God—not money, not an achievement, not a relationship, not even a king—just God. (Again, any number of authorities will offer Jesus the chance to extend his life or regain his freedom if only he will bow down to their authority. Jesus refuses.)
Satan takes a third run. Interestingly, in one of the very first stories of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is taken to his ultimate destination, Jerusalem, to the top of the Temple. From that lofty perch, Satan says, “Jump! Test God. If I’ve got this story right then the angels will come down and you won’t even stub a toe!” On the last day of his life, a variety of people will say to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, then save yourself!” Jesus will have none of that—not in the beginning of his ministry and definitely not in the end.
Here’s the thing, though…Any of us, in a vulnerable moment, when we’re weak, could fall for any number of temptations. Who wouldn’t want a little proof to bolster our faith? Who wouldn’t want the power to do things the way we want to do them? Who wouldn’t want a chance to meet the need that is gnawing away at us. Who among us couldn’t name a half a dozen or so other temptations for which we might fall?
The thing we can see in Jesus’ life, though, is that in this desert time he is learning things about himself that he will put to use later. He learns from the start that this life is not going to be easy or pain free or lived with any kind of certainty. Doubt is real. Feeling overwhelmingly powerless is real. There are days when we are acutely aware of our unmet needs. However, that adversity forces us to prioritize things. It challenges us to discover that we may be tougher than we imagined—particularly if we can remember to ask for God’s help in holding on. Adversity, probably more than prosperity, teaches us who we are. Adversity is where we learn about our own authenticity, both who we are and who’s we are.
Adversity is also where we became familiar with one of life’s most important choices. Here comes something challenging, something painful, something hard. The question is this: Are you going to allow this experience to make you bitter or are you going to allow it to make you better? Your own pain can break you or it can lead you to a deep compassion for all those who suffer. Your own grief can lead you into despair or lead you to offer comfort to those who mourn. On the day when you feel like you have failed, you can pour your energy into hiding that truth or you can align yourself with everyone who has ever known what it is like to get knocked down and then get back up again. You might even become someone who lends a helping hand…
Faith makes life harder. When you live what you believe, the world will resent you for being different, for being hard to control, for being too honest. Life is just plain hard, regardless of what you are trying to live. What we have a chance to do is allow those aches and pains and defeats to prepare us for the days when knowing how to suffer for something worthwhile and not lose ourselves in the process will mean the world.
From the start, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Hard as that journey is, he’s going to love and care for the overlooked and ignored, every step of the way. That’s who he is. Nothing can change that…not even the prospect of death on a cross.