Here we are on the first Sunday in the season of Lent, and there Jesus is, out in the wilderness. Each year Lent begins with a remembrance of Jesus’ baptism and subsequent temptation, which is fitting considering that the forty-day season of Lent is modeled on Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness. It’s possible to draw some connections between Jesus’ forty days and ours, but there are also some challenges to applying this text to our lives today. The foremost of these is the fact that the text contains so many things that are hard for us to experience first-hand. Here we have God’s Spirit descending like a dove; we have an audible voice from heaven; we have a barren wilderness; we have a mysterious figure called Satan, and wild beasts, and a host of angels. These are not things that we see every day! And yet, Mark clearly means for his gospel to begin with a very real and very important piece of the Christian story – our story! So, we begin our observance of the season of Lent with a question: What does Jesus’ baptism, and withdrawal into the wilderness, and temptation by Satan have to do with us?
To answer that question I want to start with the guy with the pitchfork, and the red tights, and the pointy tail. That’s a fairly typical image of Satan, I think. At least those are things we think of when we think of Satan. None of them are Biblical, however. In the Bible, the character of Satan is always presented as one who opposes God’s will, and in fact, that’s what the name Satan means. It comes from a Hebrew word meaning to oppose. Now some Christians in the world today are comfortable viewing the character of Satan literally. That is to say that they believe that some willful entity, an evil counterpart to God who opposes God exists in the world, and while we may not be able to perceive him directly, we can see his handiwork. Other Christians are more comfortable viewing Satan as a Biblical personification of the forces of evil at work in the world. That is to say that they assert no belief in Satan as a willful entity, but affirm that sometimes it can be meaningful to speak of evil in the world using personification. Personally, I lean toward the latter of these two interpretations, but either one is fine. Neither interpretation is wrong, but there are some guidelines that we have to follow if we’re going to speak about Satan.
Shirley Guthrie, in his very good book on Christian Doctrine entitled – what else? – Christian Doctrine, says that we have to keep three things in mind when we talk about Satan. The first is that Christians do not believe in Satan. We confess our faith in “God, the Father, Almighty” and in “Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord” and in the “Holy Spirit”. No Christian creed has ever contained a profession of faith in Satan. That would be idolatry. Christians do not believe in the forces of evil in the world, but against them.
The second thing that we need to remember is that if we listen to what scripture teaches us about Satan and the forces of evil in the world, we will not look for them only in the obvious places, but also in ourselves and in the Christian community. Once we start talking about Satan, there’s a temptation to think that all evil in the world is all Satan’s fault. We tend to let ourselves off the hook for the evils propagated by our own actions and by the Christian community! Especially during the season of Lent, we remember that we ourselves have a part in the evil present in the world, and it’s a lot more honest to confess our complicity in it rather than simply claim that we are at the mercy of Satan.
Finally, we need to remember that God is ultimately more powerful than any evil we encounter in us or in the world. Our interest in Satan and the forces of evil must not become so central in our lives that their reality becomes more important to us than the reality and power of God. That means that although we take the power of evil seriously, we can never make it the center of our thought and behavior. That gives Satan or evil forces too much honor, and suggests that Christians are more interested in the destructive power of sin and evil than in the redemptive and saving power of God.
What this all means is that whether you view the figure of Satan literally or figuratively, if we take this text as a cue for our observance of Lent we will begin by grounding our practices in the reality of our faith in God over and above the destructive forces in us and in the world. We will admit, however, that those destructive aren’t just out there somewhere, but also in here, in us. But as strong as those forces may be, we must not make them the center of our story, the center of our Lenten journey, but instead acknowledge the central reality of God’s saving power. We are, after all, pointing ourselves in the direction of Easter here. That’s what Lent is. Lent is the season set aside for an examination of all within us and around us that opposes our relationship with the God who saves us. Let me say that again… Lent is the season set aside for an examination of all within us and around us that opposes our relationship with the God who saves us.
That’s the pattern set before us by Jesus himself. Lent begins with a low note. It’s the story of Jesus in the desert, dry, hungry, alone, assailed by incredible challenges; threatened by the difficult road ahead that would be his ministry; sitting in the midst of desolation and barrenness. Jesus begins his ministry confronting the reality of all that is wrong with the world. He enters the wilderness. He meets the harsh emptiness of the world. He looks the evils of the world in the eye. That’s how Jesus begins his ministry. That’s how our Lenten journey begins as well. It begins by entering our own wilderness, that place where we acknowledge the forces in us and around us that oppose the will of God. We confront the reality of all that is wrong with us. We meet the harsh emptiness of our own experience. We look our own evils in the eye.
But we don’t end there. In the desert the angels minister to Jesus, proclaiming that wherever he goes, even the most desolate place on earth, he will find God’s steadfast love and redemptive power. So it is for us as well. We enter Lent trusting in God’s power over our own sins and our own shortcomings, and we trust that with some effort, and with God’s help, we can become different and better people.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote something that I borrowed for the sermon title this morning. He was the one who said “Not all who wander are lost”. I think that’s an apt description of the Christian journey, especially during this season of Lent. The Lenten landscape can be lonely, desolate, dry, and foreboding. But just as Jesus went before us, we go. We wander, but it’s wandering with a purpose. We wander through the wilderness not because we don’t know where we are going, but because we know who meets us there. We know that our wilderness, our barren place, is where God comes to us. The rest of this forty-day journey is about that. It’s also about examining ourselves, admitting all in us and around us that opposes God. It’s about examining yourself and asking questions. What in you is destructive? What do you take part in that hinders the love and grace of God? What habits of yours tear down rather than build up? Lent is about asking these kinds of questions, and it’s about giving ourselves the space necessary to wrestle with the answers. That means slowing down as we journey to the cross.
This past week I read the story of a man who sat down in a metro station in Washington, D.C. on a cold January morning and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, according to the security cameras, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After playing for three minutes, a middle aged man slowed down briefly when he heard the music. He stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money at his feet without stopping, and then continued to walk. A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but after a minute or two he looked at his watch and walked away.
Of the 1,100 people who passed by, the one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother pulled him along, hurried, but the child stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pulled hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time to look at the musician. This behavior was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped for a while. About twenty gave him money, but continued to walk past. The violinist collected $32. When he finished playing there was nothing but silence. No one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one who walked past him knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most complex pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 a piece. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment. It raised the question: In a commonplace environment in the midst of all our common activities, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize goodness in an unexpected context? If we don’t have even a second to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
The season of Lent calls for us to slow down, and if we can’t slow down to examine the things inside us and outside of us that get in the way of our relationship to God, and remember God’s love for us even in the midst of our opposition, then what will we slow down for?
During this season of Lent, I invite you to slow down and wander a while.
Wander… not as one who is lost but as one who is found. Think about the promises of God in which you believe, and in which you live and move and have your being.
Wander… Turn your eye inward, recognizing that the opposition to God doesn’t just come from “out there”, but it also comes from “in here”. Think about the ways that you struggle to be the person that God calls you to be.
Wander… knowing that the opposition within you and around you can never be more real than God’s love for you. Remember that Jesus’ story began with his baptism, just as your story begins with your baptism. Think about the unassailable truth that you are and always will be God’s beloved child.
Wander… knowing that God comes into your wilderness. You are not alone there. In the lonely wilderness of emptiness and desolation, angels come to wait on you. The church surrounds you. Friends surround you. All around you are the angels of good news, reaching out to you to comfort you and love you. Lent is a journey to the cross, and all along the way there will be reminders that God is there, and that we are held closely, tightly, by the One who loves us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, p. 179-180.