Our story this morning begins in a place that very few people intentionally go: the wilderness. Occasionally someone gets lost and with no idea where the road home is, they end up wandering there. Sometimes thieves and criminals go there to escape justice, but they don’t last long. The wilderness is not a forgiving place. It is a land of scavengers and wild beasts, roving jackal and circling vultures, here and there littered with the remnants of things. It’s dry brush and stinging sand. It is sunburn and withering heat. There is no shade, no food, and precious little water. That’s the wilderness, and that’s where Jesus went, not because he was lost or because he was trying to escape, but because that’s where the Spirit led him.
For forty days Jesus lived out there, with the wind blowing in his ears and needles of sand pricking his face. He was hungry because he would not eat. He was thirsty because he would not drink. He was an easy target because he was weak and weary, unsheltered and alone. Maybe he made marks in the dirt to count the days. Maybe he stacked up stones every time the sun set and then rose again. One, and then two, and then three… on and on until there were forty of them. The significance of that number was surely not lost on him. That was the number of days and nights that the storm raged and the waters rose and the waves crashed against the Ark, and inside Noah kept vigil and trusted that God would make good on God’s promise. Forty was the number of years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, struggling mightily day after day to stay faithful to God and trust that the bondage of slavery was passed and God would deliver them to the promised land. Forty is a challenge of faith, a trial won only through trust. So Jesus waited. And he prayed. And he trusted. And he kept the pattern, the model for our forty days in this season we call Lent.
If you think about it, these forty days of Lent are pretty much exactly like the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. Except for the part about the wild beasts, and the jackals, and the vultures. And the stinging sand – we won’t have any of that. Or the sunburn – some of us might not even remember what the sun looks like around here. And I guess we won’t be hungry like Jesus was. Or thirsty. Other than all that, it’s pretty much the same, right? We do try, however, to impose some discomfort on ourselves, like those chocolates or sodas that we can shun for the next several weeks. Our Lent ends up looking nothing like Jesus’ forty days, and it’s pretty hard sometimes to draw connections between the two. But they are there if we care to see them. Whether it seems like it or not, this story that begins in the wilderness – it’s our story.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that we all have our own wildernesses, and we’ve all already spent time there. “Maybe it just looked like a hospital waiting room to you,” she wrote, “or the sheets on a cheap motel bed after you got kicked out of your house, or maybe it looked like the parking lot where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job. It may even have been a kind of desert in the middle of your own chest, where you begged for a word from God and heard nothing but the wheezing bellows of your own breath.
“Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. No food. No earthly power. No special protection – just a Bible-quoting devil and a whole bunch of sand. Needless to say, this is not a situation many of us seek. Most of us, in fact, spend a lot of time and money trying to stay out of it; but I don’t know anyone who succeeds at that entirely or forever. Sooner or later, every one of us will get to take our own wilderness exam, our own trip to the desert to discover who we really are and what our lives are really about.”
There’s your connection. In the harsh and unforgiving wilderness, the places where things go to die, will you live with faith? In the midst of the struggle will you simply trust God to deliver you? Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once gave a seminar on the Bible, and after immediately asking everyone in attendance to put their pens and paper away, he said simply: close your eyes… and recall a time when, as a young child, [you] were frightened, lying in bed at night, sure that the shadows on the bedroom wall were of a burglar at the window, or a monster, and the bumps and creaks on the stairway surely a warning of something horrible about to happen. And you called out to your mother or father out of the darkness, in your fear, but they appeared and took you in his or her arms and said, “It’s OK. Everything is all right, I’m here. Don’t be afraid.” That, Brueggemann said, is the fundamental, primary, and consistent message of the Bible: “I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”
To not be afraid is one of the hardest things for us, especially in the wilderness. Jesus himself was visited there by Satan, which is a name that simply means “one who opposes”. This opposer, this tempter, plays on Jesus’ own fears in the wilderness. He tempts Jesus to deny God’s own sustenance and instead avoid the pangs of hunger by taking matters into his own hands. Turn these stones into bread. He tempts Jesus to circumvent God’s own plan for salvation, a plan that involves suffering and death, and instead proclaim himself to the world by becoming a spectacle of heroism. Throw yourself down from here and show us all the miraculous power of God. And lastly, he tempts him with power. It’s the hardest one, I think, because it plays on the fear of being irrelevant, of being inferior, of being weak. It’s the fear that others have more control than you do, the fear that someone is going to do something bad to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. All the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor… All these I will give to you and you will reign over them all. No one will hurt you ever again.
Jesus wasn’t given the simple choice between good and evil, but good versus good. Turning stones into bread wouldn’t just feed him, it could feed anyone who is hungry. Throwing himself off the tower and being saved would have brought attention and recognition to his greatness. Claiming authority over the kingdoms of the world would have meant the world would be better governed, and more peaceful, and more just. Instead, Jesus chooses over and over to trust and serve God above himself. With each choice he chooses love. Love does not seek its own gain. Love sacrifices itself for the other. Love trusts God.
I doubt that many of us can really imagine being tempted in the manner that Jesus was. We likely won’t know what it’s like to be offered bread after fasting for that long, or to be given a shot at easy and instant fame, or to have all the power in the world handed to us on a silver platter. Each one of us, however, understands temptations that surround us and fill us and even originate from us day after day. These are things like pride, vanity, selfishness, complacency, and apathy. These are just as real as the temptations Jesus faced, and they are perhaps even more dangerous because they don’t come from a tempter, an opposer staring us in the face.
Our temptations visit us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough. Our temptations come in the judgments we make about strangers or friends who do things or hold opinions that we don’t understand. Our temptations entice us to look away from those in need and to try to spend our days unaffected by poverty or hunger or sickness or alienation. Our temptations rule us when our addiction to wealth or power or influence defines who we are. Our temptations creep in when we pass on those oh-so-juicy bits of gossip, or tell the joke tinged with racism or prejudice, or readily offer criticism of someone else behind their back. Our temptations destroy us in our wilderness when let go of faith and instead hold on to fear. I’m here. Don’t be afraid. Are you, God? Are you here in this wilderness? Even this wilderness? With me?
That’s the question that confronts us in this season, for these forty days. The answer is found in Jesus’ wilderness, where he avoided the tempter’s tricks and instead chose to not be afraid, to trust in God, to live in faith. If we do meet tempters in the wilderness, if we do meet terrors in the night, if we do face death as Jesus did, then we must that it is precisely
Jesus’ trust in God that bears him through all the trials he will face. And it is our trust in God that will bear us as well.
This story, this Lenten wilderness story is our story. Wednesday night we smudged our foreheads with ashes as a way of remembering our baptismal identity and all that it means. We entered together into a time of examination and self-reflection. We asked another question: “What kind of followers of Jesus will we be?” Now stretch before us “forty days to cleanse the system and open the eyes to what remains when all comfort is gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.” Forty days to consider what it means to be God’s messed-up people in this messed-up world. This forty days, you see, is not so much about what we will give up. It’s about what kind of people we choose to be, even in the wilderness.
It’s also about following Jesus to the cross, where he will once again hear the voice of the tempter, from the mouths of spectators passing by the foot of the cross. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross,” they will say. It will be a play for fear, you see, a temptation to avoid the pain of death itself. Come down, they’ll say. If you are who you say you are, come down! Again, Jesus will respond with great faith and amazing love. And again, he will show us the way.
For you see, it is in his dying on that cross that we will hear another voice:
I’m here. Don’t be afraid.
Thanks be to God. Amen.