Wilderness, Evil, and the Opportune Time
February 17, 2013
Icy road conditions have closed many a church in Raleigh this morning, including the one I was to preach in today. This is the sermon they would have heard. Welcome to the Virtual Church this first Sunday in Lent. Get your Bible. Light a candle and let us worship God. May this un-preached message bless you and give you hope in this Lenten Season. The Scripture references are: Psalm 91: 1 – 2, 9 – 16 and Luke 4: 1 – 13. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has just been baptized by John. His ministry is begun as the Holy Spirit has descended upon him and God the Father is pleased. Jesus is being led to the wilderness…led there by that Spirit that just anointed him. Can you imagine the conversation? “Now, just where is it you are you taking me? Do you really think this is a good idea.”? We might feel a bit comforted if the Spirit had explained, “Jesus, are you surprised that the wilderness is on the agenda? You may be fully divine, but you are fully human and baptized just like everyone else who came to the Jordan that day. And just like all of them at some point in their lives, they have to cope with the wilderness. They all end up in the desert from time to time. Just remember, I am with you; you are not alone.” The Wilderness narrative is not a new story. After the Exodus of the Hebrew children from Egypt, there is the desert wilderness wandering for 40 years where they experienced hardship and hunger, danger and arid dryness to a point they even begged to go back to Egypt into the very suffering they had escaped. We begin the Forty Day Lenten Journey as a Wilderness Journey, acknowledging that Desert Wilderness is part of the human experience and a good place to begin a journey of self-examination. Wilderness is that place of wandering, restlessness, lost-ness, searching. It is a place where loneliness, grief, fear, pain, and doubt can take root-causing distress in our lives, a place where our status quo existence can be disturbed and faith can be lost. It is often a place of wondering where God is in the dark night of the soul. In the emptiness faith is fragile, void of passion for life and love. When we are too long in that place, we look in the mirror and see a burned out shell, used up with nothing more to give. Would that there were just one face of the Devil. This is a dangerous and risky place; for just as Jesus found out, Evil lurks there in the wings waiting for the opportune time when there is just a little, tiny crack, an untended and open back door where evil sneaks in. Luke’s account of Jesus’ wilderness experience is told in three temptations. The Devil meets Jesus in his humanity perhaps counting on his powers of persuasion to do a number on Jesus. “You are hungry, Jesus, turn these stones into bread. See the whole world beneath my control, Jesus. Worship me, then you too will have influence.” Then comes the most audacious temptation, “Jump off the cliff…. Command the angels to protect you. Let’s put this God of yours to the test and see what happens.” What the Devil fails to realize is that Jesus is a student of Torah and Psalm. He responds, as he often does, with words that have given him assurance and strength all his life. ( Deut. 8:3 – “man does not live by bread alone”; Deut. 6:16 –“Do not put the Lord God to the test”; Psalm 91) And most importantly, Jesus is in the constant company of the Holy Spirit who is with him in his wilderness journey. Jesus’ oneness with God, his deep trust of God, and his unity with the Spirit foil the Devil’s plan… and (my favorite line in the Scripture) “he departs from him until an opportune time.” Oh, that Devil! He pours on the charm and lures at every turn. We are hungry, even addicted to sex, alcohol and drugs, money. And if we’re honest, who doesn’t want success, and affirmation and a certain measure of control. The Devil makes a claim that authority over the kingdoms of the earth has been given to him. Really? Could that possibly be true? Who’s in charge of the world? Of Wall Street? Of Syria and Iran? Of governments and health care systems? Who’s in charge of my everyday choices in the ways I spend money and time? Face it, human history proves there are too many times we would sell our souls, or at least a little part of it, to get ahead. And lots of times we would put God to the test, then turn our backs on God when the answer is not what we want. I don’t know what your wilderness is. For all of us it can be different in degree, duration, and depth. Whatever that place is for you is an opportune time and place for evil to creep in under the radar and pull us away from the life God calls us into. It is also an opportune time to find another way out, the way Jesus finds for himself and leads us into. Jesus gives us the template for living in the wilderness giving us two practices that uphold us in the wilderness and give us strength when evil comes knocking. First, keep company with the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship. God was with the Hebrew children in the wilderness in pillar and cloud. And the Spirit was leading Jesus the whole 40 days of wilderness journey. He was never alone to fight the fight. Secondly, Jesus called on the promises of God that were written in his mind and on his heart in his union with the living word through Scripture. Jesus rises to his strongest self, his place of claiming his Baptism, remembering who he is and whose he is, calling on his relationship with God Almighty and remembering the promise of Scripture that reminds us that when we take refuge in God and reside under the shelter of God’s wings, nothing will overtake us. The opportune time Evil looks for will be denied. We will be safe with God, the one who has been with us all the time in pillar and cloud, in manna and living water, in assurance, healing, and consolation. When we first moved to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago, we had a housepainter who was a recovering alcoholic. Every day he came to paint, he brought with him a paint splattered radio and even before he took out his brushes, he turned his radio on a radio station that was doing all religious programming. “I gotta keep Jesus near to me,” Mr. Barnes said, “’else I fall into something I never want to be in again.” The call of Lent is to turn again to God… repent and come home. “For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. You will not fear the terror of the night, no evil will befall you. No scourge will come near your tent. When they call to me in trouble, I will rescue them… and show them my salvation.” (Psalm 91) The Lenten Journey is a call to 40 days of saying, “Hello” to the wilderness, “Hello, It’s just me again, Lord.” We meet the wilderness head on through self-examination and prayer and in turning again to Christ in the Holy Spirit who is as near as our breath. Come, Holy Spirit, Come; meet us here. Heal us and turn us around toward you. Lead us through the wilderness to the road to Easter and Resurrection. May it be so for you today, and to God be the glory. Amen.