Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, March 6, 2017

Temptations in Our Wildernesses

3-5-17, Lent A1

(I read from the end of chapter 3 before the usual reading, which began:) 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

In light of the announcement that I knew I would make to all of you this morning…. I confess to you that writing this sermon was really, really hard. It is, after all, a PREACHING honor I have received, and so naturally that mean that ALL of my sermons from now until eternity are going to be AMAZING. No pressure! But as I stared at the computer screen, I could feel the blank white space whispering in my mind something like this: “Since this happened to you, you should have no problem composing a sermon to really knock everyone’s socks off. So, you had better be ready to prove that you are the real deal, and that was not just some fluke.”

That voice is going strong today, since last night I read what I had submitted, and found 3 typos! Oy.

We have all heard that voice. It’s the same voice has probably spoken to JK Rowling right after she finished the Harry Potter series, or former President Obama on January twenty-first, or Lin-Manuel Miranda after leaving the cast of his wildly successful musical Hamilton. For all of us, after a big, life-changing moments, we wonder – who am I now? Was this just a big accident? Or did I actually deserve this? And now that this has happened to me, NOW what do I do? How do I live? Do I have to keep proving to the world that I matter? In times like these, we suddenly be experiencing an identity crisis.

Now we may not find ourselves lead out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit right after our baptisms, as Jesus did. We may not face a serpent or the devil face to face. We may not have the ability to turn stones to bread or ever be offered all the kingdoms of the world. But we DO have an identity given to us by God, just as Jesus did. Jesus had just come from his baptism, still dripping, when his freshly recognized and newly blessed identity as the Son of God was called into question. And we too have an identity given to us by God, being called Children of God in our baptisms, and we too are under the world’s scrutiny before the water on our heads has a chance to dry.

In the wilderness Jesus found himself in, his was identity tested. On the verge of starting his earthly ministry, Jesus had to define what it meant to be “the son of God.” Here the tone is set for the Jesus administration. Was is going to reflect a kind of power and glory that the world could easily recognize? Or would Jesus set his agenda according to God’s definition of power and glory?

In the end, would Jesus be able to “prove” that he was “good enough” for the job as the Son of God?

The first temptation does seem pretty harmless, though. After all, it wouldn’t hurt anyone if Jesus did a little magic on those rocks so he wouldn’t be so grumpy as he seems to be later. And not just one loaf, which would be plenty for one person, but why not many, as the devil suggests, just in case Jesus wants a snack later? But Jesus tells the devil “No Dice,” and saves his divine breadmaking skills for another time, to feed 5,000 hungry people, later in the Gospel of Matthew.

The same happens with the other two temptations. Instead of throwing himself off a roof to test God plan for him, Jesus instead shows his resolve do follow God’s will, which will result in Jesus being lifted high on a cross and not on the pinnacle of the temple. And instead of seizing the opportunity to rule all the kingdoms of the earth for himself, Jesus instead will open the kingdom of heaven to all who follow him. In the rest of his ministry, we can see how Jesus’ time in the wilderness prepared him to fulfill his baptismal identity. 

In the wildernesses we find ourselves in, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, we too find our identity tested. We are constantly tempted into thinking that, as we are right now, we are not good enough to be children of God. I would have turned those stones into bread in a heartbeat, and probably added some hummus too, faster than you can say “Hangry.”

Most of us are aware of our limitations and our hang-ups, and the tempter takes every opportunity to remind us where we fall short with a never-ending commentary in our brains – Surely, we are mistaken if we think that God has chosen us in our current state.  Surely, God wants us to work a little harder at being God’s children. Surely, we need to prove that we are worthy of being chosen.
From a mural by Ken Green in St. Paul MN

I imagine something similar going through Eve’s mind while she listened to the clever arguments of the serpent in the garden. When the serpent told her that eating the fruit would make her more like God, to have knowledge of good and evil, she jumped at the chance. Why would she listen to the words of the serpent? Perhaps because she did not trust God to be God. She did not trust that God had created her good, just as she was. Perhaps she thought that she could help God out a little bit, to prove her worth. Both Eve and Adam trusted the words of the serpent more than the words of God.

The Adam and Eve in all of us all too often trust the words of the crafty serpents around us, rather than the incredible promise that we are loved and claimed as God’s children. When the rest of the world tells us the opposite, God tells us that we are worthy, we are loved, and we are enough.

It’s hard for us to see ourselves as God sees us. We look into ourselves and only see what is lacking, and so comes our tendency to reach for too much power, too much security, too much comfort in order to fill the gaps. But God sees us a different way. God sees us in a way that is not unlike how parents see their children when they are born, or how brides and grooms see one another as they say their vows on their wedding day.  

In one of my favorite books I read last year called Lila by Marilynn Robinson, the title character only saw herself through the eyes of those who looked down on her because of things she did in her past in order to survive as a homeless person in the 1930s. All her life she gave into the temptation to see herself as not deserving anything good that happened to her. Somehow, she ends up in a small town in Iowa, and met the local bachelor minister. 

Through their relationship and eventual marriage, Lila starts to see herself as God sees her, through the gentleness and kindness of another human being who saw her with the eyes of love.

On the day that preacher proposed to and baptized Lila, he remembered the day they met: “I expected to continue with [loneliness] the rest of my life. Then I saw you that morning. I saw your face.”

Lila replied, “Don’t’ talk like that. I know about my face.”

But he persisted. “I suspect you don’t. You don’t know how I see it.”

One night during a snowstorm after they were married, the two of them were talking, and Lila’s husband said, “Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer.”

Lila, remembering her own baptism, adds, “Baptism is a prayer.”

To that, her husband replied, “No, baptism is what I call a fact.”

Your baptism is a fact. God’s love for you is a fact. God chose you – that’s a fact too.

Lent is the time of the church year that prepares us for the Ultimate Fact. That in Jesus, God’s love is shown to the world. In Jesus, we see that the love of God would go to any length for us, and would travel any distance, and would even go to death and back for God’s beloved children. And for Jesus, no wilderness is to wild or too forsaken to Jesus to travel with us.

Lent is not for us to improve ourselves with sacrifices to become more worthy or more holy come Easter Sunday. Lent instead takes us through the wilderness to reflect our own shortcomings, to remind us to let God be God. Not so that we can feel guilty at where we have fallen short. But so that we can get out of our own way and be nothing less than members of God’s family. It’s been said that when Martin Luther felt tempted to despair by the devil, he would shout in response, “I am baptized!” Not “I was”, but “I AM.” Present tenses. True in this very moment.

The trip through Lent every year takes us from a garden to a wilderness and back again, from human sin and transgression and death to resurrection, from the ash crosses of Ash Wednesday to the shadow of the cross on Good Friday, through the Garden of Eden, to the garden of Gethsemane, to the garden that contained Jesus’ empty tomb. Every year, we tell the story, to remind ourselves who we are and WHOSE we are. “I am baptized.” Present tense. Now and forever. Amen.

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